A road trip to the Inland Empire with Rimsky-Korsakoff, Liszt, Sibelius, and Prokofiev


The afternoon of last Sunday, June 6, I took my musical journeying out quite a ways beyond Glendale and the Crescenta Valley area. Ruslan Biryukov, the founder and music director of the Glendale Philharmonic, was one of the featured soloists in the West Covina Symphony Orchestra’s season finale at the Haugh Performing Arts Center on the Citrus College campus. Last Sunday’s program was conducted by Dr. Sylvia Lee Mann. Ruslan Biryukov shared the solo spotlight with violinist Eleen Yeh and pianist Audrey Yim, both recent winners of the WCSO’s Young Artist Competition.
Rimsky-Korsakoff’s brilliant ‘Capriccio Espagnol’ led the program. A festive riot of color, this work alone could serve as a master class on how to write for the orchestra. No coincidence then that Rimsky-Korsakoff himself cited numerous passages from this work in his own ‘Treatise on Orchestration.’ Unfortunately, the work’s many spotlit solos cruelly exposed the WCSO’s lapses in intonation and general ensemble. At times this listener felt that certain passages were played slower not so much because the conductor felt that particular tempo to be right, but to avoid having the orchestra fall apart.
Following this work was the finale from Jean Sibelius’ ‘Violin Concerto’ and the entire ‘First Piano Concerto’ by Franz Liszt played by Yeh and Yim respectively. What a shame that the orchestra repeatedly drowned them out in tuttis. The brass especially needed a tighter grip from the podium, often blaring out and drowning out both the soloist and the rest of the orchestra. It didn’t help that Yim was made to play on a rather clattery sounding piano. Through no fault of her own, the jangly sound of her piano conjured up a vivid image of Franz Liszt in cowboy hat and boots, chugging on a bottle of sarsaparilla at a honky-tonk saloon. To make matters worse, the WCSO suffered from several gaffes, most damagingly in a crucial brass entrance in the finale. But make no mistake – both Ms. Yeh and Ms. Yim played with admirable control and brilliance and should be names to watch out for in the coming years.
After intermission came the weightiest work on this program: the ‘Symphony-Concerto for Cello and Orchestra’ by Sergei Prokofiev. His final major work, premiered the year before his death in 1952, is a far cry from his days as an “enfant terrible.” Part of a late flowering torrent of inspiration, this work was part of the many that scores of composers would dedicate to the most influential cellist of the second half of the 20th century: Mstislav Rostropovich. It may be difficult to believe while listening to this gently humorous and intensely nostalgic music, but much of Prokofiev’s music was banned in his native USSR during the time he was composing the concerto. Furious over, among other things, the composer’s brooding ‘Symphony No.6,’ the Communist Party passed a resolution in 1948 decrying the “formalism” and “western decadence” exhibited in his music – as well as those of the USSR’s finest composers – and effectively banned his music, though allowing for performances of his new music with the proviso that it should be “healthy” and follow the precepts of “socialist realism.”
They certainly saved the best for last when cellist Ruslan Biryukov stepped onto the stage to play the Prokofiev concerto. Biryukov played with a musicality and technique that immediately commanded the attention of the listener, playing with great nervous intensity one moment and melting lyricism the next. There was no challenge too great for Biryukov. His interpretation of the Prokofiev was nothing
short of stunning and revealed a deep knowledge and love for the work. The WCSO was also in better form here, though the disparity in quality of musicianship between the WCSO and Biryukov was glaring. Still the closing measures of the finale proved to be thrilling just the same with Biryukov spinning away in the dizzying heights of the cello’s soprano register.
I am loath to write poison pen letters, truly. I mean the WCSO and its music director Dr. Sylvia Lee Mann no disrespect in my various criticisms of her orchestra. The WCSO has only just finished its second season and, with some hard work, these various flaws can be remedied in time. They have in their ranks a few very fine individual musicians whose musicianship stood out despite the pallor of the orchestral body. Especially high marks go to concertmaster Alan Busteed, principal cellist Michael Masters, principal oboist Joseph Stone, and the lovely, winsome playing of principal flautist Lisa Cheoros-Yamamoto. With these musicians as a foundation,
I’m sure the WCSO can build to a great success in time. I look forward to a future date with the WCSO where their playing will bring me unalloyed delight.

