Peter Ostroushko: Mandolin Virtuoso
Interview filed by David Edin for A Prairie Home Companion.
Mandolinist/composer Peter Ostroushko grew up listening to tunes played at family get-togethers in the Ukrainian community of northeast Minneapolis. It's the music that provides the basis for many of his compositions. His first recording session was an uncredited mandolin set on Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks. Since then, his works have been performed by the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra and the Kremlin Chamber Orchestra, among others, and his music has been featured on public television specials such as Ken Burns's film The National Parks. This interview from 2010 promoted the release of the album When the Last Morning Glory Blooms by Red House Records.
When the Last Morning Glory Blooms is the title of your new CD. It is a perfect title for the spring/summer season. What can you tell us about the new CD?
It’s a collection of nine waltzes and one ballad. Many of them were written for friends and/or for performances on “A Prairie Home Companion." Many of the pieces I never expected to play again once I composed them but I got so many comments from the listening public that I decided they were to good not to be available for every ones listening pleasure.
Do you have any favorite tracks on the album? What makes them stand out for you?
They are all my children. How do I pick one over the other? If I listened to it every day I would probably have different selections jump out at me depending on my mood or what I had for breakfast, but just from a stand point of artistry from composition to performances I would pick “Maycomb Alabama 1936”, “The B & B Waltz”, and “Marjorie’s Waltz #4” as my all in all favorites.
On A Prairie Home Companion, you performed the song "Down Where the River Bends" during your last appearance. Could you tell us a bit about the song?
I wrote that piece originally for an exhibit that lives in the Minnesota History Museum. The National parks offices are in the Museum and they were doing an exhibit on the new Mississippi River National Park. The original piece was shorter and not as arranged as the recorded version
What is your process for putting together a CD? How long have you been working on When the Last Morning Glory Blooms?
Well, first there is the music. It always starts with the music. I usually conceive the whole project from the get-go. I know what the music will be, what it will sound like and what the cover of the package will look like. I asked my daughter Anna to take pictures of the Morning Glories growing in my yard last September because I knew that was going to be the cover of the CD. I had already picked the title of the CD as When the Last Morning Glory Blooms. Richie Dworsky brought that particular song to my attention at a rehearsal for the Prairie Home Companion show for the State Fair. I had forgotten about the piece. I had written and played the tune once, years ago on a broadcast and never played it again. Richie still had the original sheet music I had given him and he played it for me. It was so beautiful and it became the catalyst for the whole project. After that I found that I had a lot of material that I wrote for friends wedding’s or for other projects that would never see the light of day again. Almost all of them were waltzes and that is how this project was started. Once the music was decided the rest of the project came together quickly. The music was recorded and mixed in about 5 sessions at Wild Sound Recording Studio by Matt Zimmerman. The master recording was given to Red House Records. They hired Dan Corrigan to take photo’s of myself for the packaging and hired an artist to lay it all out and the next thing you know, you have a beautiful packaged CD to send to the relatives for Christmas. So, from the original idea to do this project until it was physically in my hands took about 7 months.
WATCH & LISTEN TO "HEART OF THE HEARTLAND" FROM A PRAIRIE HOME COMPANION
Aside from being the musical director of A Prairie Home Companion, you have made several guest appearances on the show including a stint where you wrote a new song for the show each week while out on tour. What do you remember about those shows or songs, which became the basis for the CD Postcards?
I like to challenge myself whenever I’m called upon to do a PHC. I try and write one or two new pieces for each broadcast. They don’t always get on the show but it’s a good discipline for me. If on tour shows, I try and compose something that the local residents would relate to. If at home it could be something about the weather or something that I read in the tribune, or a local place that I visited.
Watch 'Coming Down to Red Lodge' from A Prairie Home Companion film
Tell us about your experience on the A Prairie Home Companion movie? How was it to work with Robert Altman and the rest of the amazing cast assembled?
I loved Robert Altman. He was sharp as a tack for his age. He took lots of little power naps but when awake he ruled. I also appreciated that he was one of those people who had the gift of remembering everybody’s name. From the script boy to the caterer he recognized everyone. He always called me by name. I appreciated that. Of course all the actors were amazing. It was a once in a lifetime experience to watch these people create their characters on the set. My favorite part was jamming with John C. Reilly and Woody Harrelson in between takes on the set. I was very impressed with their knowledge of music and they were very gracious with their time.
How did you get your start in music?
I grew up in a community of Ukrainian immigrants where live music was always around me. My father played stringed instruments and there was always jam sessions at our house. The people keeping their culture alive through songs and music. A lot of folks played the mandolin as did my father. That was the first instrument I tried to express myself on. Later on I added other stringed instruments, but to this day the mandolin is my favorite. Growing up in a atmosphere of watching the elders in my life having fun with music is what got me started. It seemed like a perfectly natural thing to want to do.
Who were your earliest influences, and where do your influences come from today?
First were my father and his friends. After that it was a cornucopia of mayhem. The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys, Neil Sedeka, Mozart, Eric Clapton, Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention, Roscoe Holcomb, J.S. Bach, Django Reinhardt, Lawrence Welk, Hank Williams, the list can go on and on. All these people and thousands more still inspire me. As a composer, (which I am doing much more of in recent years) I get inspiration from other things other then music, like landscapes and people. I like to think of it as aural photography.
What is the best advice you could give to a young musician?
I always tell young musicians this great piece of wisdom. Dig up the yard and plant a garden. Vegetables, flowers, whatever gets your socks off. Getting your hands in the dirt will teach you all you need to know about being a musician. From the back breaking work of tilling the soil, until the fruit’s of your labor show them selves at the end of the growing season. The planting of the seed till the plant produces its bounty is watching God at his creative best. What inspiration! Plus, if you can’t get any gigs you won’t starve. You’ll have plenty to eat from your garden.
Listen to St. Anne's Reel from the 40th Anniversary Celebration
Featured Recordings from A Prairie Home Companion feat Peter Ostroushko:
Old Sweet Songs - a collection of archival music from the first 3 seasons of A Prairie Home Companion features Peter Ostroushko on several tracks.
Another interview of Peter Ostroushko, from 2002, can be found here.
Peter Ostroushko performed on A Prairie Home Companion's earliest episodes and served as our musical director. He continued to appear on the show, on summer tours, in the Robert Altman-directed film, and in the 40th Anniversary Celebration. In short, his contributions to A Prairie Home Companion's 40-year-plus history are immeasurable. Peter recently suffered a heart attack followed by a stroke and we send our thoughts and prayers for a speedy recovery.
Friends of his have put together a Go Fund Me page to help with the costs associated with the long recovery and the needed reforms to the home so he can return there. You can find out more information here >>>