Ruslan Biryukov and Emo Phillips help Glendale Phil mark its second year with ‘Peter and the Wolf’
By Carl Kozlowski 01/05/2012
People, after they’ve had too much to drink, sometimes hatch grand schemes that never go anywhere. But the truth be told, that’s pretty much how the Glendale Philharmonic Orchestra got its start — at a vodka-tasting soiree, where musicians talked about other ways to showcase their talents.
The party was a huge success, with everyone coming away sufficiently tipsy, but more importantly, with a whole new musical group, which on Sunday will celebrate its second anniversary with a spectacular event at Glendale Baptist Church.
In a special show geared toward family audiences, Maestro Mikael Avetisyan will lead the GPO through the music written by Sergei Prokofiev for his famous children’s story “Peter and the Wolf,” narrated by comedian Emo Phillips.
GPO founder Ruslan Biryukov will round out the program by performing Haydn’s classical cello Concerto no. 2 in D Major as well as the Concerto for Typewriter with Orchestra by Leroy Anderson.
And since the event marks the start of the GPO’s third season, there will also be a party, one complete with birthday cake prepared by Billy’s Deli and served to all in attendance. Not a bad result for an artistic venture born from of a bottle of vodka.
“We did not expect anything, and I guess when you have no expectations you have no disappointments,” says the 43-year-old Biryukov, a native of Azerbaijan. “Usually, there would be a group of people that form a board, which starts meeting about plans. In our case, first there was a group of musicians that wanted to play together and then there was a vodka-tasting party, and at that there was the topic of why don’t we get an orchestra? I was drunk enough to say, ‘Let’s do it.’”
Since then, the orchestra has followed the traditional steps to success by establishing a board and a private foundation to go with its nonprofit status. It has also developed a good relationship with the Glendale Youth Orchestra.
But the GPO has continued to stand out from the crowd of Los Angeles-area symphonies with its rather unique choice of a home: Glendale Baptist Church.
Built in 1924, the church is renowned for its outstanding acoustics, which, combined with its classic architecture and seating for 900 people, makes it a memorable concert hall. Yet, until Biryukov came along, the building was on its last legs.
“The sanctuary had a collapsing ceiling and a congregation of 30 people with 36 grand pianos in the church — more grands than people,” says Biryukov. “The church was put up for renovation right away, and I was brought in to evaluate the acoustics, and it was astonishing. Now, with 1,000 seats and a huge balcony, whoever steps in has a surprised face always, and it has such a phenomenal impact on people.”
One person who has had a great impact on Biryukov was Phillips, a veteran comedian (think of a combination of Andy Kaufman and Pee-Wee Herman). The master cellist recently met Phillips, who was recommended to him as the perfect narrator for “Peter and the Wolf.” Filling the narrator role with an unusual persona like Phillips was an easy choice, as the Prokofiev symphony has a quirky tradition in which various instruments represent different types of animals.
“I have all of Emo’s recordings. The guy is a classic American standup comedian,” says Biryukov. “You open any book on comedy and he’s in there with a very individual approach and a very unique stage persona.”
Another musician said he knew Phillips, and within a week Biryukov got a phone call from the comedian.
“I thought it was some kind of a joke... so he said, ‘Here’s my phone number,’ and said to call him at 1 a.m. or as late as I’d like, since he’s in show business,” Biryukov continues. “For joke’s sake, I called him that late, we talked a long time and he said he’d do it. From my point of view, his persona, he created this childish adult persona that would fit perfectly into Peter.”
Ultimately, gearing a show like Sunday’s performance toward families fits in with Biryukov’s guiding philosophy that music is intended to produce goodness and joy in the world.
“This world would be a much better place if Osama [bin Laden] or Saddam [Hussein] were allowed to play Brahms or Schubert at 10 years old, because we’d know a very different person,” says Biryukov. “Their creative energies, instead of being channeled into destruction, could have benefitted society. We welcome all who want to share their creative energies with the world in a positive way.”
The Glendale Philharmonic Orchestra will perform its second anniversary concert at 4 p.m. Sunday at the Glendale Baptist Church, 209 N. Louise St., Glendale. Tickets are $15 for general admission, $50 for VIP seats and $100 for Conductor’s Circle seating. Call (323) 663-3601, (818) 243-ALEX/2539 or (818) 265-0506 (for Armenian/Russian operators), or visit GlendalePHIL.com.