Thursday, December 08, 2016

Violinist Iskandar Widjaja's passionate display in Philippine debut

While the protest rallies were happening in various parts of the country, I took solace to music as a way to distract my weary self from all the political drama by catching Passion Flight that featured violinist Iskandar Widjaja and pianist Itamar Golan who were both making their Philippine debuts.

Thoughts of the tense political climate took a back seat right away once the opening act, a dozen Suzuki kids, took to the stage for their rendition of Twinkle, Twinkle Variations. And while the intonation was a bit all over the place, there was still cuteness overload with the kids beaming on stage as if they were the main act.

The main acts, Berlin based Iskandar, sporting a recent tan and dressed more like movie star rather than a classical musician and Itamar, looking dapper in a sleek suit quickly eased the audience with an appetizer of a piece, Fritz Kreisler’s Tempo di Minuetto in the style of Pugnani. Then following right after was Cesar Franck’s Sonata in A Major, a large scale work that showed the breadth and depth of Iskandar’s capabilities. Instinctively, I got drawn to the pianist Itamar, who exuded confidence giving me the feeling that he and Iskandar were communicating telepathically and that they will be in sync all throughout the concert.

I finally got to focus on Iskandar as the spotlight was solely on him when he tackled Johann Sebastian Bach’s Chaconne from Violin Partita No. 2 in D minor, BWV 1004. Very commendable was his clarity and consistency making each line and layer sing distinctly and smoothly. In less capable violinists, the result is usually a muddled jumble of notes without any direction. My only gripe with Iskandar’s take was that it had too much attack and it sounded too aggressive.

Refreshed after the interval, the duo gave a more relaxed George Frideric Handel’s Violin Sonata in D Major HWV 371, brilliantly fleshing out the melodies with a bit more restraint compared to that of the pieces of the first half. My most eagerly anticipated moment in this concert was hearing Arvo Pärt’s Spiegel im Spiegel live for the first time. With lights dimmed for a bit of theatrics during this portion, it was hypnotic and haunting to hear such music, sparse on paper and yet so difficult to play effectively. I initially wondered how the audience would react to music that is devoid of any fireworks but the applause that followed soon after just allayed my fears.

And because of this, I admit that I wasn’t able to focus much on the piece that followed, the Fantasie for Violin and Piano in C Major, Op. 131 by Robert Schumann. And through most of this time, my mind was already preparing to hear the final piece that featured the music from George Gershwin’s opera Porgy and Bess.

I was really expecting Jascha Heifetz’ transcription of Porgy and Bess to be performed but hearing the short piano introduction told me that this was not the case. Instead, what I heard was a single movement fantasy work that showcased loads of virtuosic moments from Iskandar that was accompanied by Itamar playing jazzy chords that sounded so deliciously rich. It was only later on that I learned from Iskandar that this piece, the Concert Fantasy on Themes from Porgy and Bess, Op. 19, was actually by Igor Alexandrovich Frolov. I also learned that one violinist who was among the audience was planning to give the Philippine premiere of this piece sometime next year. Too bad for him that Iskandar and Itamar already beat him to it. But I would definitely want to hear this Frolov piece again.

For encores, Iskandar and Itamar performed William Kroll’s Banjo and Fiddle, a highly entertaining piece that had Iskandar plucking the violin as if it was a banjo. This was followed by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovksy’s Valse Sentimentale, Op. 51 No. 6 which was a sweet, relaxing way to cap the concert. The concert made me more energized to face the world outside where one cannot escape the tense political climate.

Overall, the first half felt to me that Iskandar pushed too much, too overt, and almost going over the top in both the Franck sonata and the Chaconne. This made the restraint he exhibited at the second half a much welcome change of pace. Ultimately, this effectively built the momentum towards a dazzling finale.

Passion Flight featuring violinist Iskandar Widjaja and pianist Itamar Golan was presented by the Philippine Suzuki Association in cooperation with St. Paul University, Manila.

