Peter Omelchenko is a domra/mandolin virtuoso, arranger, composer, conductor, music teacher, and the president of the nonprofit East-West Cultural and Educational Center in Pikesville, Maryland.
Peter spent his childhood in the south of Russia, where he was surrounded by the rich folk-music traditions of the Cossack people. Now a representative of today’s leading school of Russian folk-instrument performance, Peter studied at Moscow’s Gnessin Academy in the special class of Alexander Tsygankov, who recognized the particularly heartfelt character and distinctive timbre of Peter’s domra technique. While still a student, Peter won significant awards at many prestigious competitions, such as the “Cup of the North” in Cherepovets. Before joining the Osipov orchestra, he was a member of the Nekrasov Radio and Television Folk Instrument Orchestra, also in Moscow, and performed regularly with several other orchestras and smaller ensembles. Peter has appeared in some of Russia’s most famous venues, including the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory, the Tchaikovsky Concert Hall, and – as a guest artist with the Red Army Ensemble – the Bolshoi Theater.
In the United States, Peter was an artistic director, conductor, and soloist of the Washington Balalaika Society Orchestra. He performed on the Millennium Stage of Washington’s Kennedy Center, presented several solo recitals at the Lyceum Theater in Alexandria, Virginia, and regularly participated in successive national conventions of the Balalaika and Domra Association of America (BDAA) as a guest artist and teacher of domra master classes.
Nowadays, Peter performs very actively as part of the esteemed duo Musalliance and Concert à la Carte project. Peter’s broad repertoire includes Eastern European and international folk music, classical music transcriptions, popular favorites, and his own compositions.
In addition to his performance career, Peter has earned an enviable reputation as an arranger. Many orchestras and smaller groups in different countries have played his arrangements of a wide variety of music. Recently, for example, he arranged and orchestrated a Russian folk-instrument interpolation for world-famous tenor Andrea Bocelli’s new recording of “Lara’s Theme” from Doctor Zhivago, in which the Osipov orchestra participated.
A consummate entertainer, Peter has also been active in musical theater, performing on stage in a number of roles: singing, dancing, and improvising on multiple instruments, while also contributing original music and choreography. He maintains a popular YouTube channel which presents interesting and unusual videos of folk-instrument performances.
“The destiny by itself determined my future – the way of a professional musician”
Interviewer’s Introduction: The domra is the soul of Russian folk music, just as the nightingale is the soul of Russian nature. Without them, there will seldom be complete harmony. You realize that when you listen to the melody of Aliabiev’s famous “Nightingale” in concert with soloist Peter Omelchenko and the Nekrasov Academic Russian Folk Orchestra. The soloist and his instrument become one and completely inseparable.
Domrist Peter Omelchenko is undoubtedly a great musician, but not every great musician opens our hearts. Revealing an unsparing soul in performance, Peter has a key to unlocking the hearts of his listeners. That great soul originated in Peter’s childhood in Armavir in the Kuban region, which has been famous for its music since olden times. Peter’s family was fully steeped in that tradition.
Omelchenko: My grandfather was very prominent musically in his village: he learned how to play the folk accordion by himself, and he even made the first balalaika there. In my grandmother’s family, everyone loved singing in an ensemble: folk, popular songs, romantic ballads. My mother sang in the student choir for folk opera and ballet at the Novocherkassk Polytechnic Institute. My paternal grandfather also played the balalaika, which he had inherited in his youth. My father played the guitar when he was young. There were four children in our family, and we all heard our mother’s songs from birth. I recall our singing the revolutionary song, “Red Commander on the Hot Horse” with our dad. Our parents tried to develop and educate us well, and all of us went to music school. When I was in first grade, I started playing the piano at the local Palace
while also doing gymnastics and playing chess. I was bored with the lessons of my first music teacher, and I soon left. But the desire for music was undeniable. My mom says that I asked to be sent somewhere to learn how to play the shepherd’s pipe or balalaika. Then, my brother’s bayan teacher advised us of an excellent young domra teacher who recently started working in their school. Thus, my instrument chose me! At that time I didn’t even know what a domra was.
My first domra teacher was Igor Datenko, now an Honored Worker of Culture in the Kuban
region and well known in that area. He is a true professional, and children love him, so parents lined up to send their children to his class. He taught me the basics of the domra technique, and we had many opportunities to give concerts in the suburbs of Armavir.
Question: Other than having the best teacher, who else encouraged your interest in domra?