  • I’m IN the WCSO

    I’m a member of the WCSO, and I am saddened by the pure meanness of Michelle’s comments. I am *not* a community player. I donate my services as a professional musician. I sit in the orchestra with community players and professionals, and I can assure you that *everyone* in the WCSO is playing to the best of their ability. Every single musician has “passion for it all,” despite Michelle’s opinion to the contrary.

    The key word that rings through this entire string, which Michelle and Ted Ayala seem to avoid, is that the WCSO is a COMMUNITY orchestra. That means there are players of all levels in the ensemble. Just because some musicians have greater technique than others in no way diminishes the tremendous effort — AND THE PASSION — with which each musician in this orchestra plays. I know. I see it at every concert.

    Of course, Ruslan’s talent would inspire anyone to reach his level. However, given that Ruslan’s level is superbly above that of even many capable PROFESSIONAL players, I do not see the logic in Michelle’s implication that if a COMMUNITY player cannot reach Ruslan’s level, that the COMMUNITY player does not deserve to play in public. If the world were to go by Michelle’s standards, the world would be far poorer in music-making, as there are thousands of COMMUNITY players all over the world who peform for the love of it and to share their musical joy, regardless of their playing level.

    Michelle, you state “As always, RB was a bright spot in an otherwise dismal concert.” You seem to know Ruslan well. Your support of him is commendable. Your disrespect of the orchestra’s efforts is unforgivable and cruel. Would you be this harsh to a child learning to play his instrument? The WCSO is comprised of musicians just learning to play and musicians with decades of experience. The new players learn from the experienced musicians. That is what makes this orchestra wonderful — the transfer of knowledge from one player to another, without petty jealousies or whining about who is sitting where in the section. The members of the WCSO — community and professional alike — spend many hours practicing, rehearsing and ultimately performing a concert because they do it out of love. And, once again, with the great PASSION that you claim the orchestra does not possess.

    “Those who can, do. Those who can’t, criticize.” I studied with a Pulitzer Prize-winning music critic whom, I believe, would decry your lack of understanding of — and lack of compassion for — the efforts of a fine COMMUNITY orchestra such as the WCSO. In fact, I may call him up as ask his opinion regarding the flame war that has errupted subsequent to Ted’s review. Knowing his high critical standards, I am sure my former writing teacher would be appalled at the vitriol with which you attack the WCSO. As he taught our class, there is a way to critique — and, yes, be honest about a performance — without having to tear apart a person’s soul. It is just, to use a term, “ungentlemanly.” There are many ways to critique without ripping people apart. Yours, Michelle, is not one of those ways.

    Michelle, your attack on the WCSO’s efforts are unwarranted. Since you seem to know Ruslan’s playing well, perhaps you are familiar with his performance — WITH THE WCSO — of the Dvorak Cello Concerto in June 2009. It was a fine performance on all points – orchestra and soloist alike. Take a look for yourself: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F0_q9OGIfg4&feature=player_embedded Perhaps you may see me in the video, or perhaps the camera is not looking my way. But rest assured, when I play with the WCSO, it is a gratifying and fulfilling experience.

    I volunteer my time in the WCSO, and I am proud to be a member of its musical community. As all professional musicians know, are plenty of PROFESSIONAL orchestras full of apathetic players who perform with no heart. I wonder if Michelle would prefer a technically perfect, boring, soulless concert to one that is filled with less accompolished players, but who play with everything they can muster. It is actually a false comparison of apples and oranges, however: Pros vs. Community Players. To judge everyone on an absolute scale, as Michelle does, would be to destroy the very essence of what makes music accessible to EVERYONE in the community.

  • Virginia

    I must agree with the first comment from WCSO listener. The orchestra was nowhere near dismal. I found the concert very enjoyable and exciting. I do not speak as an unsophisticated listener. I am a professional musician, and work now in several very high quality totally professional ensembles throughout the Southern California. I am also on frequent call to the studios, and have been so for the past 25 years.