Monday, November 28, 2016

A grand ball of a choreographic debut for Lisa Macuja-Elizalde in Ballet Manila’s Cinderella

A visually stunning feast and spectacle characterized Ballet Manila’s Cinderella, the major full length choreographic debut of the company’s CEO and co-artistic director Lisa Macuja-Elizalde.

More reminiscent of the Disney animated feature, this new ballet boasted of sets and props by Mio Infante that elicited oohs, aahs and generous applause once they were unveiled. A blink and you miss it quick costume change got me and fellow members of the audience buzzing about it during intermission. And never had I seen a production where a rat on stage was a welcome sight.

But this is still ballet and the dancers are always the stars. Long limbed Abigail Oliveiro exuded softness, innocence, refinement, and a brilliant sense of wonder as Cinderella. Her Prince Charming, Mark Sumaylo, cut a dashing presence on stage with his portrayal of his character’s growth from a carefree lad to a maturing man once love took over. Abigail whipping some fouettes and Mark hitting triple pirouettes reminded me that Ballet Manila’s season wasn’t dubbed as Revenge of the Classics for nothing. Cinderella might be a fairy tale but the dancers still need to display Ballet Manila’s Vaganova method training. While the two’s respective solos were solid and secure, their partner work wasn’t as fluid showing signs that theirs is still a new partnership on stage. But the two’s undeniable chemistry on stage would make the audience suspect that they are indeed a couple off stage (which they are indeed).

Providing comic relief in the ballet are the Step Sisters danced by Tiffany Chiang and Violet Hong. Both ladies are technically strong and it was a breath of fresh air to see them looking and dancing so unrefined befitting their characters. One just had to see Jonathan Janolo as the Step Mother since no word can describe his scene stealing portrayal.

The company’s danseurs had their time in the spotlight as the mischievous animal friends of Cinderella who got transformed into her enchanted escorts to the ball. I wondered how rehearsals went for these danseur with animal their masks on especially during the part where they had to throw and catch a pumpkin prop among themselves. I wouldn’t be surprised if they kept on dropping the pumpkin during their first attempts on catching it.

Probably more challenging than the masks was the towering wig/head dress worn by Lisa Macuja-Elizalde as the Fairy Godmother. She told me after the show that it was more difficult to spot while wearing the wig. Dancing on pointe while carrying an additional weight on her head probably was one of the things that Lisa never imagined doing post retirement.

Prior to seeing the ballet, I was very intrigued as to which music this production would use. Sergei Prokofiev’s score is typically the default music for most Cinderella ballets out there. But for this one by Ballet Manila, the score was a combination of music from various Cinderella productions: the ballet by Sergei Prokofiev, the Disney animated feature with score/songs by Oliver Wallace, Paul J. Smith, Mack David, Jerry Livingston, and Al Hoffman, and the musical by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein. All this, plus some original compositions, was made into a cohesive whole by music arranger Roy del Valle.

For almost two hours, Ballet Manila’s Cinderella transported the audience to a magical place making the kids anticipate the upcoming holiday season a lot more. In my case, it was a wonderful way of escaping the current tense political climate that I wish that I could’ve stayed at the ball even after the clock struck midnight. 

Monday, September 26, 2016

Classical throwback with Alexander Vikulov and the Manila Symphony Orchestra

Russian conductor Alexander Vikulov continued the Manila Symphony Orchestra’s run of performing the final three symphonies of Ludwig van Beethoven by tackling the 8th symphony on a night that took the audience on a classical music throwback of sorts.

The concert also saw the aforementioned Beethoven’s symphony paired with music from the ballet Pulcinella by Igor Stravinsky.

