A virtuoso orchestrates a miracle

One of the more quixotic ventures in the current economic climate would be to start an orchestra in Southern California. It's a sure recipe for financial suicide. Yet that's just what cello soloist Ruslan Biryukov did when he founded the Glendale Philharmonic Orchestra three years ago. Is it a surprise, then, that the idea came out of a vodka party? The biggest surprise is that the GPO has thrived and begins its third season Sunday with “Holiday Gala.”

“I throw a vodka tasting party every year,” explains the 34-year-old virtuoso. “I had played a private recital for 50 or 60 friends, many of them musicians, and afterward we had this party. The purpose was to teach my friends the proper way to drink vodka. They got me drunk and I wound up agreeing to start the Glendale Philharmonic.”

[FOR THE RECORD: An earlier version this article contained some factual errors. Glendale Philharmonic Orchestra's founder, Ruslan Biryukov, is 34, not 25. Edgar Sandoval is 28, not 22, and is the orchestral director, not the artistic director. The GPO's nonprofit organization is called Positive Motions Foundation, not Forward Motions Foundation.]

Improbabilities abound in the GPO's life — what Biryukov calls “little miracles.” Sunday's “Holiday Gala” is at First Baptist Church of Glendale, the GPO's home base. When Biryukov first saw it, the once-grand structure was in disrepair and its congregation numbered around 25. “It looked like a storage building,” Biryukov recalls, “because nothing happened there. But I played there and the acoustics were extraordinary. I spoke to the pastor and he offered me carte blanche use of the church.”

One of the people who urged Biryukov to get the ball rolling was conductor Mikael Avetisyan. “He called me a few days after my hangover had cleared up,” the cellist recalls, “and said, ‘Are you coming to the meeting?' The word went out and musicians simply jumped at the chance to join this proposed orchestra.”

Under the banner of Positive Motions Foundation, the GPO incorporated into an official 501C3 nonprofit. But with no donors, sponsors and no publicity, the inaugural concert looked like a losing proposition. “We told the musicians,” Biryukov says, “not to expect to be paid. If we sold 30 tickets we'd be doing well. It was sold out! A miracle that we didn't expect.”

Edgar Sandoval, the orchestra's 28 year-old violinist and orchestral director, sees the community as being key to the GPO's success. “There's a hunger in this city for the arts,” he insists. “The city has given us funding and our audience has responded in kind. A lot of people love our choice of repertoire.” A recent grant from the Los Angeles Arts and Cultural Commission has helped as well.

The GPO often essays Armenian music in its concerts, including works by composer Aram Khachaturian. The holiday show will see soprano Marine Abrahamyan-Abdasho performing Armenian folk songs associated with the season. “That music,” Sandoval says, “has a certain bite to it, yet it makes me want to dance inside. There's also a dark edge to it; much of it's in the Phrygian Mode, with raised thirds and minor ninths — something different from Western music.”

Artistic directors are usually middle-aged figures that command respect from musicians and see to their needs. Sandoval just received his master's degree from Cal State Northridge and, according to Biryukov, has exceeded expectations in his position. “Edgar is an absolutely phenomenal individual,” he states. “He's exceedingly talented as a player and manager. When we meet with the Glendale City Council, they love this guy.”

Avetisyan conducts the holiday concert, with music by Verdi, Schubert and Strauss, the Armenian folk material, as well as a couple of Christmas pop chestnuts. Guest artists include sopranos Abrahamyan-Abdasho and Nune Genjoian, and tenor Haqumi Sharpe.

“It comes down to talent,” Sandoval declares. “We have the musicians and even though we play very challenging music, our audience comes from the area, the Inland Empire, the Westside, Santa Barbara and as far away as San Diego.”

Sounds like a miracle.

KIRK SILSBEE writes about jazz and culture for Marquee.


What: Glendale Philharmonic Orchestra

When: Sunday, December 9, 4 p.m.

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

More info: (818) 265-0506, glendalephilharmonic.com.

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