Happy Birthday, Glendale Philharmonic Orchestra

The Glendale Philharmonic Orchestra was just a vodka-inspired whim a little over two years ago.

Sunday, the orchestra celebrates its second birthday with a performance of Sergei Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf,” narrated by offbeat comedian Emo Philips, at the landmark First Baptist Church of Glendale. The festive program also includes Haydn’s Concerto No. 2 in D Major, the playful “Concerto for Typewriter with Orchestra” by American composer Leroy Anderson — and birthday cake for all.

That a professional classical orchestra was born at a time when other orchestras and the arts in general are struggling is noteworthy. That it has survived two years and appears to be thriving, although still on a shoestring budget, is even more so.

Not bad for an idea fueled by a vodka-tasting party hosted for a gathering of musician friends by Glendale Philharmonic founder and transplanted Russian cellist Ruslan Biryukov.

“I was slightly drunk,” the 33-year-old Biryukov said, laughing. “I just threw it out there. I said, let’s form an orchestra. I didn’t think anyone would take it seriously.”

Yet that spur-of-the-moment suggestion caught fire. A few days later, Biryukov met with Mikael Avetisyan, music director of the Los Angeles Armenian Society Choir and former music director and principal conductor of the Armenian State Philharmonic Orchestra. He would become the Glendale Philharmonic’s artistic director and principal conductor.

They contacted other professional musicians and began considering venues that might serve as the orchestra’s home base.

“We were simply a group of musicians that wanted to play together,” Biryukov said, “and we were like children: ‘Oh, good, we are going to have an orchestra.’ Then within a few months it happened. And we were scratching our heads thinking, what should we do next?”

In fact, Biryukov appears to have known what to do. The youthful master cellist, who in 2010 was granted permanent residency status in the U.S. as an “Extraordinary Ability Artist,” and who has performed worldwide with major classical artists and orchestras, dug into his own pockets.

The fledgling group incorporated and began fundraising. The stated mission of its umbrella organization, the nonprofit Positive Motions Foundation, is “to perform positive change in the society through support of professional art forms.”

“We want people in this world to dream positively,” Biryukov said. “If every child in the world could be given a cello, a violin, a piano, a paintbrush, if they were exposed to creativity at an early age, we would have a much more beautiful, peaceful world to live in.”

“We now have a functioning board, bylaws, the full package,” he said. “We are submitting requests for grants and we have formed an artistic committee and a youth artistic committee.” The organization also began a performance relationship with the respected Glendale Youth Orchestra.

The core permanent group of 20 professional musicians that formed the Glendale Philharmonic in 2010 has grown to 35. They come from “all over Los Angeles, Orange County and Santa Barbara,” said Biryukov, who expects that number will increase.

The First Baptist Church of Glendale has provided a home for the orchestra, which has no religious affiliation. Founded in 1904 and renovated in 2008, the church includes a main sanctuary with seating for nearly 1,000 people, designed in 1924 by Charles Cressey, “and it is an architectural jewel,” Biryukov said. “It has fantastic acoustics. We are truly fortunate to be welcomed there.”

The orchestra presents a regular “Positive Motions Concert Series” at the church, in addition to performances at the Alex Theatre and other venues. Programs are selected by conductor, board and artistic committee. Among the eclectic mix so far have been works by Bach, Handel, Rossini, Khachaturian, Andrey Rubtsov, Karl Jenkins, Arno Babajanian — and student composers from Los Angeles City College.

Prokofiev’s family-friendly “Peter and the Wolf” was a popular choice for the orchestra’s birthday bash, Biryukov said, particularly when a serendipitous opportunity arose to feature comedian Emo Philips as narrator of the piece. “I have all his recordings. His quality of humor is so wonderful.”

For his part, Biryukov will perform Haydn’s demanding Cello Concerto in D Major. “I will dare to play it. It is considered one of the most difficult pieces ever composed for cello and is rarely performed, but it is an absolutely beautiful piece of music.”

The Glendale Philharmonic is determined to forge a close relationship with its audience. Program inserts invite concertgoers to “grade each piece from 1 to 10, and there is a space for comments, questions, complaints. I already have volumes of these responses. We do this at every single concert.” Complaints so far have been few, he noted.

“I have the leadership position, but it is very much an effort by the community that is making this happen,” Biryukov said. “I’ve found that when you send an impulse into the world, it’s like a boomerang. It comes back. That’s why there is always this kind of uplifting mood and celebratory attitude in the hall. I’m really proud that I can call this my community.”

LYNNE HEFFLEY is a writer and critic on the arts and a frequent contributor to Marquee.


What: “Peter and the Wolf,” performed by the Glendale Philharmonic Orchestra.

Where: First Baptist Church, 209 N. Louise St., Glendale.

When and tickets: 4 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 8. 5 to $50 (VIP); Conductor’s Circle, $100.

Contact: (323) 663-3601, (818) 265-0506 (Armenian/Russian), (818) 243-2539, and glendalephil.com.

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