I have to admit that I was thrown off a bit when I realized that the Pulcinella to be performed was not the suite, but the entire ballet complete with the vocal parts. The singers who lent their voices were baritone Noel Azcona, tenor Mark Bautista and soprano Camille Lopez-Molina. I do have to confess that I’ve never given Pulcinella that much attention compared to other Stravinsky ballets like Petrushka, Firebird, and the Rite of Spring. In fact, the concert was the first time I’ve ever heard of the music in its entirety as I’ve only acquainted myself with the suite. On the surface, the music sounded like that of the classical era, but the harmonies bordered on being neoclassical. It’s because the ballet actually featured Stravinsky’s arrangement of 18th century music composed by/attributed to Giovanni Pergolesi and a handful of others.

And it was a moment of discovery for me hearing this piece in an intimate venue such as the Power Mac Center Spotlight. The unique configuration of the orchestra featuring a concertino of strings played by the principals as well as the trio of singers made for a challenging listening experience. I wish that I had chosen a seat farther from the orchestra. A bit of distance could’ve resulted in hearing the sound as a whole rather than feeling as if I were smack in the middle of it. And similar to my experience with other Stravinsky’s ballets, I would’ve been able grasp the music on its own had I’ve seen the ballet either with the original choreography or even if it was just an adaptation.

Before getting into the Beethoven symphony, Vikulov led the MSO with the Overture to Démophon by Luigi Cherubini, a Philippine premiere performance if I’m not mistaken. Again, I have no idea about Cherubini and what his opera is all about but this short piece actually set the tone to the Beethoven symphony that followed it.  It must be a time for confessions but I do have to say that I’ve a tendency to overlook Beethoven’s Symphony No. 8 in F major, Op. 93 with it being sandwiched by the seventh which is my favorite and the ninth which is monumental in scope. I’ve always thought that Beethoven went some steps back for the eighth and purposely made it light and short, harkening back the symphonies of Haydn, as if he already knew how colossal his ninth would be.

With the symphony not possessing any tinge of heaviness, I didn’t mind at all being very close to the orchestra feeling every sudden change of dynamics. And with this piece not really having a slow movement, it drew me more to the orchestra.

Linking the music thematically as the composers’ throwbacks to music from another era was an effective way for me to get into the groove into this concert that featured pieces that I’ve generally overlooked in the past.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Violinist Ryu Goto, conductor Yoshikazu Fukumura fire up Philippine Philharmonic Orchestra’s 34th season opener

A season opening concert heralding the start of Yoshikazu Fukumura’s stint as the Philippine Philharmonic Orchestra’s music director and principal conductor would’ve been enough of an audience draw. Yet the inclusion of violinist Ryu Goto as the evening’s guest soloist not only heightened the excitement, it also ensured that this concert would be a lock among the best in year ending lists.

Having watched Fukumura’s four previous guest conducting stints with the PPO, I am already familiar not only with his animated and entertaining conducting style but also by how he is able to bring out a unified and balanced sound from the orchestra. And at the opening night, the orchestra’s sound was raised a notch further with the addition of the new wooden floor panels that covered the drab, black weathered main theater floor. As the orchestra performed the opening piece, Hector Berlioz’ Roman Carnival Overture, Op. 9, the lower strings was heard more distinctly, the changes in tempo came off as more precise, and the texture and colors, more vivid. I’ve had my regular seat for the past four seasons and the marked improvement with how the sound was projected from the stage to my seat made by these wooden floor panels was very discernible.

These panels also made for striking visuals. The fully lit stage looked brighter and the warm colored wood contrasted nicely with the black garments of the orchestra members. With this, I think that the next concerts could do away with the flowers lining up the front the stage.

On to Ryu Goto and his highly anticipated performance of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s immensely popular Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 35. During the first two movements, Ryu stood out as the orchestra played in a noticeably scaled down manner as if it was just a chamber orchestra. These movements also went on a tad slower pace than what I am usually accustomed to. Apart from some momentary distractions when I expected the orchestra to be less subdued and a bit faster, I was completely mesmerized by Ryu and his superb articulation which never wavered even up until the end of the brisk third movement. The enthusiastic audience response prompted two encores from him. First was a free flowing, unaccompanied Meditation from Thaïs by Jules Massenet which was followed by an excerpt of the first movement Obsession from Eugene Ysaÿe’s Violin Sonata No. 2 in A minor, Op. 27 "Jacques Thibaud".

