Pickles and Mandolin Jamming

Peter Ostroushko Comes to Song Tree

by Maureen Foley

peterark.jpg“I just finished making pickles,” explained violinist and mandolinist Peter Ostroushko recently. The accomplished musician, who’s performed on the Prairie Home Companion radio show for 25 years, added pickling to a long list of recent accomplishments, namely the new CD Postcards on Red House Records, work on the Prairie film, and a score for the circus where his daughter performs as an aerialist. For Ostroushko, a Minnesotan with Ukrainian roots, preserving cucumbers, gardening, cooking, and making music are all in a day’s work.

On Sunday, September 10, Prairie Home Companion fans, folk enthusiasts, and anyone with an interest in great music and riveting storytelling get the chance to see Ostroushko here in town. That’s because he, along with Belarusian guitarist Arkadiy Yushin, will perform as part of the Song Tree Concert Series, a benefit for the Live Oak Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Goleta.

It will be Ostroushko’s third performance in the intimate Song Tree space. “This will be a rare opportunity to see Peter, who performs on stages around the world. There will be contact between Peter and everyone in the room,” said Tom Lee, Song Tree’s organizer. Ostroushko, whose set list is spontaneous, said that people can expect to hear more than 75 percent original material, written in many styles. “It’s ethnic-oriented traditional music,” said Ostroushko.

Although making pickles and picking a mandolin aren’t the sort of activities that go together naturally, music has always been just as ordinary as any other household task for Ostroushko. When he started playing music at age 12, he was just following the lead of the other adults around him. “Music is a natural thing,” said Ostroushko. “It was a household thing. My parents were [Ukrainian] immigrants. They treated music as a very special thing. It was an expression of who they were and what their community was. They hung on to the music they heard growing up.”

Only after meeting with a counselor during junior high did Ostroushko realize that becoming a musician might be a difficult occupation. “I told the counselor that I wanted to make a living making music and the counselor went ballistic. They said very few people could do it, it was a hard life, it was hard to leave your family, and there was no steady paycheck. Consequently, I quit school,” he explained, laughing. “In hindsight, everything he said was true.”

Some of Ostroushko’s myriad achievements during his 30-year music career include having his compositions performed by the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, the Minnesota Sinfonia, and the Chamber Orchestra Kremlin. His music can also be heard on Ken Burns’s PBS documentary, Lewis & Clark. And last spring, he won an Emmy for the score he wrote for another PBS documentary about Minnesota. Still, for such a distinguished musician, Ostroushko has the grounded humility of a Midwestern farmer. He credits “all the musicians who have ever inspired me,” extensive practice, and a heavy dose of good luck for his success.

In discussing the creative process, Ostroushko avoided the usual ego-charged assertions of the artist as genius. Instead, he said, with a hint of irony, “I’m merely a vessel.” He described how there’s a constant soundtrack playing in his head and that his inspiration comes randomly, like after driving past some beautiful scenery. “Then, when I arrive at a destination, if I remember that piece of music, I write it down and put my name on it. If I don’t remember it,” said Ostroushko, “then the guy driving behind me in his Chevy Nova, he gets to put his name on it.”

4•1•1 Peter Ostroushko and Arkadiy Yushin play two shows (3 and 6:30 p.m.) as part of the Song Tree Concert Series this Sunday, September 10, at Live Oak Unitarian Universalist Congregation, 820 North Fairview Avenue, Goleta. For tickets, stop by Folk Mote Music (962-0830) or Jensen Guitar (687-4027). To be part of Song Tree’s mailing list, email or call 403-2639.

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