The three virtuoso musicians who make up Trio Voronezh -- that's "Vo-RO-nesh" to the non-Russian speakers among us -- have come a long way in a short time. These graduates of the Classical Conservatory in Voronezh, Russia, began their careers together playing some unusual venues. They worked in small concert halls and clubs in many eastern European cities. More interestingly, they also played in the streets, parks and subways of those same cities. It was actually in a Frankfurt subway station where a representative of the annual Oregon Bach Festival happened to hear them performing Bach for the passers-by. Arrangements were soon made for their U.S. debut at the 1996 festival, where they were an immediate sensation.
It was their arrangements on traditional Russian instruments that set them apart. Vladimir Volochin plays a three-stringed instrument called the domra. It looks a bit like a shrunken banjo, and its sound comes close to a mandolin. Sergei Teleshev wails on the bajan, which is a classic old button accordion partially played with the chin. And Valerie Petruchin somehow plays the double-bass balalaika, an awkward-looking triangular three-stringed monster roughly the size of a house. On these unusual (to Western ears) musical instruments, they perform a huge repertoire of classical composers. A typical concert could include selections from Bach, Prokofiev, Schubert, Shostakovich and Vivaldi. Throw in some traditional Russian folk songs, a little bit of ragtime and a smattering of George Gershwin and you get some idea of their musical diversity.
Of course, it's not just the unfamiliar instruments that is so notable -- it's what they do with them. How these three do so much with six strings and a battered box of buttons and baffles is pretty astonishing. Listening to their new CD on Angel Records is great fun. The pieces from the aforementioned composers along with more by Mendelssohn, Tchaikovsky and others fairly leap out of the speakers. There is a real feeling of attack to these classical pieces. Familiar old melodies are pumped up with a sense of rediscovery.
The Trio members are clearly having a blast playing this music, and you can hear it throughout, their tight ensemble playing sounds like they have been together for decades. Not bad for a group of young men still in their 20s -- except for old-timer Volochin, who is coming up on 35.
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Trio Voronezh is scheduled to perform at 8 p.m. Thursday, February 3, at Scottsdale Center for the Arts, 7380 East Second Street. For ticket information and details, call 480-994-2787 (SCA) or 480-784-4444 (Ticketmaster).