GPO dazzles with its season premiere


While other cities around the country have been losing artistic and musical institutions in this difficult economy, Glendale has been an exception. Despite the sour economy, the city continues to enjoy the services of quite a few excellent musical ensembles – among the finest would be the Glendale Philharmonic Orchestra (GPO). Beginning its second season, the GPO has already made a tremendous impression on audiences in Glendale and beyond with its superb musicianship, adventurous programming and aggressive community outreach.

Last Sunday, Nov. 7 inaugurated the GPO’s second season with a mixed program that spanned the classical and modern eras, and even included some enchanting folk music from Armenia. Glendale’s First Baptist Church was packed that night. Quite a few luminaries could be seen at the concert including Glendale City Councilwoman Laura Friedman, General Consul of Armenia Grigor Hovhanissian, Glendale Symphony music director Loris Tjeknavorian and Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra cellist and general local music icon Armen Ksajikian.

First on the program was a cello concerto attributed to Johann Christian Bach, but actually a 20th century pastiche by Henri Casadesus. Whoever wrote it, the piece is a lovely gem, rich with supple melodies. Ruslan Biryukov, the GPO’s founder and cello soloist last Sunday evening, outdid himself as per usual. No anemic period performance interpretation here – this was luscious, warm, open hearted playing as only Biryukov could ever deliver. Especially delightful was the molten beauty of the concerto’s second movement. Biryukov’s rapt pianissimi coupled with the intimate and conversational quality he and the orchestra produced were unforgettable. Biryukov again shone in the moto perpetuo-like last movement where his fearsomely accurate articulation left the audience spellbound.

Following the J.C. Bach/H. Casadesus piece was the String Sonata No.2 by Gioacchino Rossini. Written by the barely pubescent composer while in the employ of an Italian aristocrat, this sparkling chip from the bench of the composer who would later be famous for his operas The Barber of Seville and William Tell came alive with dapper wit under the baton of principal conductor Mikael Avetisyan. The skittering scalar runs in the piece’s first movement had the perfect fizzing quality. The GPO beautifully molded the singing line of the second movement’s recitative and aria, and finished the third movement with a perky rondo that was played with bubbly charm.

After the Rossini piece, the Glendale Youth Symphony Orchestra (GYSO) under the baton of music director Brad Keimach took the stage. While some may think that a youth orchestra would leave something to be desired after hearing a professional ensemble of adults playing, the GYSO more than held its own. Indeed, the unity of its ensemble, attention to intonation, and general energy puts to shame a few adult ensembles I’ve had to suffer in my day. Keimach drew a vigorous and muscular power from the GYSO in the first movement of Mozart’s Symphony No.31 (often known as the “Paris” symphony). Again, here was classical era music played with fire and sinew. What a shame the GYSO didn’t play the entire symphony.

The GSO now directed the audience from Vienna to Yerevan by way of composer Ruben Altunian’s arrangement of three Armenian folk melodies for duduk (an Armenian folk instrument) and orchestra. It is difficult to describe the timbre of the duduk accurately. The instrument possesses a warm and plaintive sound; it is unforgettable. This modal and gently dance-like work wove an enchanting spell over the audience. Ruben Harutyunyan was the duduk soloist and he held the audience, Pied Piper-like, in his thrall.

Finally the evening closed with a knockout rendition of Rodion Shchedrin’s late 20th century reimagining of Georges Bizet’s Carmen. Written for his wife Maya Plisetskaya, prima ballerina of the Bolshoi Theatre, the work strips down Bizet’s original down to only strings and a veritable army of percussion instruments – a battery totaling nearly 50 instruments. From the ethereal opening, with its haunting foreshadowing of the famous Habanera played on tubular bells, Avetisyan and the GPO mesmerized the audience in this tricky work. It was a testament to the GPO’s excellence that they made short work of the manifold difficulties composer Shchedrin made for his ensemble. Playing with lush lyricism and fiery strength (the Bolero and Toreador’s Song nearly blew the roof off), Avetisyan and the GPO were simply stunning. After the work’s morendo coda, the audience leapt to its feet in wild and much deserved applause.

Two encores closed out the evening: the first movement of Karl Jenkins’s Palladio and a sly wink courtesy of Leroy Anderson’s Plink, Plank, Plunk! If this concert is any indication, this promises to be another great season by the GPO. Great music making continues to be alive and well in Glendale.