Omelchenko: Several good musicians visited our town. I would go to their performances, record them on a cassette recorder, and then listen to them many times. The most memorable concert was a trio of Astrakhan Conservatory teachers, who had just won an international competition in Klingenthal. From them, I first heard Vivaldi and Piazzolla. Igor Datenko also gave me tape recordings of Alexander Tsygankov, the world’s most famous domrist, (and my future teacher). I particularly remember an early vinyl record of Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” performed by the famous Moscow
Virtuosi chamber orchestra under Vladimir Spivakov. I studied and absorbed everything…
Question: Typically, musicians are not limited to one instrument …
Omelchenko: Yes, I worked on the piano also, although my lessons in both music school and the Palace
were quite uninteresting. Later, my parents sent me to study piano with the director of the music school. The lessons were held in her office, and because of her unquestioned authority, I was much more disciplined and practiced a lot more. Later, a year before entering music college, I was assigned to an additional class, where I was fortunate to meet a wonderful teacher of music theory, Lyubov Karapetyants. She taught the foundations of music theory with such inspiration that I was soon firmly grounded in the subject.
Question: And how did music become so central to your future?
Omelchenko: When I graduated, I faced a dilemma: to follow in the footsteps of my older brothers in a scientific or technical career, or to become a musician. I had loved both physics and music since childhood, but it was time to choose. One incident helped me to make the decision: At the regional school Olympiad in physics, I worked out the answers to all of the questions, but for some reason, I plugged in all the wrong variables. As a result, my scores were reduced by 40%, and I achieved only fifth place.
In the same year, after a successful performance at a regional music competition, I was invited to study in Krasnodar, a major cultural center in the region. That settled it; I was destined to become a professional musician. However, my parents were afraid to let me move from Armavir to another city, because I was only fourteen at the time. But I made an agreement with my parents that if I finished ninth grade with excellent marks in every subject, they would let me go. Naturally, I excelled in the required subjects: chemistry and the Russian language. I told the teachers of my musical goals, and somehow I succeeded.
Question: Have you ever regretted that you did not choose physics as a profession?
Omelchenko: I’ve always been interested in the exact sciences, and my parents and brothers were very talented in that area. However, after my early successes in music, my decision to devote my life to it became inevitable. Today, I am still using the scientific knowledge that I learned in sound engineering, orchestration, and arrangement. Even in school, when our student orchestra needed to make a disc, I was already using my technical skills in video editing.
Question: Since Krasnodar
is a provincial city, how were you able to find enough education and musical opportunities?
is a major cultural center, which has a symphony orchestra and a musical theater with its own orchestra. Also, the Philharmonic Society has a good folk orchestra and a concert hall with an organ. The Kuban
Cossack Choir is world famous, and the George Garanian Big Band is also well-known abroad. There was a big regional library, where I could listen to good recordings and find interesting scores. I had almost never listened to CDs before that time. As students, we attended many concerts. One of the first that I attended was a performance by the Moscow
Virtuosi that I enjoyed from a standing room on the balcony. Also, by attending symphony orchestra rehearsals under an outstanding conductor like Vladimir Ponkin, we had early involvement with the process of creating grand art.
Question: Apparently, there are strong folk music traditions in Krasnodar
. Why have so many high-quality folk musicians come from this area?
Omelchenko: First, because it is one of the Cossack regions! I have known many Cossack songs since childhood and sang them in kindergarten. I remember one of them in particular, “I Will Sow Saltbush on the Shore,” which I knew even before I entered music school. Many professional folk musicians from Krasnodar
are now working in major Russian orchestras and folk ensembles. These traditions, the hereditary factor, and my early education were key to my interest in folk music.
There has always been a high level of musical culture and teaching there. When I studied in Krasnodar
, I sought out as many teachers as I could. My official teacher was Angela Avanesova. She heard me for the first time as a schoolboy and became my “grandmother” for music training. I am grateful to Ms. Avanesova primarily for giving me the opportunity to develop as a concert performer. She always found opportunities for me to participate in various projects, competitions, workshops, and television. I especially remember her painstaking preparation for the competition in Penza
, where we won the prize for the best performance of a very difficult compulsory piece “Variations on the Volga
Theme” by Victor Ryabov. I think she may have felt a little professional jealousy over my having started domra with someone else, but she soon put that aside. Thus, she asked her colleague Alla Khlevnaya to introduce me to Alexander Tsygankov, the virtuoso that every domra player dreams about studying with. I worked with Ms. Khlevnaya for only a few years, but I could write a long book about what I learned from her. Even before I entered the academy in Moscow, well-known classical and folk musicians began making special mention of my performances. I give Alla Khlevnaya special credit for that because she really made it happen.
Question: Nevertheless, Krasnodar, Kuban was just the beginning…
Omelchenko: Yes, Kuban
was significant but was only an intermediate step in my musical education. My teachers and I went to other regions of Russia
to participate in various competitions and workshops several times each year.
Then I moved to Moscow
! It has the best concert halls in the country and countless world-class performances. Very often, I could attend concerts at the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory every night for two weeks! Even when there was a full house, I managed to slip in and sit on the last wooden bench under the ceiling.
