July 31, 2015

By Don Heckman

Singer/songwriter and pianist Ella Leya makes her New York debut at Joe’s Pub on Sunday night.  It’s a rare performance by a gifted artist who should not be missed.

“It’s the voice of Ella Leya that first grabs you,” wrote the Los Angeles Times in reviewing her first album releases. “Simmering with a dark timbre, its velvet surface is occasionally tinged with flashes of sunlight.”

Add to that gently floating rhythms, and the story telling phrases which bring every song she sings vividly to iife.

Ella Leya

Ella Leya

Ella, who was born in Baku, Azerbaijan and emigrated to the U.S. in 1990, eventually reaching the current identity she describes humorously as a “Russian/Californian living in London.”

All of which is true, as well as a creative history which reaches from a career as a well-known Russian jazz singer to more jazz singing in the U.S., followed by a sequence of albums that includes such well reviewed titles as Queen of Night, Secret Lives of Women and Russian Romance., film and television music for Ocean’s Twelve, Dirty, Sexy Money and more.

Her recent album, Russian Romance showcases one of the most irresistibly passionate Russian art song forms, often described as “Russian blues.” The album features combinations of  the lyrical music she has composed to the passionate, often erotic, poetry of some of her favorite Russian poets, including Alexander Pushkin, Anna Akhmatova and others.

As if all that wasn’t enough, Ella’s first novel, The Orphan Sky — which takes place in Communist Baku of the ’70s and ’80s — was described by the New York Journal of Books as “visceral and exotic as any spy novel and as authentically convincing as The Kite Runner.”

Ella Leya’s performance at Joe’s Pub will touch upon the full range of her creative life, including her captivating vocals, songs and piano stylings as well as a brief reading or two from The Orphan Sky.

Her set will also include a special guest artist: Janina Gavankar, star of True Blood and the Mysteries of Laura.

* * * * * * * *

Ella Leya sings her song “I Wish I Could” (from The Secret Lives of Women) in a video featuring Janina Gavankar.

Here, There & Everywhere: The Glendale Philharmonic, Ruslan Biryukov and Mikael Avetisyan

January 6, 2012

By Don Heckman

Los Angeles, spread across several counties, embracing towns and cities with identities in their own right, has always been both a challenging and a rewarding place to hear music of every conceivable identity.

The driving, of course, is another issue.  An appealing program in, say, Pasadena or Irvine can be a long haul for music fans in the West Valley or Santa Monica.

But the upside is that more and more communities all across the balkanized map of L.A. are beginning to take charge of their own creative environment via support for performing arts programs and – in the best instances – with the establishment of resident musical organizations.

The Glendale Philharmonic

The Glendale Philharmonic Orchestra is a fine example.  On Sunday afternoon, in the First Baptist Church of Glendale, the 35-member ensemble celebrates its second anniversary with a program of Prokofiev, Haydn and Leroy Anderson.

If that sounds like an intriguing mix, the actual compositions, as well as the soloists, make it an even more potentially delightful event.  The Prokofiev piece is Peter and the Wolf, with the narrative read by stand-up comedian Emo Philips, whose child-like voice and manner should provide the right touch of seasoning for the perennial favorite .

Anderson’s Concerto for Typewriter has been entertaining pops audiences for years, with its positioning of a manual typewriter – with the Philharmonic’s secretary in the solo chair, punching out one fast paced rhythmic sequence after another — amid a whirling array of orchestral sounds.

The centerpiece of the concert is Haydn’s challenging Cello Concerto in D, featuring the highly praised Russian cellist Ruslan Biryukov, the starring figure in the still early history of the Glendale Philharmonic.

Ruslan Biryukov

Born in Baku, Azerbaijan, Biryukov is a product of the Baku Music Academy, the Tchaikovsky Moscow Conservatory and the USC Thornton School of Music.  At thirty one, he is well established as a charismatic performer.  “He has everything,” says Peter Mark, Artistic Director of the Virginia Opera, ”technique, virtuosity, personality, communication, an attractive and articulate presence.”

More than that, Biryukov is also the founder of the Glendale Philharmonic and the Artistic Director of Positive Motions, the company that produces its concerts.

Mikael Avetisyan

Toward that end, he works closely with the Philharmonic’s Music Director and Principal Conductor, Mikael Avetisyan, a former conductor of the Yerevan State Conservatory and the St. Petersburg State Conservatory.

To top off both the holiday and the birthday celebration, the Philharmonic will also perform holiday songs and arias.  And there will reportedly be enough birthday cake from Billy’s Deli for everyone in the audience to share a piece.

In other words, expect a richly entertaining and celebratory evening of music from the Glendale Philharmonic, Biryukov, Philips and Avetisyan.  At its best, the performance symbolizes the pleasures that are being provided – in more and more areas — by the growing local support for local music around Los Angeles.

Maybe it’s time for those of us in other parts of the L.A. counties to look around – as Biryukov did – at our own communities, to see if we can follow the path, raise the money and make use of the template that the Glendale Philharmonic has created in just two brief years.

As Biryukov explained it, in an interview with the Los Angeles Times, “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?”

Apparently not.  And give Birykov and Avetsiyan credit for making it all real.   


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