Eclectic Mix of Bon-Bons and Contemporary Music at Positive Motions Concert


Though chilly weather and a strong downpour met the audience at the First Baptist Church of Glendale on Sunday night, the music making inside was anything but cold.

Hot and intense playing were the hallmarks of the concert with cellist Ruslan Biryukov leading the way. Biryukov, executive director of the Glendale Philharmonic Orchestra (GPO), was the linchpin of the evening: lead cellist in the first half of the night with the Los Angeles Cello Quartet and cellist for the GPO String Quartet in the second half.

If there was a disunity of mood between both halves of the concert – one half musical lollipops, the other comprised of modern works that seemed to unsettle some of the bluehairs in the audience – it was at least fused together by way of the virtuoso playing of Biryukov and his crew.

Wilhelm Fitzenhagen is a name that would be totally forgotten today were it not for the fact that Tchaikovsky dedicated his Rococo Variations, his only work for cello and orchestra, to him. Revered in his day as a virtuoso of the cello, the German Fitzenhagen spent the remainder of his life in Russia where he became an influential pedagogue. His “Concert Waltz for Four Cellos,” which opened the concert, was an innocuous bit of salon music that set a buoyant start for the evening.

Following were a stream of pretty bon-bons, the most memorable of which were a cello quartet arrangement of medieval Armenian chants and excerpts from Khachaturian’s deathless “Gayaneh.”

The chants, arranged by Yasha Papian of the Komitas String Quartet, were lovely indeed. By turns serene and impassioned, the work’s five brief movements showed off the qualities of the Los Angeles Cello Quartet in a most attractive light. Especially impressive were the quartet’s judicious use of vibrato.

Aram Khachaturian’s genius for composing brilliant and unforgettable melodies assured that his music could succeed in not just its original orchestral garb, but in any number of instrumental arrangements and orchestrations. Such was the case in the arrangement for cello quartet of two of the most frenetic moments from his ballet Gayaneh: the “Lezginka” and the famous “Saber Dance.”

The muscular “Lezginka,” with its whirling rhythms, pounding drums, and braying horns isn’t a likely candidate for a successful transcription to cello quartet. But it’s a testament to Khachaturian’s lyric strength and the energy and flawless playing of the Los Angeles Cello Quartet that the transcription came brilliantly to life in their hands. No less stunning was the oft-heard “Saber Dance,” which bristled with sinewy and tensile fury.

Biryukov’s playing, wonderfully showcasing some of the best attributes of the Russian school of cello playing, was magnificent. His is a broad, sweeping musicianship of nearly unfettered strength and power. But his cohorts Garik Terzian, Natalie Virginia Helm, and Eugene Lifschitz were equally impressive, imparting a radiant sheen and immaculate precision to the ensemble’s sound.

The second half of the program took the audience back home – literally. All residents of Los Angeles, the backgrounds of these four composers were a microcosm of Los Angeles itself, of what makes it a global capital. Composers Manuel Wittman and Luis Escareño are of Hispanic descent; Kenji Oh and Dena Gorilik from Japan and the former Soviet Union respectively. All four composers are current or past students at Los Angeles City College (LACC). It was through the LACC’s Composers Club that the GPO String Quartet commissioned the works on the program.

Though Biryukov’s prefacing of the segment by referring to the pieces being played as “ultra contemporary” clearly discomforted some of the older folks in the audience, the works of the LACC alums weren’t abrasive in the least. Though sometimes chromatic, the works were ultimately all well-grounded in tonality.

Gorilik’s three movement “Waiting” was a brief, amiable work with a knotty, fugal middle movement somewhat reminiscent of Shostakovich.

The world of film music wasn’t very far away in Wittman’s “Picture of Dorian Gray,” which was inspired by the eponymous Oscar Wilde novel. Gestures that recalled Elfman, Williams, and Zimmer hurdled over one another as the work progressed.

Escareño found the inspiration for his “Reflections of a Lost Plain” in the folk music of Azerbaijian. Though never developing much beyond prolonged pedal points and Oriental folk-like recitatives and cadenzas, the work was nonetheless enjoyable enough.

But perhaps the most interesting work on the program was the final one: “Irritation” by Oh. A native of Kobe, Japan, the 30-year-old composer’s quartet was an homage and depiction of an emotion not often commemorated in music. Venting his spleen with prickly ostinatos and zesty dissonances, it was a bracing way to conclude the concert and made one curious to hear more of Oh’s work.

The playing by the GPO String Quartet, whose members comprise of Shushan Akopyan (1st violin), Edgar Sandoval (2nd violin), LaVette Allen (viola), and Biryukov also form the core of the GPO’s string section. Their playing was sensitive and alert, demonstrating a great deal of concentration and care lavished over these new works.

Their appearance was also a taster of things to come. The GPO String Quartet, along with the rest of the GPO, is returning Jan. 8 for a concert that will include Prokofieff’s Peter and the Wolf.