Strains of music float out onto Person St. from the facade of a historic church in downtown Raleigh. It's not "Amazing Grace" pealing out onto Moore Square, but a bittersweet accordion melody. The former Tabernacle Baptist Church is now the Long View Center, and its 450-seat main hall plays host to private ceremonies and live acoustic music. Recent performances included blues and old-time string band music; to round out the season, the Center hosted a cross-cultural concert by Russian folk trio Moscow Nights.
This acclaimed trio is really a quartet of St. Petersburg Conservatory alums: Yuri Shishkin dazzles on the petite balalaika prima; Valentin Zaviriukha provides a harmonic core and fills in melodies on bayan; Sergei Ruksha holds down the low end on the outsize contrabass balalaika. The fourth member is manager and master of ceremonies Vitaliy Bezrodnov, who introduces and contextualizes the band's vivacious adaptations of Russian music and also serves as an additional bayan player. Their programs draw from Tchaikovsky melodies and folk tunes from the Pontic steppe to Siberia; their fluid, virtuosic performances create a comfortable atmosphere comparable to an informal jazz set.
Anyone who's seen Dr. Zhivago has heard balalaika; the bayan, a Russian take on the familiar accordion, is another story. Aside from numerous technical differences, the bayan's most distinguishing feature is its wide range of tones. Its high register is smooth and clarinet-like, while bass notes take on a resonant, somewhat bassoonish tone. The contrabass balalaika is also a bit of a visual shock, picture a double-bass-sized balalaika balanced on the left corner of its triangular body. But its warm, buoyant pizzicato sound lays down a familiar foundation. The mandolin-sized balalaika prima allows for the flexibility and bright tone required of a melodic soprano voice.
Aided by Bezrodnov's mini-lessons on Russian geography, culture, and folk traditions, Moscow Nights bridged a gap in US-Russian relations that is often overlooked: For all the drama in the two nations' stormy relationship, the average American's knowledge of Russian culture is limited to Communism, nesting dolls, and vodka. Tunes ranged from cheery, up-tempo celebratory songs to dolorous, dirge-like variations. Though the instrumentation and music in general was decidedly Russian, a few selections, like Ruksha's Jazz Age-style "Basso Ostinato" and a raucous, bluegrass-tinged encore, had a decidedly Western feel.
Moscow Nights' Long View Center performance gave an American audience the rare opportunity to hear Russian professional musicians playing some of the music that's nearest and dearest to Russian identity. After this positive experience, it is to be hoped that concertgoers will demand more international music from Raleigh's underutilized venues.