About

Welcome to the ABS

Friends,

The American Balalaika Symphony is casting a fresh light on symphonic music as we commit ourselves to developing new and appealing contemporary dimensions.

Don't be put off by the word "contemporary." In our case, it does not mean inaccessible, atonal, or modernistic. This is music written for orchestras to produce a lush and warm sound.

When most people hear the word "balalaika," they think only of Russian folk music. But the American Balalaika Symphony is a full symphonic orchestra with a complex structure and musical functions more characteristic of large symphonic orchestras. In fact, our strings are in some ways more sophisticated than "regular" bowed strings. Not only do we have two string groups—balalaikas and domras, with distinctly different sound palettes—but each comes in more configurations than bowed strings and allows for more precision in defining musical functions within the orchestra. Add bayans, which are among the most versatile instruments ever invented, and you have an orchestra capable of resolving the most challenging artistic tasks.

We are thrilled to bring quality music into the community, and are happy to find such an enthusiastic response from all of you, our audience. It is our goal to put a a smile on your face, a sparkle in your eye, and good cheer in your heart!

- Peter Trofimenko
Artistic Director

About the ABS

The American Balalaika Symphony (ABS) is a full symphony orchestra comprised of an internationally diverse mix of 50-plus musicians from the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area. Currently, ABS is a resident orchestra of Rachel M. Schlesinger Concert Hall and Arts Center in Alexandria, VA.

Each concert season, ABS performs a stunning range of music from beloved Russian folk melodies to classical favorites to rarely heard symphonic masterpieces, often with prominent virtuoso soloists from around the world.
A traditional but unique symphony orchestra

Unlike a traditional symphony orchestra, ABS fans enjoy the distinctive shimmering sound of a balalaika orchestra, which uses Russian plucked string instruments such as the balalaika and domra rather than bowed instruments such as the violin and cello, and the artistry of rapid tremolo playing that makes these instruments so unique.

Today there are fewer than seven balalaika orchestras in the United States. Unlike most of the others, ABS rounds out its balalaika ensemble with full wind and percussion sections and unusual additions, such as the bayan (Russian button accordion), gusli (Russian table harp), and cimbalom (similar to a hammered dulcimer).

By combining the rich traditions of the Russian Music School with the best of European and American music, founder, artistic director, and conductor Peter Trofimenko has created a truly unique American orchestra that, with each concert, produces a rare and wonderful experience for lovers of great classical music.

Awards and recognitions

  • - In 2009, ABS took the top spot in the Strathmore art center's 25th Anniversary Competition, besting 34 other performing arts competitors from Washington, D.C., Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania.
  • - ABS is also the winner of the 2007 International Music Golden Trophy Competition, where a panel of six distinguished judges from the United States, Japan, Russia, Uzbekistan, and Ukraine selected the American Balalaika Symphony over 87 other international participants.
  • - ABS also won the 5th annual competition of "Musical Vladivostok 2007, which was held under the auspices of the Russian Federal Culture and Cinematography Agency.
  • - And in May 2008 ABS conductor and artistic director Peter Trofimenko was appointed to the Russian Academy of Folk Music — the only living conductor of a folk orchestra to be so honored.

 
A loyal and growing audience

Although a young orchestra, the American Balalaika Symphony is developing a dedicated following throughout the Washington metropolitan area for its distinctive performances and uncommon repertoire of music, including rare and seldom heard pieces, all individually arranged for balalaika orchestra by Maestro Trofimenko. A true community organization, ABS strives to stimulate interest in classical music and to pass on the musical arts by teaching music lovers how to play the balalaika and domra and perform in concert. ABS concerts are also accessible and affordable, and presented in a warm and hospitable environment that provides a fascinating glimpse into Russian music and culture.

History of the Balalaika Orchestra

Balalaika orchestras date to 1888 when Russian nobleman Vasili Andreyev introduced an ensemble of balalaikas to a receptive audience in St. Petersburg, reviving the popularity of this folk instrument.

In 1897, Andreyev founded the Great Russian Imperial Orchestra, composed of balalaikas, domras and gusli. The orchestra was a success in Russia and, in subsequent years, throughout Europe and the United States.

The introduction of folk instruments into an orchestra led to refinements in the construction of the instruments and in the techniques used to play them. Since Andreyev’s time, performances by balalaika orchestras incorporated elements of both traditional folk music and symphonic music. Even before the popularization of balalaika ensembles, composers such as Tchaikovsky and Mussorgsky often wrote with the sound of these instruments in mind. The vision of an orchestra that brings this new palette of sounds to symphonic music is the guiding motivation for the American Balalaika Symphony.

An immense repertoire for balalaika orchestras exists in Russia and Eastern Europe, where every city boasts at least one such ensemble. Paris, Stockholm, Sydney, Tokyo, and Helsinki are also home to balalaika orchestras. Americans began playing in balalaika orchestras when the Great Russian Imperial Orchestra toured in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In the last twenty years, there has been a revival of interest, and there are now more than ten amateur orchestras in the United States.

For more on the history of Russian folk orchestras, visit:

Yuriy Ivanets (musician, conductor, and historian)

Russia’s Happiest and Saddest of Instruments

Instruments of the Balalaika Orchestra

Balalaika

The balalaika belongs to a family of lutes originally developed in Central Asia. It remained mainly a folk instrument until the late 19th century, when a Russian nobleman, Vasili V. Andreyev, standardized the balalaika by creating a range of sizes with standard tunings. This led the way to the development of a classical tradition, and now the balalaika is one of the most important plucked stringed instruments in Eastern Europe and Russia. The balalaika has three strings and can be found in several sizes: contrabass, bass, alto, secunda, prima, and piccolo. The most commonly played is prima, but the American Balalaika Symphony includes musicians specializing in all sizes but piccolo.

Domra

The domra can be of the three-string or four-string variety, and the different sizes are: bass, tenor, alto, prima, piccolo. The domra is similar to the balalaika, except that the domra is round while the balalaika is triangular. Otherwise they share the same folk tradition and were both standardized in the late 19th century. Generally, in a balalaika symphony, the domras will play the melody while the balalaika plays the chords and the bass line. The domra can be of the three-string or four-string variety, and the different sizes are: bass, tenor, alto, prima, piccolo. The American Balalaika Symphony uses four-string domras in the following sizes: piccolo, prima, alto, tenor and bass.

Bayan

The bayan is very similar to an accordian, but instead of piano keys on the left side, there is a second row of buttons. The internal reed structure is also different. The gusli is an ancient Russian instrument resembling a harp. The type often used in balalaika orchestras is the keyboard gusli. In this version, the harp apparatus is set into a table, and on the left side is a one-octave set of piano keys. These allow the player to adjust the notes plucked on the harp strings.

Gusli

The bayan is very similar to an accordian, but instead of piano keys on the left side, there is a second row of buttons. The internal reed structure is also different. The gusli is an ancient Russian instrument resembling a harp. The type often used in balalaika orchestras is the keyboard gusli. In this version, the harp apparatus is set into a table, and on the left side is a one-octave set of piano keys. These allow the player to adjust the notes plucked on the harp strings.