The real test of the evening for me on how Fukumura would lead the orchestra was the performance of Johannes Brahms' Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Op. 68. Right off the bat, my attention was caught by how crisp the lower pitched instruments sounded particularly the contrabassoon. Never in my concert viewing experience have I heard this instrument sounding more pronounced hearing each note played clearly and it is very likely due to the new wooden floors. But these floors have possibly made the spotty moments of the horns more obvious. While the Tchaikovsky’s earlier movements went a tad too slow for me, the last movement of the Brahms went too fast. The excitement of the choral theme of the fourth movement probably got Fukumura all excited as he sped throughout the remainder of the piece. I was unable to savor fully the texture of the fugue during the second pass of the choral theme. The clarity of the strings especially the cellos and basses that was brought about by the wooden floors could’ve made for such a divine moment but it all went by like a blur. This fiery pace carried on and there was almost no time to breathe once the final brass choral theme blared triumphantly. Despite the sped up tempo, the excitement was palpable and the audience started to applaud even before the last note ended. There was more Brahms as the audience was treated to the crowd pleasing Hungarian Dance No. 5 for the orchestra’s encore.

Overall, the PPO's 2016-2017 season opening night concert was an exhilarating affair with Ryu Goto’s Tchaikovsky bringing in the crowds and Yoshikazu Fukumura making sure that they stayed until the very end of the Brahms.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Ken and Kazu, a dose of humanity in the underworld of drugs

Director Hiroshi Shoji and Line Producer Yumi Honda

It’s not every day that a Japanese director is in town with his film about small time drug dealers while the Philippine government, led by President Rodrigo Duterte, wages an all-out war against drugs. But that’s exactly the scenario that director Hiroshi Shoji, along with line producer Yumi Honda, found themselves in as they flew to Manila to screen the film Ken and Kazu in this year’s Cinemalaya Philippine Independent Film Festival.

Prior to the showing of the film, Shoji and Honda sat down with a few members of the press and talked the film, the Japanese film industry in general, and a variety of other subjects.

When the relevance of his film in relation to the Philippines’ current anti-drug campaign was pointed out earlier on, Shoji stressed that he didn’t really intend Ken and Kazu to be a social commentary tackling the drug problem. He instead wanted to depict human nature, the struggles and a more universal theme and message that anyone can relate to.

And Japanese audiences have responded positively to his film citing the authenticity of the feelings that touched them and also the commending the film’s technical aspects like the camera work and also the original screenplay. Aside from directing the film, Shoji also wrote the screenplay and did the editing.

Honda added that in Japan, an overwhelming majority of the films produced locally are adapted from novels, television series and/or manga. But what surprised me was knowing that these locally produced films dominate cinema screens than those that were made abroad like Hollywood flicks.

We learned that Ken and Kazu is Shoji's first feature length film. It was originally a short feature made back in 2011 and he decided later on to expand it to a full length film. Principal photography for the feature length took two months (of mostly guerilla shoots) while post-production went for around three years. Prior to the Philippines, the film has already been screened at festivals in China, Scotland, and Korea.

Cinemalaya’s opening film 1-2-3 served as both Shoji and Honda’s first experience with Philippine cinema and I was curious to learn their impressions about the film and the local audience in general. Both had praises for the film but Shoji particularly noted that Filipinos were more demonstrative with their reaction, laughing and cheering loudly inside the cinema unlike the Japanese who are typically more reserved.

Shoji and RAd

Ken and Kazu/ケン カズ

Titular characters Ken (Shinsuke Kato) and Kazu (Katsuya Maiguma) are small time drug dealers with each at the crossroads. Ken wants to leave drugs behind and start anew as he prepares for fatherhood. Kazu, in his desire to give his mentally ill yet physically abusive mother the proper care, wants to increase his earnings even if this meant dealing behind the boss’ back. Now, if only achieving what they want while mired in the underworld of drugs and the Yakuza is that easy.

