In April 2016, Russian folk ensemble Zolotoj Plyos visited Wisconsin for a series of student-centered performances and workshops. The group held a free concert on April 3 at the Sett in Union South, performed at Bartels Middle School in Portage in the morning of April 4, and held a master class for the UW-Madison Russian Folk Orchestra that evening.
The musicians of Zolotoj Plyos—Alexander Solovov, Elena Sadina, and Sergei Gratchev—now live in Belgium, but formed their ensemble in 1994 as students of Saratov Conservatory in Russia. Taking their name from an area on the Volga River, Zolotoj Plyos performs a variety of Slavic folk music styles with broad regional origins. Equipped with an assortment of instruments including the treshchotki, balalaika, lozhki, and garmoshka, the group has made Madison a favorite touring destination, having performed previously at UW-Madison in February 2008, April 2010, and April 2013.
The band’s public concert at the Sett was well attended by an audience comprised of UW-Madison students and members of the Madison community. The event was sponsored by the Slavic Graduate Student Organization with generous funding from Associated Students of Madison. Melissa Warner, a PhD student in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literature, was instrumental in organizing the concert with the Slavic Graduate Student Organization. “We wanted to give undergraduates and graduates studying Russian an opportunity to engage with Russian language and culture outside of the classroom,” Warner told CREECA.
According to Brian Kilgour, REECAS M.A. student and member of the UW-Madison Russian Folk Orchestra, the Zolotoj Plyos concert at the Sett was a hit not only with UW-Madison students, but with the young children in the audience, who spent the set dancing enthusiastically in front of the stage.
Even those who were on the clock during the event seemed to have enjoyed themselves, with Warner recalling that “after the concert, some of the Sett staff went up to take photos with Zolotoj Plyos because they had such a fun time watching them perform while they were working.”
Warner explains one way Zolotoj Plyos keeps audience members engaged during their performance. “They do some call and response with the audience,” she says, “by giving the audience a short part to sing.” The group used this call and response format to perform the Russian folk classic “Kalinka,” among others.
Aside from showcasing some of the more celebrated Russian numbers that drew nods of familiarity and approval from audience members, Zolotoj Plyos also dug deep into their expansive catalog of regional folk songs. During their years at Saratov Conservatory, Solovov, Sadina, and Gratchev toured Russia to gather folk songs, explains Warner. “A lot of what they perform now is music that they gathered themselves during that time.” “All their music is Slavic,” Kilgour notes, “but it ranges from the southern Cossack parts of Russia to even outside Russia, incorporating Serbian and other southern Slavic elements as well.”
The trove of instruments that Zolotoj Plyos brings with them on tour helps them accommodate this stylistic diversity in their performances. It also provides a useful way to infuse their shows with educational content. “Zolotoj Plyos concerts are more than just concerts,” says Warner. “They are an educational experience for our students. The group talks about what instruments they’re playing, what use they have in Russian folk music, and their history.”
This educational component of Zolotoj Plyos’s stage act made them a particularly good fit for a morning concert for the students of Bartels Middle School in Portage the day after their Sett show. CREECA’s Outreach Coordinator Nancy Heingartner arranged the Zolotoj Plyos trip to Portage, where she had already been involved in their international education initiatives such as the sixth grade class “Here, There, and Everywhere.” Heingartner explains that Zolotoj Plyos are “consummate professionals at working with children,” honing their skills as artist-educators by performing regularly in schools throughout Belgium. Heingartner observed that the children at Bartels seemed especially amused by the group’s red boot accordion, designed to mimic Gratchev’s own footwear, as well as the band’s declaration of love for Dunkin’ Donuts, which drew exuberant laughter from the young crowd. At the end of the performance, after a quick Russian language lesson from Heingartner, the audience thanked Zolotoj Plyos with a warm “spasibo.”
Bartels Middle School principal Bob Meicher reflected positively on the event. “Any time you can hold the attention of 570 middle school students at 8 a.m. on a Monday morning,” he said, “you have something special. We would welcome Zolotoj Plyos back to Bartels Middle School any time.”
Following their performance in Portage, the ensemble returned to Madison to lead a master class with UW-Madison’s Russian Folk Orchestra. The RFO prepared the song “The Moon Shines,” which was then workshopped with Zolotoj Plyos who offered feedback and added layers to the piece with their own cache of Slavic musical instruments. Adding instruments like lozhki (musical spoons), drova (“firewood;” a struck idiophone), and zhaleika (a single-reed woodwind), Zolotoj Plyos helped transform the Russian Folk Orchestra’s piece into a new collaboration. “It was amazing to watch. In just an hour, Zolotoj Plyos was able to do so much with them,” says Warner. “The RFO is already so talented, so they worked really well together.” RFO founder and conductor Victor Gorodinsky shared this sentiment. “Zolotoj Plyos is an amazing trio,” he told CREECA, “and the master class they did for us was a very special treat, as was, of course, their concert.”
The visit of Zolotoj Plyos provided not just opportunities to entertain and educate, but also the opportunity to bring members of the CREECA community together and even make new connections. Bob Meicher offered some kind words after the event, saying that “Bartels is a fortunate school to have a budding relationship with CREECA,” and Melissa Warner commented that “the Slavic Graduate Student Organization was really happy to organize this event, and is really grateful to CREECA, the Slavic Department, and Associated Students of Madison.” As Nancy Heingartner observed, “Zolotoj Plyos are known and loved by the Madison community,” and no doubt the Madison community eagerly awaits their next visit.