Multicultural diversity throughout metro Atlanta is well known, so it is no surprise that we have one of most highly regarded orchestras of Russian folk music in America. Atlanta Balalaika Society, which has completed more than thirty years of fine performances, reflects the richness of the international community. In addition to American-born musicians, the orchestra includes members from Russia, Ukraine, Kazakstan, Moldova, Latvia and Sweden.
International musicians pose in colorful Russian costumes with some of their unique native folk instruments.
The local group started in 1981 with a mission as a true Russian folk orchestra, which has late nineteenth century roots. Its music combines traditional Russian folk with sophisticated styles of European salons. Merging of these two genres led to the creation of musical ensembles that would be accepted by elites, while at the same time retaining the popular appeal of Eastern European peasant culture.
The signature instruments of Russian folk music are the balalaika, which has three strings and a triangular body, the domra, which too has three strings but a round back, and the bayan, a kind of Russian accordion. The two types of string instruments come in several sizes to provide a full range of sound. At concerts, musical director and conductor David Cooper reviews the instruments for the audience. Bass pieces appear almost comically large, but they have thin backs and musicians can easily hold them up. Wind and percussion instruments add to the mix.
Up-tempo Russian folk music is especially lively and the orchestra plays other selections, notably from popular traditional American composer Stephen Foster (“Oh! Susanna”). These virtuoso soloists are well known in Europe: David Cooper on balalaika, Angelina Galashenkova-Reed on domra and Alla Melnik on bayan.
The fantastic Atlanta Balalaika Society rehearses at Winters Chapel United Methodist Church in Gwinnett, but performs all around. For 2013, there are concerts scheduled at Dunwoody United Methodist Church and the Marcus Jewish Community Center. Undoubtedly, though, best acoustics this year to hear the balalaikas ringing out will be at renowned Spivey Hall in Morrow.
-Dr. Paul Hudson