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Glendale Phil tunes up for its fifth season

It's the little orchestra that could: Founded on a shoestring by noted Russian cellist Ruslan Biryukov in 2010, the professional Glendale Philharmonic Orchestra kicks off its fifth anniversary season on Saturday with a celebratory concert at the First Baptist Church of Glendale.

Presented by the Glendale Philharmonic Assn. and its nonprofit umbrella Positive Motions Foundation, the eclectic concert will include the Mozart Symphony No. 1 in E-flat Major, Aaron Copland's "Appalachian Spring," Arthur Honegger's "Pastorale d'été," the Scott Joplin classic, "The Entertainer"; and Haydn's Concerto for Cello & Orchestra No. 1 in C, featuring Biryukov as soloist.

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The concert will be led by Frank Fetta, the orchestra's new conductor and music director; KUSC 91.5 FM classical music announcer Rich Chapparela will serve as master of ceremonies. (And, as has become the orchestra's custom, concertgoers will be provided with free cake at intermission by nearby Billy's Deli.)

"There will be no sad or tragic pieces in this concert," Biryukov said. "It's all happy and uplifting. Nobody expected us to get this far," he observed with both pride and bemusement, "including ourselves."

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For Azerbaijan-born Biryukov, 36, who was granted permanent residency status in the U.S. as an "Extraordinary Ability Artist," watching his "baby" grow "has been a life-changing experience."

"I feel like a father with a child," he said. "The first year there were sleepless nights. The second year, the child all of a sudden started talking a little bit — the [executive] board appeared — and the child learned how to walk on its own feet very slowly. The third year, the child was attempting to run."

Now, as executive director, artistic director and producer of the Positive Motions Concert Series, Biryukov presents the organization's orchestra and chamber concerts with a core group of professional, Southern California-based musicians that has expanded from an initial 20 to 75, and "we pretty much are ready to put out any type of piece we can perform," he said.

"Programming is a symbiosis of multiple factors," he noted, beginning with the budget. (The Positive Motions Foundation received a small grant in 2014 from the Los Angeles Arts Commission, but box office proceeds remain the orchestra's primary funding source, Biryukov said.)

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What the orchestra will offer audiences takes into account the opinions of the board, artistic director, artistic committee, the musicians and the organization's conductors (Fetta and Mikael Avetisyan, founding artistic director and principal conductor), as well as "our sense of what the audience would enjoy hearing or be interested in hearing," Biryukov explained.

At every concert, the audience is provided with program inserts asking for suggestions, comments and criticism, and while "we might not necessarily follow their lead, we certainly listen." A concert is also likely to feature "something that they might not have experienced before, something that will broaden their horizons," Biryukov said.

Maestro Fetta, who leads the Culver City and Torrance Symphonies, and the venerable Redlands Bowl Summer Music Festival, among others, said that he tries to bring audiences "a new perspective, and chart out some new paths without totally obliterating the old paths."

Positive Motions Foundation now encompasses two other entities: the Los Angeles Cello Quartet (Biryukov, Michael Kaufman, Hans Kristian Goldstein and Hope Easton) and most recently, a "Music for Children Fighting Cancer" program.

"We are going to hospitals and playing for kids who have chemotherapy, and for their parents," said Biryukov. "We did the first performance last December in Cedars Sinai Hospital." He has a personal stake in the program, he said.

"My sister died of cancer when she was 9 years of age. Special programs need to be designed for these kids," he added, "[and] we do need help with this particular project, so if anyone wants to participate, they are more than welcome."

Other upcoming fifth anniversary events include a chamber music concert on March 28 at the First Baptist Church of Glendale. The main sanctuary of this historic church, which has become a home venue for the orchestra, has seating for close to 1,000, and is noted for its exceptional acoustics. The March program will feature Los Angeles Opera Concertmaster Roberto Cani, pianist Armen Guzelimian, and Biryukov on cello. (Partial proceeds will benefit the Armenian General Benevolent Union and Western Diocese of the Armenian Church.)

A performance by the Los Angeles Cello Quartet and other professional Los Angeles-based cellists will be held on May 10 (details to be announced), and in addition, a "Vodka-Tasting Party" will take place in February at the Barbarella Bar & Kitchen in Los Angeles as a fundraiser for the orchestra. It will feature a performance by the Los Angeles Cello Quartet, and "we will introduce different vodkas and teach people how to correctly drink vodka, supplemented with Russian food," Biryukov said. "It will be very interesting and a lot of fun."

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Indeed, this fundraiser will be something of a nod to where it all began five years ago, when the idea for an orchestra was sparked by a tipsy suggestion that Biryukov made during a vodka-tasting party that he was hosting for his musician friends.

"Yes, I'm ashamed to admit it, but that is true," Biryukov said. "Well, I am Russian," he added, laughing, "what do you expect?"

January is shaping up to be a busy month for Biryukov. He will appear as soloist with the Cal State Los Angeles Symphony Orchestra and Olympia Youth Orchestra on Sunday, Jan. 11, at the San Gabriel Mission Playhouse to introduce composer Masatoshi Mitsumoto's 2nd Cello Concerto. He and Fetta have in the works, too, a twice-a-month live podcast on latalklive.com. Subjects for discussion, Fetta said, will include "music, musical theater, pop dance, ballet, modern dance, the crossover world, how politics and political people influence the arts. It'll be a broad discussion."

Biryukov, an internationally recognized master cellist and teacher, who holds a master's degree from Russia's Tchaikovsky Moscow Conservatory and studied at the USC Thornton School of Music, will also be taking to the skies for his unexpected side gig: fulfilling a childhood dream, he works part-time as a licensed commercial pilot and certified flight instructor.

"It's an incredible thing to give someone wings," Biryukov said.

What: Fifth Anniversary Concert, Glendale Philharmonic Orchestra.

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

When: 7 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 10. $15 to $50

Admission: Conductor’s Circle, $100 ($170 with invitation to “Vodka Tasting Party” fundraiser).

More info: For more information, call (323) 663-3601 or visit wwww.glendalephilharmonic.com; www.celloart.com; www.glendalearts.org; www.ticketmicket.com, www.panoramaticket.com, (818) 265-0526 (Armenian), (323) 463-7224 (Russian).

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LYNNE HEFFLEY writes about theater and culture for Marquee.

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