Gotta love those balalaikas


It seemed like there was a time when everybody’s aunt had an old one in their closet.

Balalaika, that is…a traditional Russian instrument that looks like a triangular guitar and has three strings. (Note: think Lara’s Theme, from the movie Dr. Zhivago, and you’ll know what one sounds like.)

Northeast resident Tom Korba said he and others are preserving their heritage and passing on the tradition to their children, as members of the St. Mary’s Balalaika Orchestra, a group that traces its roots back to the 1950s. The present group of about 25 members is only about 24 years old; many of its members joined, at the urging of St. Mary’s Orthodox Cathedral-Orthodox Church in America (1701 5th St. NE) church’s former priest, Fr. Vladimir Lecko, when they were in high school.

“We were a surprise act at St. Anthony High School’s art club variety talent show in February, 1984,” Korba said. “Fr. Vlad let us rehearse at his house; he told us to keep it a secret. Nobody knew about it except our parents.” Since then, the band has rehearsed weekly; they often perform at Kramarczuk Sausage Company (215 E. Hennepin Ave.) in Northeast on Friday nights, and also play at local events.

The original group

Lecko, who now lives in Wisconsin, said his wife and his dog went downstairs to the family room so they wouldn’t be in the way (“My dog always wanted attention from everybody”) while the students moved the furniture and practiced in his living room.

A professional musician himself, he worked at St. Mary’s Orthodox Cathedral from 1979 to 1996.

“When I came to Minneapolis, the Balalaika Players, led by George Nepsha, had just disbanded. They had been very popular and well-known; they played and sang.” He said he had heard them perform before he moved to the Twin Cities: “I was very much entertained and impressed by the group George had.”

Last Friday, Jan. 18, the orchestra held a tribute at Kramarczuk’s to long-time Northeast resident Nepsha, who died on Dec. 17.

(A 1965 photograph in the church’s 100th anniversary book published in 1987 lists members as Vadim Pogrebniak, George Nepsha, Gregg Samanisky, Peter Homzik, William Cook, Gerald Pateyuk, John Grivna, William Rusinak, John Koziol, Leonid Dorozynski, George Jalma, Wasily Kirrilow, Ted Gromak and Robert Hotal. Peter Urista was also a founding member.)

According to the history book, Nepsha purchased a “family” of instruments (both the domra—round and similar to a violin—and balalaika have “families,” or instruments of different sizes and sounds, from piccolo to bass). Many of the instruments he bought had belonged to members of a 1930s Russian Balalaika Orchestra, which included dancers and gypsy violins. Wives of the all-male St. Mary’s group sewed them costumes. They played at PTA meetings, weddings, banquets, neighboring church events, and performed with St. Mary’s Choir. They also performed regularly at Central Lutheran Church.

“Requests for concerts and appearances soon exceeded the expectations and limitations of the members of the orchestra, so at the peak of their popularity, the Balalaika Players disbanded in 1974. However, they did make an impromptu appearance at the 90th birthday for Father John Dzubay in 1982,” according to the history book.

Leonid Dorozynski founded The Women’s Balalaika Ensemble, which was active for three years, from 1975 to 1978. Members included Loretta Ridley, Shirley Kohlan, Dorothy Urisa, Irene Fellegy, Ann Dorozynski, Gloria Tarasar, Jeanne Slimak, Agnes Kohan, Pat Skirka, Matushka Kowalczyk, Nancy Dunivan, and Betty Mlinar. Dorozynski gave weekly lessons and rehearsals; within six months, the group performed in public. He arranged all the music for prima and alto balalaikas and guitar, and built a 35-number repertoire. He also arranged numbers for a women’s singing trio, in Russian and English. The group played in churches and at parties. They gave a prelude performance at Orchestra Hall.

Lecko said the group he re-established in 1984 didn’t sing (they still don’t). He started it with his own instruments and some belonging to his son.

“As time went on, whenever I found out somebody was going to the Soviet Union, I asked them to bring an instrument back. After the wall came down, you could go there with a wheelbarrow and come back with it filled. The instruments weren’t expensive at first, because the Russians didn’t know the value of the American dollar. They’re still not as expensive as good American instruments.” The professional-level balalaika and domras are all hand crafted, he added.

