The Road Less Traveled: Classical Music Strummed on the Domra and Mandolin

Ekaterina Skliar

Domra & Mandolin Artist/ Classical Musician

(Philadelphia, PA)

I heard Ekaterina Skliar play both domra and mandolin for the first time at a Groupmuse event in September. As expected, I was in for a real treat. She played both instruments with such passion and sensitivity that my heart and soul quivered along with her strings. I had chills going down my spine. Perhaps, the best part of the concert was witnessing the incredible synergy she had with her perfect music partner/equally accomplished domrist/husband Alexey playing along side her. During the intermission, I saw her calloused and deeply indented fingertips of her left hand. They represent one of the most precious things in the whole world: Dedication. The sight of her hand was both heartbreaking and beautiful at the same time.

Hazel:  Ekaterina, I really liked attending your intimate concert last week!  I loved how eclectic the repertoire was.  It was a good representation of who Alexey and you are as musicians.  You two play the same instruments but are exploring different genres and styles. 

Ekaterina: Thank you, Hazel. It was great to see you in the audience, and I am happy that you enjoyed the concert!

Hazel: I know you haven’t been in the U.S. for too long.  How long ago did you and Alexey come over?

Ekaterina: Alexey and I came to the States 3 years ago when I was 23. 

Hazel: How has been the transition?

Ekaterina: It has not been easy in many ways. First of all, the language was somewhat of a barrier. Even basic things such as doing grocery shopping were confusing. In Russia, we use the metric system, so here I had to learn how to convert from metric to the imperial system. I remember this one time I miscalculated how much a fruit would cost based on its weight but realizing too late (at the cashier’s stand) that I calculated in kilograms and not pounds.   

Hazel:  Oh, I can relate!  I had the same struggle immigrating from Korea.  But I was a teenager when I came so it might have been easier.  Now, it’s hard for me to think in metric.  But I digress… Tell me more about your transition. 

Ekaterina: The transition has been also tough professionally. I needed to learn quickly how to write formal emails and make business calls.  Also, due to the fact that I play uncommon instruments, performing opportunities have been more limited than for other musicians.

You usually make professional connections while studying at a conservatory or university.  Such connections would have certainly helped making a transition to a professional music world in a new country easier.  Unfortunately, I didn’t have this option.  Domra is not an instrument you can study in the U.S. on a professional level. Mandolin is not commonly taught either. 

Hazel:  But you are a classical musician.

Ekaterina:  Exactly.  I had to figure out how to create opportunities for myself.  But luckily, I’ve met many individuals interested in finding out about domra and mandolin and willing to help me establish myself as a concert artist here. Mark Linkins, Musical Director of Munier Mandolin & Guitar Orchestra (Philadelphia), August Watters, composer and mandolinist (Boston), are among those people who supported both me and my husband Alexey in our professional development here.

Ekaterina and I had a nice chat over English tea.

Hazel:  That’s good to hear that there were those who were able to help you even if a little.

Ekaterina:  Yes, we were lucky to have met them!  But these instruments are not part of a typical symphonic orchestra.  In America, domra is almost never on stage.  Mandolin has a bigger footprint but associated mostly with American roots music.  Many are not aware that Vivaldi, Scarlatti, Beethoven, and Paganini have written compositions for the mandolin.  My goal as a performer is to help mandolin and domra receive more spotlight in the classical music scene.

As violin and other classical musical instruments became more prominent during the classical and romantic periods, mandolin gradually lost its position as a concert instrument, even though it was still very popular among amateur musicians. Domra also had some dramatic moments in its history, and it joined the world of classical music not that long ago, only in the 20th century.

Luckily, nowadays we are witnessing the rise in interest for domra and mandolin among modern composers and the musical community at large.  It is an exciting time!  Solo works, chamber music, symphonic and folk orchestra compositions featuring the domra or mandolin are being written every year. 

Ekaterina with her domra
Ekaterina with her mandolin

Hazel: What brought this change?

Ekaterina: The second half of the 20th century has brought us some outstanding concert artists playing the mandolin and domra. That was how the instruments started getting more spotlight.  Eventually, it becomes an inspiration for a composer who then might decide to write something for the instrument.  It is a feedback mechanism that keeps bringing more exciting opportunities.

Hazel:  How much practice do you do a day?

Ekaterina: I am trying to dedicate from 3 to 5 hours a day to practicing. Of course, it is not always possible due to various reasons. Luckily, mandolin and domra are similar to one another, so practicing one instrument helps with the other.  I have to adjust certain aspects of my technique while going from domra to mandolin, but playing both these instruments has definitely had a positive impact on me as a performer.

Hazel:  What has been the biggest accomplishment in your career?

Ekaterina:   I’ve just become the first Astral artist who is a domra/mandolin musician.

Hazel:  Wow.  Congrats!  How do you become an Astral Artist?

Ekaterina:  Thank you. Astral is a nonprofit organization that specializes in developing the careers of prominent classical musicians. They hold annual auditions in five categories: Piano, Strings, Woodwinds & Brass, Voice, and Chamber Ensembles. I applied under the string category in Spring 2019.  The audition process had three rounds. The first round was via audio submission.  Then, a live performance was requested for the second round.  The third and final round was an interview.  I met with the Board and was asked about what my contribution would be in the music world and my professional goals and vision.

This year only six musicians were chosen as winners, and I was one of them. I just had my first Astral concert!

Hazel:  That is quite an accomplishment!  What a process!  How was the first concert?

Ekaterina:  Really great. I performed with a classical guitarist Jordan Dodson from NYC who was also an Astral Laureate.  I love the fact that I will get to collaborate with more amazing fellow Astral Artists going forward. 

Hazel:  That’s so awesome!  Any final thoughts?

Ekaterina:  The music industry is very competitive but everyone has to help each other to get on stage and be heard.  I believe that when you spread the love of music, the market and demand for music increase which eventually benefits all musicians.  We need to help each other in bringing classical music to people. 

I really liked what Ekaterina had to say about how musicians have to help each other and, as a community, they can succeed together.  I think perhaps, on top of her immense talent, her growth mentality has made Ekaterina a stand out at the Astral National Auditions. I will keep cheering for you, Ekaterina! See you at various concerts!!

Find out more about Ekaterina by visiting her website at:  www.skliar.org

These two videos are great representations of her performance style:

This post is very timely as the six winners of this year’s Astral National Auditions are performing on October 16, 2019 from 7 to 9 p.m. at Stotesbury Mansion in Philadelphia.  I plan to attend and will report back how it went.  Please join me if you can and meet Ekaterina and other accomplished winners in person!

More information on the event is at: https://www.facebook.com/events/372835273653436/

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