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It's Not Your Russian Grandmother's Guitar... Oh Wait, Yeah It Is

Chuck Bontrager, Steve Roberts, and Don Stiernberg

While it might not be a surprise that an opera such as Bel Canto uses unfamiliar folk instruments, this fall/winter we are lucky enough to also have exotics in the pit for The Merry Widow. Meet our very first tamburitza section!

The tamburitza is a stringed instrument native to central Europe and associated with Croatia in particular. Chuck Bontrager says “Our section uses three of these instruments. Don is playing a prim (soprano), Steve is using a brac (alto, similar I suppose to the German word Bratsche, denoting a viola) and I'm on the 'cello/bass version.”

Mandolin player Don Stiernberg says “It seems many cultures have some sort of plucked string, double coursed, fretted (mostly) instrument, used primarily for melody playing, often for ethnic celebration/dance music: bandurria, bouzouki, balalaika, for instance. The mandolin and tamburitza families may be the most similar of these.”

Although fairly well known in folk music circles, this instrument is not so well known to most everyone else. Says Chuck, “Chicago is something of a hotbed. A visit to the conveniently-timed Tamburitza Association of America Annual Extravaganza at the O'Hare Westin in October was extremely helpful in helping us find and acquire our instruments! Tamburitzas are typically tuned and played similarly to guitars and mandolins, which made the transition to the instruments and parts fairly smooth.” Chuck is primarily a violinist/violist who also has much experience with mandolin, tenor viola, and the seven-string electric violin, on which he performed Nico Muhly's Seeing Is Believing with Chicago's New Millennium Orchestra last spring, and teaches using it at an annual summer international Rock Orchestra camp. This is his first time in our pit, and he describes it as “transformative.” He adds, “I expect I'll look back on Widow as one of my all-time favorite gigs, and I'm profoundly grateful for the opportunity.”

Steve Roberts is no stranger to us: recent performances with The Lyric Opera have included Showboat (tenor banjo), The Passenger (arch top guitar); and acoustic guitar in the banda for Wozzeck. In addition, he has played mandolin for the Chicago Symphony and performances with The Grant Park Symphony, Fulcrum Point New Music Ensemble, Rembrandt Chamber Players and the Chicago Chamber Musicians on guitars, mandolin and banjo. Says Steve, “One of the numerous bands I've played in over the years happened to be The Balkan Rhythm Band , which played a jazzy version of Bulgarian folk music. Much of that music is quite similar to the Croatian tamburitza music which is in The Merry Widow.”

Don has played in our pit before, for a production of Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet, which calls for six mandolins. “The conductor was, shall we say, not pleased with our section--lots of scowls, throwing music, and so on. So naturally I was very happy to find that Sir Andrew sets a positive, cheerful tone for these shows. Smiling, nodding after one of the players executes a key passage counts for a lot. Thank you! He also encouraged the tamburitza section to make ourselves heard in the hall. This may be unusual… when we researched recordings of The Merry Widow, it was difficult to find versions where the tamburitzas are audible. Thank you again!”

All three players had very nice things to say about their Lyric Opera experience, describing the orchestra as “welcoming.” It’s no wonder - we love having these guys joining us in the pit!

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