Stephen M. Wolownik - Influence


Wolownik is largely credited with reviving interest in the cabaret-style balalaika ensemble in the United States and reconnecting the balalaika and domra with their peasant roots. Popular in the teens and twenties, the cabaret-style ensemble usually had no more than 10 members and played in small, intimate settings, often performing pieces which were not precisely Russian in appellation, but perhaps more Gypsy, Jewish, or Ukrainian in origin. The cabaret-style ensemble fell into disfavor with the rise of Communism, as Soviet government preferred huge Andreyev-style state-run ensembles with elaborate orchestral arrangements as sort of an antipode to the Western orchestra.

Wolownik, having established balalaika societies and groups in Atlanta, Maine, and Pennsylvania, was well known in the balalaika community in the United States and abroad for his simple yet deep arrangements of tunes for small balalaika ensembles. In keeping with the cabaret tradition, Wolownik did not limit himself strictly to Russian music, but also arranged Romanian, Hungarian, Moldavian, Gypsy, and klezmer tunes, some of which had never been played on anything other than the native instruments for which they were composed.

Despite his commitment to serious musicianship, some have claimed that Wolownik, who had an irreverent sense of humor, was a living embodiment of the skomorokhi of old Russia, street musicians who actively poked fun at both the Tsars and the Church.

The Balalaika and Domra Association of America now numbers several hundred members. It is actively involved in promoting traditional Russian music in the United States. It holds a yearly convention in which luminaries of Russian music participate by teaching and performing.

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