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Balalaika orchestra to bring familiar folk sounds to PCC

Arizona Balalaika Orchestra

The Arizona Balalaika Orchestra will present its 37th annual concert of traditional folk music from Russia, Poland, Ukraine and other Slavic countries, on Saturday, Jan. 28 at 7 p.m. at Pima Community College Center for the Arts Proscenium Theater, West Campus, 2202 W. Anklam Road.

“The audience will certainly recognize numbers such as ‘Kalinka,’ ‘Fantasy on Jewish Themes,’ and ‘Ochi Chernie,’ says Mia Bulgarin Gay, founder and director of the orchestra.

Ukrainian native Alexander Tentser, Ph.D., concert pianist and graduate of the Gnessin Music Institute of Moscow and the University of Arizona, will conduct the concert, which will also feature the Barynya Balalaika Trio of Russian-trained balalaika and garmoshka players, and Tucson’s Lajkonik Polish Folk Ensemble.

Sponsored in its early years by the University of Arizona Russian language department, the Arizona Balalaika Orchestra has played with the Tucson Pops Orchestra and at the Tucson Folk Festival, Tucson Meet Yourself and other events in Arizona. Orchestra members play authentic Russian-made instruments including the triangular balalaika, the mandolin-like domra, the accordion-like button bayan, the harp-like gusli, along with wind and percussion instruments.

Domra player Michael Markowitz, who began playing with the orchestra after moving to Tucson in 1989, found that balalaika music has a sound reminiscent of the Jewish liturgical music he’d grown up with attending a Conservative synagogue on Long Island.

Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., Markowitz was introduced to music by his maternal grandmother, an accomplished pianist and songwriter. After learning piano, he tried his hand at violin and clarinet before discovering, at age 15, that girls like guys who play guitar. He later learned the mandolin.

When he met Gay, she handed him a domra, the Russian instrument closest to the mandolin, and he began to play with the orchestra, honing his skills with conservatory-trained Russian and Ukrainian masters at Slavic music convention workshops.

A physician at El Rio Community Center, Markowitz also plays piano, guitar and mandolin with a variety of local musicians.

Tickets are $16; students, $12. Call the PCC box office at 206-6986 or visit  Discount tickets ($15/$10) are available through Jan. 27 at The Folk Shop, 2525 N. Campbell Ave., 881-7147, or Antigone Books, 411 N. 4th Ave., 792-3715.