Today’s group “is doing quite well,” Lecko said. “I’m very happy they have continued it and brought young people in. They have children that they are training. I’m confident that this tradition at St. Mary’s will be around for a long time. Playing these instruments awakens something in the students. Many of them learned about their culture when they were growing up, but when they actually get involved in the orchestra, it resonates with them. I’ve seen it happen often.”

He said he has fond memories of the group’s travels to Concordia International Language Village hosted by Concordia College in Moorhead, Minn., and their performance in the foyer of Orchestra Hall during the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra’s concert featuring renowned cellist and composer Dmitry Shostakovich. The group traveled to Toronto to participate in the International Caravan.

“To my wife Helen and I, this group is like our kids. A couple of members of the orchestra met there and got married. Now their kids are in it. We feel like proud parents. It was a lot of work and the parish was a busy place. But this bore fruit,” Lecko said.

Tom Korba said he played in the band in high school, and got involved in the balalaika orchestra because he missed being in band and he likes performing. Two of his uncles, Pete Homzik and William Cook, were in the original group, and Korba said he wants to keep up the tradition. His two daughters, ages 10 and 11, are learning to play the instruments.

He owns several instruments of different sizes, he said, including a 1918 domra and a 1930s balalaika. The domra is round, and the balalaika is triangular; each instrument has its own family. The domra family includes the piccolo, prima, alto, tenor and contra bass. The balalaika family includes the secunda and two types of basses, one bigger than the other. “The domra is more for the melody, the balalaika is the rhythm. Although as you progress, you can do the same things with both of them,” Korba said. There are size differences between individual instruments, even if they are the same kind, he added. “It depends on who made them.”

Although most have three strings, there are four-string domras and balalaikas. “People who play domras are usually accustomed to playing the violin.” Balalaikas, he added, are similar to mandolins.

He said he has had some difficulty finding people who will repair the instruments, adding that some instrument repair shops won’t touch them. “I thought violin repair shops might work, since a domra is similar to a violin. But I’ve actually had better luck with a guitar shop in South Minneapolis.” They order strings from Russia; bass strings are hand wound copper. Balalaika strings are nylon and metal. Musicians strum the balalaikas with their fingers, he said. “We use plastic picks for domras and leather picks from Russia for the basses.”

In their years of traveling and performing, they’ve only had one instrument disaster, he said. “There was an accident in Toronto, where a bass fell down. There is so much tension on the strings, it just folded up and collapsed. It was a tragedy. These are irreplaceable.”

In addition to the performances Lecko mentioned, Korba said the balalaika orchestra has played at St. Paul’s Festival of Nations and St. Vladimir’s Seminary in Crestwood, New York. They have also traveled to events in Wisconsin and Iowa.

“We’ve played at a lot of nursing homes,” Korba said. “Some people cry when they hear us. Once we were surprised when a group of women started singing along with us; we didn’t know some of our songs had words.”

He said he doesn’t know of many other balalaika orchestras in the United States. “There is a church group in Ohio. There are many professional groups in Europe.” Recently, he added, they have formed a relationship with a professor from the University of Wisconsin at Madison, Victor Gorodinsky, who writes arrangements and is teaching students to play the instruments.

Korba said that when the group started in the 1980s, audiences used to complain that they couldn’t hear them. “Now we’ve got a sound system that could blow the back end off a building.”

Many people have joined and left the group through the years, Korba said. “We’ve had two brother and sister pairs. Two of our members became priests. There are from 20 to 25 people in the group now, including kids.” They have had singers (currently they include Steve Memorich, Rebecka Moll, Peter Felegy and Ron Tucci) and accordion players, and occasionally someone will dance, he said. Nepsha’s niece, JoAnn Lucs, plays accordion with the orchestra. One member, Dave Thaler, is from Russia; Korba calls him “a blessing.”

“He was in a balalaika group there until he emigrated in 1985. He’s very good and he knows the songs. If we’re playing them wrong, he’ll correct us.

“We have varying levels of talent in our group,” Korba said. “Some people have been playing a long time. We’re not professionals. Some of us can’t read music and play by ear. For most of us, it’s fun. It’s a hobby. But we hope we’re getting more popular.”

The orchestra’s future plans might include making a CD, he added. “People ask us why we don’t have one. Our hope is that soon, we will.”