Luther College Chips

Luther College students past and present bond over Russian music

Full+Professor+of+Russian+Studies+and+founder+of+the+Balalaika+Ensemble+Laurie+Iudin-Nelson+plays+the+accordian+during+the+Balalaika+Concert.
Full Professor of Russian Studies and founder of the Balalaika Ensemble Laurie Iudin-Nelson plays the accordian during the Balalaika Concert.

Full Professor of Russian Studies and founder of the Balalaika Ensemble Laurie Iudin-Nelson plays the accordian during the Balalaika Concert.

Lily Kime (‘19) | Chips

Lily Kime (‘19) | Chips

Full Professor of Russian Studies and founder of the Balalaika Ensemble Laurie Iudin-Nelson plays the accordian during the Balalaika Concert.

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With claps, chants, and traditional Russian music, the Luther College Balalaika Ensemble presented a concert in the atrium of the Center for the Arts (CFA) on Sunday, March 4. The concert featured traditional songs, instruments, and costumes from Ukrainian and Russian culture.

This concert consisted 12 songs from both Ukrainian and Russian music traditions. Most songs featured vocals by Ami Hall (‘96). There were also several instrumental pieces. The ensemble included instruments such as: the prima balalaika, the prima domra, the kontrabass balalaika, and the accordian. The balalaika is a traditional Russian stringed instrument that is shaped like a triangle. The music featured had messages that ranged from romantic love, lust, heartbreak, and celebration.

In 1992, Full Professor of Russian Studies Laurie Iudin-Nelson founded the Balalaika Ensemble. Iudin-Nelson found this concert particularly meaningful because of the foure returning Luther and Balalaika Ensemble alums, including Hall, Luther’s first Russian studies major and four-year Balalaika ensemble member.

“This weekend was really special to me because of all of the [alums] that came back,” Iudin-Nelson said. “It was great to see every one of the [alums] because we all stay in touch.”

While including the alums in the concert enhanced the experience, it was challenging to schedule a practice before the concert. According to Iudin-Nelson, the ensemble was only able to practice once the day before the concert. Considering this obstacle, Iudin-Nelson was pleased with the ensemble’s performance.

Ami Hall (‘96), Luther’s first Russian major, was the vocalist for the Balalaika Ensemble’s performance.

“There were a few rough entrances, but given the fact that the group had not played together except once the day before, they did an amazing job,” Iudin-Nelson said.

Midway through the concert, Iudin-Nelson and Hall performed three vocal and accordian duets. According to Iudin-Nelson, this was a purposeful break intended for the other returning performers whose callouses had worn off, making playing uncomfortable.

Along with four alumni performers, the ensemble included three current students. Zach Mayer (‘21) played the kontrabass balalaika at the reccomendation of Associate Professor in Library and Information Studies Andrea Beckendorf. Mayer’s first day with the group was the day before their performance, but he had past experience with Russian music.

“It is a fun way to expose myself to folk music from a different part of the world from a culture that I’m not used to hearing music from,” Mayer said. “In grade school, I performed with an ensemble that performed a lot of folk music, including Russian folk music. So it was kind of fun to revisit that.”

Approximately 30 people attended the concert, including children and community members. Many of the pieces incorporated audience participation. Associate Professor of Music and Composer-in-Residence Brooke Joyce attended the event and appreciated the community atmosphere.

“This weekened was really special to me because of all of the [alums] that came back. It was great to see every one of the [alums] because we all stay in touch.”  

– Full Professor of Russian Studies Laurie Iudin-Nelson

“This was my first time hearing the Balalaika Ensemble,” Joyce said. “And I thought it was great fun. I especially enjoyed all the ways we were invited to participate as audience members.”

Currently, the ensemble is the only collegiate Balalaika Ensemble in the United States. Because of this, they are often invited to play at other school and community venues. The ensemble has also performed at Grinnell College and St. Olaf College, Iudin-Nelson’s alma mater. According to Iudin-Nelson, the ensemble has traveled nationally in the past, but such performances have not happened in several years due to lack of funding.

In a community that focuses on Norwegian heritage, the Balalaika Ensemble brings diversity through the traditions of Ukrainian and Russian heritage. According to Joyce, it is beneficial to the community have the opportunity to experience culture beyond those that we may be already familiar with.

“It is wonderful … to have on-campus groups like the Balalaika Ensemble,” Joyce said. “They expand our worldview and give us a positive and enriching experience of another culture. It’s especially exciting to have our Balalaika players include faculty, alumni, and current students.”

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