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New Artist of the Month: Russian Renaissance

March 1, 2018 | By Brian Wise, Musical America

The balalaika, the three-string Russian folk instrument whose identity was once linked to Red Army troupes and the Doctor Zhivago soundtrack, is getting a shot of modernity in the hands of Russian Renaissance, a young fusion quartet that recently captured a lucrative American chamber music prize.

In May 2017, Russian Renaissance won the $100,000 M-Prize Chamber Music Competition at the University of Michigan, edging out several string quartets and even a saxophone ensemble whose members studied at the university’s music school.

Its victory came as U.S. relations with its home country grew ever more complex. The same day as the win, the Senate Intelligence Committee expanded its investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 Presidential election. At a subsequent visit to U-Mich in January, RR’s members were peppered with audience questions about this geopolitical backdrop. They responded that their job was to connect with people over music, and in an interview they praised the “outgoing” and “amicable” nature of American listeners.

The quartet is balalaika player Ivan Kuznetsov, Anastasia Zakharova, who plays the mandolin-like domra, accordionist Aleksandr Tarasov, and Ivan Vinogradov, whose contrabass balalaika evokes the plucked sound of a double bass. While this is a common format for Russian balalaika ensembles, the quartet’s original arrangements venture much farther afield, and include numbers by Duke Ellington, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Richard Galliano, and Django Reinhardt along with Bach, Rameau, Tchaikovsky, and Schnittke.

Russian Renaissance plays an original arrangement of Ellington’s Caravan

In halting English, improved even since last year’s M-Prize appearances, Kuznetsov in an interview said the quartet’s instrumentation makes it a novelty in the West but he hopes the public’s interest doesn’t stop there. “When a violinist or a pianist is coming on a stage, nobody is surprised by the shape of the instrument or the sound it emits,” he says. “Our instruments can be good distractors in this respect as they are unusual for the American and even European public. Yet, I would love that people listening to our playing were first and foremost thinking about the music itself.”

Matt Albert, artistic director of the M-Prize competition, heard a “stage animal” quality in the group’s winning performances. “They had incredible dynamic range and they had these gestures that were uniform and felt completely organic,” he said. “It felt comfortable and in a pocket and they knew what they were doing. They stood out as a finished product.”

Russian Renaissance was formed in the summer of 2015, after Kuznetsov and Zakharova, both recent graduates of Moscow’s Gnessin Russian Academy of Music, had a chance meeting in Belgrade with the No Smoking Orchestra, a Serbian punk band. “We actually hit it off like a house on fire, and decided to have some frolics and jam at a concert in Moscow,” says Kuznetsov.

Kuznetsov and Zakharova recruited fellow Moscow freelancers Tarasov and Vinogradov to form the RR quartet, which won its first competition in 2016 in Rostov-on-Don, Russia, at the 69th World Cup for accordionists. That in turn led to bookings across Russia and former Soviet republics. In January, the group made its second appearance at Brooklyn’s National Sawdust (an evening of Italian film music with accompanying screenings) and played two showcases at the APAP conference.

The four musicians hail from distant corners of Russia. Kuznetsov was raised in Voronezh, an agricultural region in the southwest, Tarasov is from Ufa, near the Ural Mountains, and Zakharova is from Kemerovo, a coal mining city in Western Siberia. Vinogradov is the sole Moscow native in the group.

The three fretted-instrument musicians began playing at age five and earned their  degrees from the Gnessin Academy, one of Moscow’s major conservatories (Zakharova is currently a Master’s degree student there). Tarasov was nine when he started on the accordion and later graduated from the Ufa State Institute of Arts, in central Russia.

“There is a balalaika or domra teacher in almost every musical school or higher musical education establishment,” says Kuznetsov. “The system of musical education in Russia is still strong, although not as mighty as it used to be in Soviet times. But even the leftovers allow [for a] profound education.”

Russian Renaissance plays the folk song Barnya

Kuznetsov says the strongest — and most fearsome — influence on his career was pianist Tatyana Khaninova, a former student of Shostakovich who played in a duo with his balalaika teacher, Andrey Gorbachev. “If you have seen the film  Whiplash, you would understand what kind of schooling I’d been through,” he said, referring to the 2014 Damien Chazelle movie about the ruthless percussion teacher. “I would say the film shows a light version of what Tatyana Khaninova was doing to me.”

Future U.S. engagements include the Festival Napa Valley in July, the Saratoga Springs Performing Arts Center in August, and a Kennedy Center debut in May, 2019. The quartet’s new management agency, Frank Solomon Associates, is planning other U.S. tours and a debut album for Azica Records is scheduled for a spring release.

Just as the mandolin and even banjo have found a secure place on classical music stages in recent years, perhaps it may be the balalaika and domra’s moment. “On the one hand, the balalaika is a symbol of Russia, and you can never confuse it with any other instrument,” Kuznetsov reflects. “The sound and tremolo are very particular and allow creating powerful and diverse tunes of any complexity.

“On the other hand, it is not that often that we hear balalaika or domra performances in leading world concert halls.” The modern version of the instrument is barely 130 years old, Kuznetsov notes. “That is why the balalaika and domra have not won worldwide recognition—they are not seen on stage like the violin and other symphonic strings, or even an American banjo, so they are not so popular. Yet I believe that balalaika can do it.”


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