What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the word “balalaika”?
The first image I see in my mind is the body of the triangle-shaped instrument. Then I hear a random melody, made distinct by tremolo. Then I leap to the association of Dr. Zhivago, whose soundtrack represents the first time I’d consciously heard a balalaika.
For the core followers of the American Balalaika Symphony, and for the 50-plus volunteer musicians who travel for miles around the tri-state area to play in the northern Virginia group, associations with the balalaika run much deeper than Hollywood representations. The group has a multi-layered sound and a diverse repertoire.
So what does a balalaika symphony sound like?
The group is built on a core foundation of balalaikas and domras, 3- and 4-stringed instruments that are held like guitars and plucked or strummed. The distinct tremolo style creates a shimmering sound that is simultaneously light and deep, breaking any connotations of simplicity that such minimalist-looking instruments may carry.
The varying sizes of balalaikas and domras (each instrument family comes in prima, alto and bass voices, and more) lead to a sense of versatility as well. Identifying themselves as a full-fledged symphonic orchestra complete with woodwinds and brass, Maestro Trofimenko pushes the group beyond the typical orchestral repertoire with pieces that range from arrangements of Strauss and Tchaikovsky to jazz, rock and pop.
He explains, “The music represents a wide variety. So if you like symphonic music, you will come and you will hear symphonic music. If you really don’t care about symphonic music but you really like jazz, you will come and you will hear jazz. If you like rock or bluegrass, you will get that as well!”
And according to Maestro Trofimenko, it is that exact sense of diversity that audiences come to hear at an American Balalaika Symphony concert.
They also come to push their auditory senses into new realms of sound and texture.
“Even if you are playing a symphonic piece written by Mozart, it is dressed in a different aural experience because the timbres of the instruments are different, the techniques of sound generation are different. The same notes sound different and interesting, and you say cool, I know this music but I never thought it could sound like this.”
Maestro Trofimenko invites you to experience the rich sounds of the American Balalaika Symphony for yourself.
The symphony will be performing this upcoming weekend, on Saturday, July 1 at 7 pm, at the Fort Hunt Park in Alexandria.
Photo credits: The American Balalaika Symphony
A similar version of the article was previously published at Arts America.