What struck me most about the film was the absolute absence of any police or law enforcement figure in it. (I asked Honda afterwards about my observation and she responded that this was in keeping with Shoji’s intent in focusing more on the inner struggles rather than making a social commentary.)

With the proverbial good guys out of the picture (and the external threat given to rival drug dealers and pissed off bosses), the film was able to explore the gray areas within Ken and Kazu’s unpredictable relationship a lot more. At the start, it was difficult for me to care about them since the two, who are so unlike each other, acted as if the other didn’t matter at all. But as the film ended with both Ken and Kazu’s personalities and motivations fleshed out, I was rooting for both of them hoping that whatever little good that was left in them would be enough for any sort of redemption.

Ultimately, it’s the human story in Ken and Kazu that will make me stop and pause whenever I read a new wave of killings in regards to the war against drugs. The headlines may feature increasing numbers of those killed, but for each one that is killed, there is a story behind that life.

Here is the short film version of the film released in 2011.

The screening of Ken and Kazu opened the Visions of Asia section of the Cinemalaya Philippine Independent Film Festival 2016 held at the Cultural Center of the Philippines from August 5-14, 2016. This year, the Cinemalaya has formed an alliance with Eiga Sai: Japanese Film Festival organized by the Japan Foundation, Manila.

Wednesday, June 01, 2016

Philippine Philharmonic Orchestra to make US debut at Carnegie Hall

June 18, 2016, 8:00 PM
Stern Auditorium/Perelman Stage
Carnegie Hall
57th Street and Seventh Avenue, New York, NY

Cecile Licad, piano
Diomedes Saraza Jr., violin
Philippine Philharmonic Orchestra
Olivier Ochanine, conductor

Dmitri Shostakovich
     Festive Overture in A major, Op. 96
Jean Sibelius     
     Violin Concerto in D minor, Op. 47
Sergei Rachmaninoff     
     Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor, Op. 18
Redentor Romero
     Philippine Portraits

In the 33 years that the Philippine Philharmonic Orchestra has been in existence, it is quite remarkable to find out that the country’s leading orchestra has never performed in US soil. But come June 18, 2016, all that will change as the PPO makes its US debut at the Carnegie Hall nonetheless. Leading the orchestra in this historic concert is Olivier Ochanine, the PPO’s former music director/principal conductor, who has worked for more than three years to make this project come to fruition.

The evening boasts a formidable program including two major concertos that will feature pianist Cecile Licad and violinist Diomedes Saraza Jr., two of the Philippines’ top caliber artists. Licad will perform Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor, Op. 18 while Saraza will tackle Jean Sibelius’ Violin Concerto in D minor, Op. 47. Other pieces to be performed are Dmitri Shostakovich’s Festive Overture in A major, Op. 96 and Redentor Romero’s Philippine Portraits.

Licad has performed the Rach 2 with the PPO and Ochanine earlier this year at the Cultural Center of the Philippines Main Theater that also saw her perform Tchaik 1 at the same concert. Saraza, on the other hand, had his solo violin concert with pianist Greg Zuniega at the CCP Little Theater just a few weeks prior to that of Licad’s concert.

The PPO’s Carnegie Hall concert/US debut is made possible with the support of Philippine Airlines (the official carrier of the Philippine Philharmonic Orchestra), Smart Infinity, Rustan’s Commercial Corporation, One Meralco Foundation, with the support of PLDT Smart Foundation, Federal Land, Inc., and Metrobank Card Corporation.

Proceeds from the concert will go to a housing project of the Philippine Disaster Relief Corporation, Inc. in Tacloban for typhoon Yolanda (international name: Haiyan) victims.

