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Balalaika Battle

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Balalaika Battle


Svetlana Smetanina

The I International online contest “Balalaika - Soul of Russia” brought together participants from all over the country, as well as from Ukraine, Belarus, and the Donetsk People's Republic. Mikhail Kiselev, director of the Moscow festival "Balalaika - Soul of Russia", said that today balalaika was associated not only with folk tunes, but quite modern music, and even jazz.

Balalaika - Soul of Russia is a project that has been in existence for about 10 years. But previously, the festival organizers did not hold balalaika contests. Why was it decided differently this year?

– Balalaika - Soul of Russia, an all-Russian campaign, was established 11 years ago. And the festival of the same name came to existence five years ago. Last year, we had to cancel our festival after the very first event due to coronavirus restrictions although we had scheduled performances for three weeks with a final concert in the Kremlin. But after the very first concert with Nekrasov's orchestra in The Gnessin State Musical College, we had to cancel everything, and it was done urgently at 1 am.

To avoid such a situation this year, it was decided to hold an online contest. And next year we would invite the laureates to our festival.

160 applications were received from all over the country, as well as from Ukraine, the Donetsk People's Republic, and Belarus. What are your impressions of the contestants? There were both children and adults involved.

– Yes, we decided to include all categories. The youngest participant was seven years old. And the oldest category included graduates and teachers of higher music educational institutions. And the oldest participant is 45 years old - he participated as a composer performing his composition.

The jury was pleasantly surprised by the number of applications for the competition. It took three days for the jury members to listen to more than 30 hours of music, i.e. all the videos sent to us.

We were surprised with the high level of participants’ skills and could not select one winner. As a result, all our participants received honorary diplomas or became laureates.

Mikhail Kiselev. Photo credit:

Is balalaika popular with musicians today?

– From an academic point of view, balalaika is rather young. And currently, it is developing in various directions. It preserves its folk traditions: there are people who still play folk tunes, travel to villages, and collect folklore musical pieces.

Some performers with traditional classic education choose the academic genre. And today there are some balalaika players seeking their own style in a multi-genre direction, for example, they play electronic music. The crossover is a trend when different styles are mixed in one piece. It was originated by Terem Quartet, and today many young bands follow this path: Quintet of Four from St. Petersburg, Russian Renaissance from Moscow, Balance from Yakutia. By the way, the head of the orchestra from Yakutia also took part in our contest, although he is an Honored Artist of Russia.

– Andrey Gorbachev, the chairman of the contest jury, founder of the Balalaika - Soul of Russia project, and professor of the Gnesins Russian Academy of Music, also participated in projects uncustomary for balalaika, such as jazz concerts with Denis Matsuev.

– Andrey Gorbachev is a representative of the academic direction, advocating the performance of academic music. But at the same time, he believes that balalaika development requires performing jazz with it.

– Does the balalaika have technical capabilities to perform the music of various styles and genres?

– We can say that the balalaika has no boundaries. It can be used to play music of absolutely any style or genre, including electronic one. Our festival and contest, Balalaika - Soul of Russia, was established for this very development and promotion.

How popular is Russian balalaika in the world? Are there any musicians in other countries who do not have Russian origins and play the balalaika professionally?

– Now, for example, a student from China is studying at The Gnesin Russian Academy of Music. According to him, when he finishes his studies, he will open "the great Chinese school of balalaika" in China. And since they practice hard 10 hours a day, this is quite possible. There is the Balalaika orchestra in the USA, and amateur performance is developing very actively there. There are also similar orchestras in Norway, France, Germany, and Australia. And for a long time, there has been a balalaika orchestra in Japan.

You and your project toured a lot in Russia and abroad. How does the audience take the balalaika performance?

– Balalaika - Soul of Russia, our all-Russian campaign, takes place in many Russian cities, and there is always a full house. There was a year we even held balalaika battles: several orchestras from Moscow, St. Petersburg, and Irkutsk had musical competitions with audience voting. And the votes were divided approximately equally among the participants.

The audience loves the balalaika, although our media does not really promote it. We want this direction to develop as extensively as possible. Because when even an ordinary person hears a balalaika playing, it always resonates in his soul.

By the way, during the lockdown, I managed to establish the Perform at Home Project. Balalaika performers from all over the country recorded music videos and posted them on social media. As a result, the videos gained more than one hundred thousand views - this is a lot for our niche. Thus, many of our performers began to develop their social networks. So there are a lot of plans to popularize balalaika in Russia.

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