If the four musicians in Russian Renaissance didn’t play so well, we would be tempted to talk about them as if they were a pop group rather than a chamber music outfit. They are young and attractive. They give evidence of having trouble with our language.
They dress a little fashion forward, too, if a little too informally for playing Bach and Tchaikovsky in K-State’s McCain Auditorium. Informally enough that one member of the crowd felt free to holler a question about their instruments to them during their second set Sunday night.
Ticket-holders may not have been sure if the question actually got answered. The members of Russian Renaissance are so Russian that their English was hard to pick up, especially when offered at the self-effacing volume they used when speaking.
Nevertheless, Ivan Kuznetsov (balalaika), Anastasia Zakharova (domra and domra alto), Aleksandr Tarasov (button-accordion) and Ivan Vinogradov (balalaika-contrabasso) were real, first quality musicians who played well together. And who won our musical admiration by playing what can’t have been an easy mix of kinds of music, all while staying together and trying out some new techniques on their traditional instruments.
Actually they favored Latin compositions. The program began with a couple of brief things by Astor Piazzolla (an Argentine). We were offered some Brazilian music in the second set (some of it alluding to a familiar tune or two) by Egberto Gismonti and Zequinha De Abreu.
Those numbers fit together with the second set starter, written by French accordion specialist Richard Galliano, and Django Reinhardt’s “Rhythm Futur” which was the set ender. But while Tarasov seemed perfectly capable of going all Paris sidewalk cafe on us, his restraint was even more marked.
In fact, one of the characteristics of the show was the ability of the musicians to hold back, to not play every number as if they were a New Orleans funeral band lumbering home. And yet they also relied on solo trading sometimes, one of the steady habits of trad. jazz.
And of bluegrass music. But while one could imagine Russian Renaissance getting a good reception at Winfield’s flat picking festival, there was also some rock idiom mixed into their m.o. Vinogradov added body slaps and string snaps to his lines. And took a couple of solos.
Most of the time the melodies were introduced by Kuznetsov, and developed in partnership with Zakharova. Each of them took solos, as did Tarasov, who sometimes gently slapped his squeeze box to get a faint imitation of the sound the others got with rocker action picking.
This sort of picking is something we ordinarily only hear mandolin players doing. But it is basic to Russian folk instrument technique. Sustain is not, apparently, one of their characteristics. There is not much rubbing back and forth with a left hand finger to get vibrato on held notes.
The stringed instruments the group used were fretted and had three strings each. The domras had round backs. The balalaikas have immediately recognizable triangular bodies with the neck attached at one corner. It wasn’t the instruments themselves that were new.
Tarasov did use a harmonica with push-button hole selection — not a “Melodica” but something that looked as if it didn’t hide its inner works. That was new. And so were some of the music selections.
Russian Renaissance’s version of Ellington’s “Caravan” was not dreamy in the way it usually is, partly because of the percussive nature of the instruments. Bela Fleck’s “Sinister Minister” fell into distinctly different passages without returns to the original musical statement. This was a characteristic of several of the group’s arrangements.
So we listed to the dynamic rises and falls, and to the variations (often glided through) of tempo, and felt pretty much at home. Oh, they play very well indeed and play together very well.
But intensity doesn’t require formality. And Russian Renaissance gave us a very attractive tour of the assets of Russian folk instrumentation without making the evening into a lecture.