Ticket prices:

For inquiries:
CarnegieCharge 212-247-7800

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Russian romantic music opens MSO 2016-2017 Concert Season

June 4, 2016, 8:00 PM
Power Mac Center Spotlight
Circuit Makati

Brian Howrey, saxophone
Manila Symphony Orchestra
Arturo Molina, conductor

Modest Mussorgsky
     Dance of the Persian Slaves from Khovanshchina
Alexander Glazunov
    Concerto for Alto Saxophone and String Orchestra in E flat major, Op. 109
Aram Khachaturian
     Spartacus Ballet Suite No. 2
Alexander Borodin
     In the Steppes of Central Asia
     Polovetsian Dances from Prince Igor

A slew of Russian music and the latter third of Beethoven’s immortal symphonies highlight the Manila Symphony Orchestra’s 2016-2017 Concert Season. The new season, billed as 90 in celebration of the orchestra being 90 Years Young, starts with the inaugural concert, entitled Russian Romanticism, happening on June 4, 2016, 8:00 PM at the MSO’s new gala concert venue: the Power Mac Center Spotlight in Circuit Makati.

Led by the MSO’s principal conductor and music director Arturo Molina, the concert will feature music by Russian composers namely Modest Mussorgsky, Alexander Glazunov, Aram Khachaturian, and Alexander Borodin.

American saxophonist Brian Howrey joins the MSO this evening in a rare performance of Glazunov’s Concerto for Alto Saxophone and String Orchestra in E flat major, Op. 109. The saxophone, invented back in 1840 by Adolphe Sax wasn’t utilized as an instrument in symphonic works during the Romantic era. It was only during the early 20th century that the instrument started to find its way in works that are now part of the standard orchestral repertoire. Most people nowadays would typically associate the saxophone with jazz music or with marching bands rather than classical music. This is what makes the Glazunov concerto truly interesting because it is deeply rooted in Russian romanticism and there’s nothing jazzy in it despite being composed in 1934, a time when jazz music was already in full swing.

Saxophonist Brian Howrey

The rest of the music during this concert, Mussorgsky’s Dance of the Persian Slaves from Khovanshchina, Khachaturian’s Spartacus Ballet Suite No. 2, and Borodin’s In the Steppes of Central Asia and Polovtsian Dances from Prince Igor highlight another aspect of the Romantic era which is Exoticism. Composers at the time made music that depicted the music of faraway places, taking the listener to exotic realms. The combination of unforgettable and exotic melodies, along with crafty orchestration helped cement these works and their respective composers to be among the pillars of Russian Romanticism.

The Manila Symphony Orchestra’s remaining Season Gala Concerts will feature more music by Russian composers like Dmitri Shostakovich and Igor Stravinsky. The last three symphonies of Ludwig van Beethoven will also be performed in each of the remaining concerts with the monumental 9th Symphony with soloists, choir, and all at the season finale.

Ticket prices:
P1250 Patron
P850 Gold
P650 Silver
For inquiries:
Carlos Garchitorena 523-5712, (0917) 861-2275,
TicketWorld 891-9999

Friday, May 20, 2016

Festive music cap Olivier Ochanine stint as PPO music director.

Odin Rathnam, violin
Philippine Philharmonic Orchestra
Olivier Ochanine, conductor

Jules Massenet
     Suite for Orchestra No. 6 Scènes de Féerie
Erich Wolfgang Korngold
     Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 35
George Enescu
     Romanian Rhapsody No.1 in A major, Op. 11
Alberto Ginastera
     Four Dances from Estancia, Op. 8a

Francesco Maria Veracini
     Allegro from Sonata No. 1 in A Major, Op. 7
Aram Khachaturian
     Lezghinka from Gayaneh

Capping his six year stint, Olivier Ochanine took to the podium for the very last time as the music director/principal conductor of the Philippine Philharmonic Orchestra at a concert with music that toned down the drama and amped the festive mood instead.

