Philharmonic vital in second decade

Youth, energy and vitality is what being twenty-something is all about, and that's what the Burbank Philharmonic Orchestra demonstrated Saturday night at the Hall of Liberty, Forest Lawn, Hollywood Hills in celebration of the beginning of its 20th season.

The orchestra, loaded with professional musicians who provide music to movie scores and back recording artists at local studios, played with the musical maturity they have attained, and backed two guest artists in their 20s whose talents brought youthful vigor to the concert stage. Steve Kerstein, Burbank Philharmonic's artistic director and conductor-founder, led the orchestra in a program of familiar classical music from the 19th century.

Beginning with a bright romp, Mikhail Glinka's Overture to "Russlan and Ludmilla," the orchestral portion ended on a thoroughly exciting note with Ludwig van Beethoven's Symphony No. 7. Kerstein used gentle persuasion to encourage some of the cleanest and crisp ensemble playing heard in this region for some time.

The two young guest artists, soprano Narine Ojakhyan and violinist Nigel Armstrong added sparkle to the program. In spite of their youth, both are old hands onstage, both having competed successfully in local, national and international music competitions over the past decade.

Ojakhyan is a soprano whose voice is downright thrilling. In two numbers, Ojakhyan sang the aria "Una voce poco fa" ("A little voice I heard just now") from Gioacchino Rossini's "Barber of Seville" with the brilliance of sopranos of a bygone era and vocal strength that carried to the far reaches of the Hall of Liberty auditorium.

For her second number, Ojakhyan sang an excellent rendition of Ambroise Thomas' famed aria from his opera "Mignon," "Je suis Titania" ("I am Titania"). Among her awards, she has won major vocal competitions internationally and received the coveted Grand Prize Hennings-Fischer Young Artists Competition from the Burbank Philharmonic Orchestra this year.

Armstrong, a violinist who just turned 21, is now a senior in the bachelor's program at the Colburn School of Performing Arts where he holds the seat of concertmaster of the Colburn Orchestra. Armstrong brought his pedigreed technique (he has studied with the best teachers from his earliest lessons) in his performance of Jean Sibelius' Violin Concerto in D-minor, music that is hallmarked by the composer's generally mournful-sounding works that seem to recall cold Finnish winters.

Here, Armstrong repeated his award-winning performance of the Sibelius Violin Concerto that brought him to international attention at the Menuhin Competition held this year in Oslo, Norway. Armstrong is also a 2010 Grand Prize winner of the Philharmonic's Hennings-Fischer Young Artists Competition.

The orchestra gave Armstrong vigorous support throughout the number, though at one juncture Kerstein allowed the orchestra to overwhelm the violin. At another point, Armstrong, who re-tuned between each movement, lost some control in the final movement of the three-movement Sibelius work to an edgy pitch. Both issues, though, were fleeting.

The four-movement Beethoven Symphony No. 7 in A-major gave Kerstein an opportunity to display his vision of the piece and show off the talent found within various sections of the orchestra. At the exhilarating conclusion, Kerstein recognized the horns and brass — who got a good work out the entire evening — and other section leaders. The full house exploded in congratulatory applause.

BILL PETERS has reviewed the classical music scene in Southern California since 1998.


What: Burbank Philharmonic Orchestra 20th concert season

When: Feb. 12, April 16 and July 4

Where: Hall of Liberty, Forest Lawn, Hollywood Hills, 6300 Forest Lawn Drive; July 4 concert at the Starlight Bowl, 1249 Lockheed View Drive, Burbank

Tickets: Admission and parking are free at Hall of Liberty; ticket and parking prices for the Starlight Bowl will be announced in June

Contact: (818) 771-7888

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