    There is a great difference between constructive criticism and simple harassment. My Ayala’s review and the comment from Michelle are more of the latter. In fact it seems as if both are simply looking to tear apart a group that is just getting started and struggling to survive. Positive comments can help a musician, and even criticism can be presented in a positive way.

    This orchestra, to be sure, is a Community orchestra. They do not claim to be a professional ensemble. And yet there were some very fine moments of music making on that Sunday. I have followed this group since their first concert in December of 2008, and must commend them on their dedication and growth.

    Most of the musicians are volunteers, returning to instruments after careers, just beginning a career, or still learning.

    True – the “Gaffes” in the Liszt were there – but were handled by the conductor in short order – it was specifically one moment, where it was obvious to this listener that a few players simply failed to recognize the meter change from cut time to 4/4 and played twice too fast. (I have performed this piece on many ocassions, and know that spot is an all too common mistake – even after weeks of rehearsal! They recovered within one bar. A sad moment, but I noticed that the soloist and conductor handled it easily without getting flustered or upset. They went on and made the best of the remainder of the work, doing an admirable job.

    The Sibelius was very fine – and very well balanced from where I was sitting. I was able to hear the solo violin at all times with no problem – perhaps there are some problems with certain areas in the hall – which I am sure the WCSO will work to overcome, as they gain more experience in the facility.

    Overall the Rimsky Korsakoff was exuberant and exciting – well done, with perhaps an exception where the solo violin was quite obviously rushing ahead of the orchestra…as for any “slower tempos” – I’ve played and heard this at all sorts of different tempos – these seemed very “on the mark” to me. Playing something incredibly fast does not necessarily make it good.

    I congratulate the West Covina Symphony on a concert well-done, and for continuing to work for the arts in their community.

    Of course Mr Biryukov was superb, but one wonders why he would select such a demanding piece to perform with a community orchestra. WCSO did an admirable job a staying with Ruslan – even with his frequent tempo changes and uneven transitions. I have noticed that he is performing the work frequently this season – and that may be the reason. In any event – it was impressive to be sure.

    I heard many positive comments as I was exiting the auditorium, so I know that I am not at all alone in my appreciation of this terrific concert.

  • Michelle

    I have to disagree. Bad is bad and it should be noted, especially in music.

    Truth be told, Mr. Ayala was FAR too generous with his review. I attended the same concert and (aside from a few treasures) I was far from pleased. It literally pained me to hear musicians play so badly. I was so embarrassed for the orchestra.

    Positive comments alone will not make a musician stronger. Long hours of practice, taking constructive criticism into great consideration, and the willingness to realize when one is not ready to perform yet; those are more admirable traits than the ability to take in compliments where compliments are not due.

    If “a few unforgiving words…” can so easily wipe out a musician’s desire to perform, it’s safe to assume that they didn’t have the passion for it after all.

    With a higher standard of performing, the WCSO CAN “build to a great success in time.”

    As always, Ruslan Biryukov was a bright spot in an otherwise dismal concert. I can not stress enough the talent this man has. I would hope that he inspires others to reach his quality level of play.

    I always enjoy Mr. Ayala’s articles, but I wish the reviews had more “teeth” in his critique. Polar opposite of your sentiment, in which you feel he was too harsh.

    Perhaps this style of writing is a middle ground for readers like us. An unintentional compromise of sorts.

  • WCSO Listener

    Mr. Ayala,

    I’m sure that your readership understands that is if, of course, important to write objectively. Your review is candid and honest, filled with both praise and critique – and hope for the future of the orchestra.

    However, perhaps some compassion might be in order regarding the WCSO’s shortfalls. The orchestra is, after all, comprised of players of all levels, not just those who have studied at conservatories.

    While judging the performances on an absolute scale might be journalistically proper, such harsh criticism can discourage performers who are literally playing for the love of music. Players who receive nothing for their efforts except the satisfaction that they gave as much as they could. People who give 200%, regardless of skill level.

    A simple acknowledgement of that effort could go a long way towards ameliorating possible discouragment – a few unforgiving words can wipe out the pride in oneself gained from hours of practice and effort.

    While I am definitely NOT advocating that any opinions be whitewashed, I simply wish that the orchestra’s CURRENT efforts could also be acknowledged, and hope, along with you, that the WCSO CAN “build to a great success in time.”