Continuing folk music traditions

The UW Russian Folk Orchestra turns 20 years old
Continuing folk music traditions
Photo courtesy of the UW Russian Folk Orchestra

Even after 20 years of steady growth, the University of Wisconsin Russian Folk Orchestra remains one of the best kept musical secrets in town. Victor Gorodinsky’s passion to share this music continues undiminished after moving to Madison and founding the orchestra in 1997.

A native of Moscow, Gorodinsky was a professional classical guitarist specializing in Russian folk music when he moved to Chicago in 1982. From there he was drawn to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, home of a Russian folk ensemble. He eventually became the group’s director.

Not long after arriving at UW-Madison in 1995, Gorodinsky approached the Center for Russia, East Europe and Central Asia, or CREECA, with the idea of establishing an ensemble like the one in Illinois and the idea was well received. “Before long, we had a grant, some instruments were purchased and our first meeting drew about 10 people,” Gorodinsky says. “Most of them had some sort of string experience, and I gave them some basic lessons. At our first concert in 1998, we had six people play a couple of folk songs.”Continuing folk music traditions

Today, the orchestra has about 40 players and puts on several concerts a year in traditional dress. They’ve traveled to the Twin Cities and elsewhere in the Midwest to perform and have recorded six CDs.

It was in 2007 when then UW-Madison sophomore Kathy Mittelstadt first heard of the orchestra. A violinist since she was 9, Mittelstadt was surprised to learn the group did not include violinists. Gorodinsky assured her that, with practice, she could learn to play one of the traditional stringed instruments and join the group.

Mittelstadt took a few hour-long domra lessons from Latvian musician Tamara Ancite. Mittelstadt says it took a couple years before she felt proficient on the four-string prima domra. “It’s tuned the same as a violin. However, transitioning from a bow to a pick was difficult,” she recalls after nearly 11 years with the orchestra.

The orchestra has lasted two decades because of the willingness of its members to teach others how to play Russian folk instruments. The music that results motivates Mittelstadt. “I love how the Russian folk repertoire ranges from lush, heavy and passionate, to upbeat and joyful,” she says.

What in the world is a balalaika?

The UW Russian Folk Orchestra consists mainly of balalaikas and domras, which are string instruments. They come in all sizes–the contrabass balalaika is large enough to hide a small child inside–are triangular, have fretted fingerboards and three strings. The first mention of the instrument dates to a late 17th-century Russian Kremlin logbook. The academic consensus is that balalaikas developed from the domra, the other dominant instrument in the UW Russian Folk Orchestra.

In contrast to a balalaika, a domra has a circular body and three or four strings. The lead melody of a song is often played on a domra, which is plucked with a plectrum instead of the fingers. Another unique instrument found in the Russian Folk Orchestra is the bayan, a kind of Russian accordion. Hear the group for yourself at russorch.wisc.edu/audiovideo.html.

Greg Hettmansberger covers opera and classical music for madisonmagazine.com.