The Folk Instrument Department in the Gnessin
of Music is the best in the world. While a student there, I was instructed by two outstanding teachers: Peoples Artists Alexander Tsygankov and Edward Serov. Serov founded several symphony orchestras in Russia, and he was an assistant of the great conductor Evgeny Mravinsky. I remember his quoting Herbert von Karajan, whom he knew personally. Also, I remember my orchestration teacher, Anna Polshina, with special warmth, notably her stories about the Academy’s founder Elena Gnessina and the conductor Evgeny Svetlanov. Can you imagine the extraordinary musical environment I was privileged to be a part of in Moscow at that time?
Then, there was my other “school” – an opportunity to work in one of the world’s best Russian folk instrument orchestras.
Question: Peter, how did you start to play in the Academic Orchestra of Russian Folk Instruments of the State Radio and Television Company?
Omelchenko: At a festival in Belarus
, the orchestra’s conductor, Nikolai Nekrasov, asked Alexander Tsygankov if he knew of a good domrist to fill an opening in the orchestra. Maestro Tsygankov is always very kind to his students and helps them with their future careers. He recommended me! After the audition, I started to work with the orchestra while continuing at the Gnessin academy. It was a great honor that Nikolai Nekrasov made one of his last orchestrations for me, Fantasy on Russian Themes by Rimsky-Korsakov, which was my first solo with the orchestra. Subsequently, I performed other solos, made recordings, and wrote my own arrangements. While I was finishing school in Armavir, I promised my favorite teacher of mathematics, Elena Romanenko, that I would invite her to see me perform in Moscow
. Now it can happen!
The Nekrasov Orchestra became an excellent music school for me. When I started to work there, I played proficiently but didn’t pay too much attention to the quality of the sound. I assume that I annoyed my colleagues with endless practicing, but they understood the eagerness of a young student, and they helped and supported me. Therefore, I’ve developed much greater beauty in my sound and have a deeper feeling for the music I’m performing. Many have noticed the difference. And what great soloists perform with us! You would think that I go to rehearsal for work, but in reality, I’m enjoying the highest level of music experience I’ve ever had. That’s what I love about it.
Question: For the orchestra, who is more interesting to work with: already established musicians or beginning performers?
Omelchenko: There are a great many interesting musicians, both famous and starting out. No matter how renowned, if an artist comes on stage and cannot inspire the group, the result will be disappointing. Although any concert piece can be elevated by the professionalism of an orchestra with a half-century of tradition, it’s always a pleasant surprise for us to hear a sincere, heartfelt performance by a young soloist.
Question: Is there something you criticize yourself?
Omelchenko: Oh sure! – but naturally, I prefer to talk only about my strong points. Negative criticism can be left to others while I continue working, learning, and developing.
Question: Your orchestra performs at various Moscow
venues and in other cities. Are there differences in the audiences?
Omelchenko: Different audiences have different preferences. Thus, we create specific programs depending on the public: one style – performing for children; another for open-air festivals, and a third for regular fans in the concert hall.
Question: Let’s compare the performances in Russia
and the recent tour to Poland, for example. Which audiences like the classical and folk repertoire performed by your group more?
Omelchenko: For Poland, we prepared a special repertoire intended for the local audience. Poles liked the popular movie music that we brought, but they would have liked to hear more classical compositions. They were very enthusiastic about the “Troika” from Sviridov’s Snowstorm Suite, which we played as the encore. In general, although European audiences are generally more fond of the classics, top-quality folk-music performances are also well regarded.
Question: How do you assess the level of well-known folk orchestras? What are your quality criteria? And how important is the management component in folk orchestras?
Omelchenko: In Russia, there are a lot of good folk orchestras, and not only in Moscow. The overall performance level is primarily important, especially for groups with long traditions. Beautiful timbre and clarity of sound are also significant. That is why radio orchestras – with more control of the latter – have something of an advantage. Having outstanding musicians and conductors is a major criterion, of course, but so is a supportive management structure.
Question: Do you have any idols in music?
Omelchenko: Valery Gergiev was one of them – because of his musical depth, the high performing level of his orchestra and theater, his charisma, and his ability to achieve his musical goals. There are many others that I could mention, but one of my most recent “discoveries” was an invited conductor to the Nekrasov Orchestra, Vasily Valitov. From the first minute of the rehearsal, he inspired our highly experienced orchestra team with his responsiveness, musicianship, and leadership qualities. Not only was I enthusiastic, but the whole orchestra remains impressed by his charisma, professionalism, and his devotion to the common cause of excellence in performance.
Question: The question Marcel Proust was: “Where and when were you happy?” Your reply: “I am happy at the moment when…”
Omelchenko: “… I see a sincere, approving reaction by the audience after a performance – sometimes even moving them to tears, which happens when a composition evokes old and deep memories (of youth, for example). Also, I am happy when I am playing for people from different parts of the world and thrilled when I see the pride they feel in a masterpiece from their own culture.”