Lucid Culture


The Russian Carnival Ensemble at Trinity Church, NYC 4/24/08

From the first two folksongs on the bill, it seemed that this show was going to turn out like something you’d see on a Sunday afternoon at some suburban “arts center” in central New Jersey, most of the $60 seats taken up by squirming gradeschool kids dragged out for a shot of “culture” by their yuppie parents. The Russian Carnival Ensemble once appeared on Good Morning America (or its equivalent – they’re all the same, anyway), and the schmaltz they played early in the program could well have been on the audition dvd that got them the gig. But the show got better from there. Despite the fact that this seemingly sexagenarian Russian-American folk ensemble is probably best seen on their own turf, playing to an expatriate crowd who would object if the program was dumbed down, the remainder of the show gave them myriad opportunities to show off their sensational chops and interesting arrangements. Led by Tamara Volskaya, a spectacularly fast, virtuosic player whose axe is the domra (a small Russian stringed instrument that looks like a cross between a mandolin and a balalaika), the group ripped through a mix of their own arrangements of both classical and traditional pieces. The bassist played a large, hollowbodied, triangular instrument whose sides looked to be at least six feet long, definitely the largest bass on this side of the Hudson and maybe on the other as well. In addition to an excellent accordionist who sat impassively while casually spinning off lightning-fast trills, the group – wearing matching traditional costumes – had two other string players alternating between guitar, domra, balalaika and occasional percussion.

Other than a blistering, barely minute-long version of the Flight of the Bumblebee, the classical pieces weren’t all that interesting (in case you’re guessing, yes, they did the Lone Ranger theme). Traditional Russian dances, however, are their strong suit, and listening to them blaze through a handful of freilachs reminded of how much of a Russian influence there is in klezmer and gypsy music, and vice versa. In case you haven’t noticed, Lucid Culture has been off on a serious gypsy music tangent lately, and the pieces the group played this afternoon hit the spot perfectly, especially the encore on which what Volskaya wailed furiously, its melody a lickety-split series of sixteenth notes. The group also played a piece introduced by Volskaya as a world premiere, its quiet, eerie ambience quite a contrast with the ebullience of the rest of the program, hinting that this ensemble is capable of vastly more than they showed playing to an audience obviously unfamiliar with the material.

April 25, 2008 - Posted by | concert, folk music, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,


  1. Your reviewer tries to show superiority over both performers and audience, but comes across with only arrogance. This group is far more than your critic is capable of knowing. They play the “classical” pieces in a way that both shows the roots of that music, and the degree of virtuosity that has evolved over time. The “accordian” player barely mentioned is one of the greatest musicians of the past century. They play all of their material exceedingly well.

    Comment by Cyril Caster | December 4, 2008 | Reply

  2. “this ensemble is capable of vastly more than they showed playing to an audience obviously unfamiliar with the material. ” Clearly the reviewer was impressed by the musicians’ talent while taking exception to the choice of material on the program – and accentuating the fact that the group excels most at the Russian material. And any accordionist “spinning off lightning-fast trills” has to be pretty special.

    Comment by lc | December 4, 2008 | Reply

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