By Ted AYALA
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.