music, technology & life in pasadena, california

Theremins, Balalaikas and Stalin... Oh My!

I’ve been splitting my time lately between Wicked and working downtown with the LA Opera and the LA Philharmonic. Fortunately, theatre work allows occasional time off to pursue other gigs as long as you have a substitute approved by the conductor and the contractor.

The LA Opera production of Porgy and Bess ran for an unusually long 14 performances. I had fun even though I didn’t have much to do. Gershwin included a banjo in just one movement, the well-known tune, I’ve Got Plenty of Nuttin’, which doesn’t occur until an hour into the opera. I was dismissed at intermission at each performance, which made for a lot of good natured and sometimes not-so-good natured ribbing from the rest of the orchestra every night. Truth is, I’d rather be playing than sitting around, but much of the classical repertoire for my instrument is like this.

After Porgy closed, I had a week scheduled with the LA Phil. A month earlier, they had called and asked if I’d like to play balalaika on a series of concerts called Shadow of Stalin, examining the work of Russian composers who had been affected by the crackdown under Stalin.

I’ve played balalaika a handful of times throughout the years, mostly film or TV sessions that needed a little Russian color in the score. I think the last time was for composer Steve Bramson on an episode of JAG, but this was for a Shostakovich piece, Suite from The Nose, an opera he wrote in the early part of the 20th century. The balalaika is a three-string Russian folk instrument with a triangular-shaped body. They come in many sizes, but the one I own is the most common, to my knowledge, the secunda (second) balalaika. The three strings are equidistant apart and tuned E-E-A.

I could tell that the part wanted to make use of the drone effect of the unison E’s, so I emphasized that in my approach to the style. It turned out that the fifth movement, which was the only movement using the instrument, was just a duet between the tenor voice (sung terrificly by Michael Hendrick) and the balalaika. After the first run-through at rehearsal, Esa-Pekka asked me to “raise your station…in life…” and move next to the tenor, in the soloist’s position next to his podium. There was no turning back now…

The first concert was a Casual Friday performance (see Rethinking Concert Dress), so named because the players are allowed to wear whatever they want to. It was a nice relaxed atmosphere and the orchestra sounded great. They opened with a Popov piece, Komsomel, Patron of Electrification, which was unusual in that it employed a theremin. A theremin is an electronic instrument that is played by positioning your hand above a metal plate at different heights in order to achieve the pitch of different notes. The second hand can be used to get tremolo or vibrato effects. It sounds strange and the effect is otherworldly, but you’ve heard this instrument many times on late-night horror movies. In fact, it sounds much like the eBow I use on Wicked every night. The theremin player was terrific and his setup on stage looked like a mad scientist’s lab bench with two huge antennae rising above it.

Because the tenor/balalaika movement was a duet, Esa-Pekka decided not to conduct it and let us find our own way. I dug in pretty hard and tried to add color where I thought it would add to the drama. I was thankful to my Russian friends in the orchestra, who told me that my approach was on the right track and they casually translated the words the tenor was singing, which turned out to be a drunken little jig. One of them even suggested a particular way of holding the instrument, which he had seen real balalaika players using in Russia. It turned out to be the perfect way to balance the instrument on my lap, which can be unwieldy considering its shape.

It would have been fun to play more than two concerts of this program, but I was thrilled to have participated and explored yet another aspect of playing an unusual instrument with a symphony orchestra, especially an instrument from a country with which I am most indelibly and endearingly connected.

June 10, 2007 | Link to this entry


Paul Viapiano is a guitarist working in film, television and live performance based in sunny Pasadena, California.

You can email me here.

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