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Glendale Philharmonic Orchestra: an unlikely launch

In a shrinking arts world, the 20-member group decides to buck the trend and start something new.

January 08, 2010|By Yvonne Villarreal
  • Cellist Ruslan Biryukov, middle, got the ball rolling on forming the Glendale Philharmonic Orchestra. The 20-member group will make its debut Saturday under the direction of Mikael Avetisyan, right.
Cellist Ruslan Biryukov, middle, got the ball rolling on forming the Glendale… (Anne Cusack / Los Angeles…)

In an age of shrinking and closing in the arts world, Glendale has news of a different sort: a new orchestra.

The Glendale Philharmonic Orchestra will make its debut Saturday -- a group of 20 under the baton of artistic director and principal conductor Mikael Avetisyan -- at First Baptist Church of Glendale.

And it's all thanks to a few drinks.

Cellist Ruslan Biryukov has performed across the globe alongside world-renowned artists. But it was while performing a chamber music recital at the First Baptist Church of Glendale that the seed was planted for starting the orchestra. Inspired by the concert hall feel and "perfect acoustics" of the 104-year-old church, Biryukov got to talking with the pastor about putting on a concert series. And at a party in September, he mused over the idea of starting an orchestra with Avetisyan.

"Frankly, we were a little bit drunk," Biryukov said. "We started talking about putting together an orchestra to perform the concert series. I mean, it's such a great venue. And we still thought it was a great idea when we were sober."

At a time when the arts scene is losing funding, many questioned whether the idea was so great after all.

"In these kinds of circumstances, nobody would even think to put together an orchestra," Biryukov said. "I was no different from them. If someone told me three months ago I would be giving an interview about starting an orchestra, I would have laughed. It's ridiculous, right? It was a spontaneous thing."

For years, the Glendale Symphony Orchestra was long the source for that. Over its decades-long existence that orchestra has struggled with finances, even coming close to bankruptcy; at one point, it was unable to put on a concert that subscribers had already paid for, prompting it to stop selling subscription tickets. By 2002, the community fixture focused on presenting education programs.

"They were performing a lot," Avetisyan said. "But without finances . . . it gets pretty hard."

Biryukov and Avetisyan are hoping history doesn't repeat itself. The orchestra is a nonprofit organization; it has received a few small donations but is mostly relying on box office sales. And its musicians are "practically donating their time."

"There might be a chance that on Jan. 11 -- my birthday -- I might have to announce our bankruptcy," Biryukov said. "But that's OK. I'm a musician -- it's a rare moment when you get to do something like this. To present the community with something great."

Saturday's concert will include works by Bach, Karl Jenkins, Russian composer Andrey Rubstov and Armenian composers Arno Babajanian and Edward Mirzoyan. If things are successful, the group hopes to add works by Latin American composers, Chinese composers -- "anything the people might enjoy," Avetisyan said. Even pop music.

As it stands now, the orchestra is small, with 20 musicians, mostly from the Los Angeles area. The plan is to expand as the orchestra attracts followers and secures more funds.

Concerts in March and May are scheduled.

"If it goes well, maybe we'll do another in July," Biryukov said. "And hopefully we'll start next season with an established orchestra. Well, actually, hopefully we're still here."

yvonne.villarreal@latimes.com

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