Los Angeles Balalaika Orchestra

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Iryna Orlova runs a tight ship as director of the Los Angeles Balalaika Orchestra, an ensemble of more than 30 musicians.

Peter Rothé, a founding member of the orchestra, plays the balalaika, a triangular stringed instrument that's ubiquitous in Russian folk music.

"One thing that is very special about the balalaika is the fact that two of the strings are tuned to the same pitch," Rothé said, demonstrating by plucking the strings.

When asked how many balalaikas the Balalaika Orchestra actually has, Rothé said more than 10. There are three small ones, a few medium-sized ones.

"There's one that plays in the cello range, and one that plays down in the double-bass range," Rothé said, laughing. "And it's really a challenge to fit that one in most cars. If you play that instrument, you have to take it with you when you go to buy your car."

Though the balalaika is clearly the star in this orchestra, there's another solo player, the domra. "It's a round, boardy instrument like a mandolin," Orlova said. "It's tuned like a mandolin, and in our orchestra, it carries the function of the violin in a symphony."

The orchestra's main focus is Russian and Ukrainian classical music.

The musicians range in experience and in age. Fiona Feder is 14 years old. She and her 11-year old brother, Tommy, have been playing domra in the orchestra for more than five years.

"I started out playing violin and my Dad wanted me to learn mandolin," Feder said. "Irina Orlova said it was the same thing, so we started domra, and we've been playing ever since."

The Balalaika Orchestra recently played a 15th anniversary concert at Schoenberg Hall on the campus of UCLA. The concert opened with a piece by the creator of the Balalaika Orchestra, Vasily Andreyev. But it also featured Irving Berlin's "Puttin' on the Ritz."

Looking back to when she took over the orchestra in 1995, Iryna Orlova said she never anticipated the orchestra would be where it is today. "These children whom I'm teaching, they are showing me how much we can do all together, and I think it's exceeded all my expectations."