The concert also featured returning violinist Odin Rathnam as the featured soloist in Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 35. At times, the orchestra felt anemic, a bit bland during the quiet moments and also not swelling enough during the romantic climaxes of the first movement. After an unsettling disconnect at the start, Odin and the orchestra eventually clicked during the latter part of the first movement and both were in their element during the exhilarating jig of the third movement. It was a bit of a letdown that the opening movement, which was my favorite, didn’t pan out perfectly as I hoped it would. Also in between movements, Odin cracked some jokes and while the audience found it funny, I thought that it broke the mood that should've been kept until the end of the piece. My anticipation to hear the Korngold performed live again after almost six years set such a high expectation that it wasn't easy for me to let pass the things that have gone awry no matter how small they were.

During Odin’s encore, when he was left on his own to play the Allegro from Francesco Maria Veracini’s Violin Sonata No. 1 in A major, Op. 7, he was absolutely phenomenal and was able to make the Cultural Center of the Philippines’ Main Theater acoustics sound divine. It didn’t matter that this was the same encore he did when he performed the Brahms a couple of years ago.

While the orchestra struggled with the long, sweeping passages during the Korngold, they had no problem with the very pronounced rhythms of the other pieces in the program namely Jules Massenet’s Suite for Orchestra No. 6 Scènes de Féerie, George Enescu’s Romanian Rhapsody No.1 in A major, Op. 11, and Alberto Ginastera’s Four Dances from Estancia, Op. 8a. These pieces, mostly taken from ballets, didn’t feature that much contrast in mood and dynamics and didn’t have much drama. Instead, the music went on to build and build, ultimately snowballing into an exciting climax which was evident during the percussion frenzied Malambo, the final dance from Ginastera’s Estancia that ultimately ended the concert And the dancing fever didn’t stop there as the orchestra did Aram Khachaturian’s Lezghinka from the ballet Gayaneh as their encore. They performed this as an encore years ago too, but this time, it was at a tempo that I am satisfied with.

What left me a bit unsatisfied in this concert was the lack of a symphony. For a milestone concert, marking the end of a memorable run, one would expect a major symphony to be part of the program. In the end, the night felt like there wasn't enough meat in it. Also, the previously announced performance of the PPO Composition Competition winner didn't happen due to the entries not meeting the criteria that were set. 

Olivier Ochanine came to the PPO at the time when the orchestra lacked a clear direction, and the Manila Symphony Orchestra and FILharmoniKA started having their respective season concerts also. Being the youngest music director of the PPO to date, Olivier took advantage of social media (and also his cameo roles in a couple of television series) and successfully used it as a promotional tool to entice younger audiences to watch the concerts.  Music wise, he was able to introduce to the Philippine audience works by Carl Nielsen, Alan Hovhaness and Steven Stucky while also accommodating audience requests for the more popular fare like Vivaldi’s Four Seasons and Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.

Personally, I am grateful that throughout the years, Olivier has been very kind in entertaining (and enduring) my numerous requests, suggestions, complaints, and brutally honest views. Our discussions about the PPO, the music scene here in the Philippines, and almost anything under the sun have always been animated with a lot of stuff not suitable for print. Olivier may not be the PPO’s music director/principal conductor anymore, but that doesn’t mean that we’ve already seen the last of him.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

A journey to a different realm in Jeffrey Ching's A Chamber Requiem

Andión Fernandez, soprano/whip
Lars Grünwoldt, bass baritone/guiro
Modern Art Ensemble
     Klaus Schöpp, piccolo/flute/alto flute/bass flute
     Unolf Wäntig, Eb clarinet/clarinet/bass clarinet
     Theodor Flindell, violin/re-strung and re-tuned violin
     Jean-Claude Velin, viola/re-strung and re-tuned viola
     Matias de Oliveira Pinto, cello/re-strung and re-tuned cello
     Yoriko Ikeya, piano/tam-tam

Jeffrey Ching
     A Chamber Requiem

When cellist Renato Lucas told me back in November 2015 that composer Jeffrey Ching’s next work to be performed here would be his completion of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s unfinished Requiem, I had to take several moments to let that thought sink in. It was hard for me to imagine the classicism of Mozart combined with the contemporary, 21st century idioms of Ching.

