Orkestr Russkikh Narodnikh Instrumentov - the Orchestra of Russian Folk Instruments - can be found in Russia in any city of considerable size, in some factories and other large communes, local social clubs called 'institutes of culture' and in schools having well developed programs of musical instruction. A fully developed Russian Folk Orchestra might have a hundred or more members, but the instrumentation would be substantially similar to that presented by the Washington Balalaika Society.
From its conception by Vasily Vasillevich Andreyev (a nobleman from the Tverskoi Province who was studying violin) in the 1880s, the Russian folk orchestra has taken its special character from two fretted string instruments, the triangular balalaika and the round-bodied domra. Both derive from a primitive lute of two or three strings, with a small body and long neck, widespread among the Russian peasantry by the 17th century and believed to be of Tatar origin.
Andreyev is credited with having heard the sound of the peasant balalaika in its original form and pursuing the long and often daunting task of bringing it to the concert stage. He was frustrated in his early attempts to find a violinmaker who would even agree to make a concert balalaika, as this instrument was considered to be nothing but a plaything by serious musicians. After some effort he was able to persuade one of St. Petersburg's leading luthiers, F. Passerbsky, to build a set of balalaikas to be played by his new ensemble. To provide the range of tones audiences expected from the violin family of instruments, Andreyev had the balalaikas built in five sizes from soprano (or 'prima') to bass. Working with other musicians, he spent nearly a year writing and arranging music to be played by the ensemble, and then rehearsing the music using strumming and picking techniques hitherto unknown to stringed instrument players of the time.
The debut of the Ensemble of Balalaika Players in 1888 was met with some skepticism, which was all but erased by the end of the performance. The audience was effusive in its applause and praise for the music these musicians made and Andreyev's work began to receive the recognition it needed to continue. By 1892, Andreyev's octet presented its first command performance at the royal palace at Gatchina, gaining the support of the Romanovs and guaranteeing, at least for the time being, a respected place in the world of music in Russia. The octet was later expanded and, with the addition of the domra family of instruments and the gusli, the Great Russian Imperial Balalaika Orchestra was created. After the turn of the century the orchestra toured Europe and, in 1910, visited America.
As with so many facets of Russian culture, the orchestra and Andreyev suffered greatly from the turmoil and social upheaval of the 'teens. He changed the name of the orchestra to 'Narodny' (people's orchestra) and lost the support and funding of the Imperial Court. Finally, on Christmas Day in 1918 while on a tour entertaining Russian troops, Andreyev died of typhoid, his modest fortune completely depleted.
Under Soviet rule, the concept of the Russian Folk Orchestra was rekindled as an acceptable form of expression, albeit carefully controlled. Composers were encouraged to write music appropriate for a Communist society and conservatories continued to teach folk instruments.
Meanwhile, outside of Russia, immigrants who had left and brought their instruments and musical memories with them formed ensembles and, eventually, orchestras. In America, there were perhaps a dozen or more orchestras of respectable size by the mid-1920s; most of these had gone out of existence with the aging of their members and dilution of interest by the 1940s. A few, notably the Balalaika Orchestra of Detroit, survived and often flourished, continuing their operations well into the second half of the 1900s.
Most of the orchestras active in America and Canada today were formed after 1970. Some were the outgrowth of social and cultural activities of Russian Orthodox churches and Russian community centers; others were formed by individuals -- in many cases people with little or no Russian background -- who were simply interested in the music and the possibilities of these instruments. The opening of the former Soviet Union in the 1990s made acquisition of music and instruments from Russia much easier and new immigrants were often overjoyed to find folk orchestras playing 'their music.'
The Washington Balalaika Society, formed in 1988, is now the largest orchestra of Russian folk instruments in North America and endeavors to pattern its sound and repertoire after the great orchestras of Russia while at the same time continuing to explore new kinds of music and new musical possibilities for this fascinating family of instruments.