University of Wisconsin–Madison

UW Russian Folk Orchestra Celebrates 20th Anniversary

The UW-Madison Russian Folk Orchestra (RFO) is celebrating its 20th anniversary with a concert on April 8, 2017 at 7:30 p.m. in Mills Concert Hall. Thanks to support from the Anonymous Fund of the College of Letters & Science, admission is free. The concert will feature the talented musicians of the RFO, under the direction of RFO Founder Victor Gorodinsky and RFO Assistant Conductor Nebojša Macura, with special guest soloists Angelina Galashenkova (domra), Anna Gubenkova (vocals), Tetiana Khomenko (balalaika), and Yuriy Kolosovskiy (contrabass balalaika).

RFO 20th Anniversary Concert

Gorodinsky founded the RFO in 1996 with funding from CREECA to purchase a few authentic Russian folk instruments, domras and balalaikas. The RFO hosted its first public performance in 1997 and has continued to expand ever since. Over the past two decades, with ongoing sponsorship and logistical support from CREECA, the RFO has been established as a campus-community partnership. Its musicians, many of whom have no prior experience with Russian folk instruments before joining the RFO, are UW-Madison students, staff, and faculty, along with community members from the Madison area. In addition to the two groups of stringed instruments—balalaikas and domras—that form the core of the ensemble, the orchestra features accordions, bayans (button accordions), woodwinds, and percussion instruments. The Orchestra’s repertoire consists of Russian and Slavic folk songs, compositions by Tchaikovsky and other Russian classical composers, and Gorodinsky’s original compositions.

CREECA spoke to Gorodinsky about the Russian Folk Orchestra’s past 20 years.

CREECA: How did the UW Russian Folk Orchestra begin?

Gorodinsky: I moved to Madison in 1995 because I got a very tempting job offer at Memorial Library. Prior to my move, I worked at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign where I was assistant director and later music director of the U of I Russian Folk Orchestra, an ensemble very similar to the UW RFO started in the 1970s by the late professor of music John Garvey.

When I came here, it took me a couple of years to settle and learn the incredibly rich music life in Madison. In 1996, I started talking to CREECA and its director at the time, Mark Beissinger. I told him about my idea of starting a Russian folk ensemble. CREECA got very interested and, among other things, they were able to secure a grant to purchase the first supply of instruments. Then, we put posters all over campus announcing the first organizational meeting. A few people showed up. I told them that I wanted to build a Russian folk orchestra, showed them a few instruments and played some recordings. That was the start. In 1997, we had our first public performance. We had six people and only two or three songs we could play.

Gorondinsky conducting the RFO
UW RFO Founder Victor Gorondinsky

C: What have been some of the biggest RFO highlights over the past 20 years?

 G: The main thing for me is to simply get together with my musicians once a week and make music. And, of course, perform. The orchestra is almost a family to me.

Other highlights include our occasional trips. The farthest we’ve been so far is Minneapolis. Traveling together is a great joy!

In 2007, we had our 10th anniversary concert which went very well. And in 2014 we had a big gala concert, and our soloist was Alexander Tsygankov from Moscow, indisputably the best and most famous domra player in the world.

C: Russian folk instruments aren’t household items in the US. How do you continually train new musicians on these relatively unknown instruments?

G: It’s not always easy but somehow we manage. Many new players seem to learn these instruments very fast. And these days, members who have been with us for a while will tutor the new ones.

C: Tell us about the 20th anniversary concert. Who are the featured artists?

This will be by far the biggest and most exciting concert we’ve ever done! Among other things, we will feature four different soloists. On domra we will have Angelina Galashenkova, formerly from Russia but currently living in Atlanta. Our vocalist Anna Gubenkova, originally from Belarus and now a student in the School of Music, will also have a featured solo. We’ll have Tetiana Khomenko, a balalaika virtuoso from Kiev, Ukraine.  Finally, one of our contrabass balalaika players, Yuri Kolosovskiy, will perform a contrabass solo, which is extremely rare. 

There will also be two premiere performances of original pieces composed by two of our members.