Some months later, still unable to grasp the notion of these two styles combined, I braced myself for the world premiere performance of Jeffrey Ching’s A Chamber Requiem at the Cultural Center of the Philippines. And I have to admit that I came in to this concert almost blind so to speak as my knowledge of Mozart’s Requiem is extremely limited. Yes, I know that Mozart died leaving the work unfinished and that there are many, mostly romanticized stories surrounding the work. Unfortunately, I have no idea which parts were truly by Mozart and which were the parts completed by Franz Xaver Süssmayr. This meant that I won’t be burdened by overanalyzing Ching’s work but still I had to be all ears throughout the performance.

A couple of days before the concert, I attended a reception in honor of Jeffrey Ching that was held at the residence of Michael Hasper, Deputy Head of Mission of the Federal Republic of Germany. There, I was able to have a brief chat with Jeffrey Ching and a few members of the Modern Art Ensemble that certainly got me into the mood to hear the new work already despite not knowing much about it.

Based on the title and the performers made up of only two singers and six musicians, A Chamber Requiem was more focused on the individual with the overall mood being more solemn and somber. Whenever soprano Andión Fernandez and bass-baritone Lars Grünwoldt sang, it was intimate and introspective.

What was most remarkable for me was the parts played by the six member Modern Art Ensemble composed of flutist Klaus Schöpp, clarinetist Unolf Wäntig, violinist Theodor Flindell, violist Jean-Claude Velin, cellist Matias de Oliveira Pinto, and pianist Yoriko Ikeya. Both Schöpp and Wäntig utilized all of the members of their respective instruments giving the piece more range, color and texture. But what really gave the work its distinct character was the additional violin, viola, and cello that were re-strung and re-tuned to the Qing dynasty scale. The unusual sounding string instruments were first heard during the Graduale, earlier on.  As the vocalists chanted in unison and the winds burst out brief phrases, the strings played long, sustained notes that sounded like an unstable drone. The juxtaposition of the chant with that of the distinctly Chinese sounding accompaniment fascinated me.

But the next time I heard the re-tuned strings near the end at the Responsorium, I was left perplexed. The trio playing in the standard western scale with their re-tuned instruments not only sounded as if they were playing the wrong notes, but the quality was also scratchy as if they weren’t capable of producing a good, solid tone yet. I think that this effect was intentional and by design but whatever it meant to convey was lost in me.

Another moment in the music that grabbed my attention was when Lars sang falsetto. I thought it was initially the flute that I heard until I realized otherwise. What made this bit more interesting was that Andión was singing along with him but with lower notes. It was a case of the soprano descending the depths while the bass baritone scaled the heights.

The inclusion of stage direction also gave the piece an added layer/dimension. Near the beginning, there was an extended moment of silence with everyone standing up with their heads bowed for about a minute. The second part opened with the musicians playing as they walked around the audience section. Both singers descended the stage and performed at the audience section at one point too. There were parts that were played offstage most notably the tam-tam that was immediately followed by a dissonant chord by the strings located at the back rows among the audience.

Probably the most striking stage direction was right at the end when Andión and Lars exited the theater while still singing, their voices fading away as they walked farther away. All the while, the members of the Modern Art Ensemble gathered around the piano and slowly closed the lid not unlike lowering a coffin to the ground. Then, it was suddenly pitch black. And it took me several moments to let everything that I've seen and heard sink in before I let my mind head back from a trip from a different realm which was Jeffrey Ching's A Chamber Requiem.

It is never a guarantee that one will get to like a Jeffrey Ching composition or any other contemporary piece for that matter. I was very relieved that the overall concept of the work being a Requiem mass and a basic familiarity of Mozart’s other works meant that I had more than enough to ease me through A Chamber Requiem. So it wasn’t that jolting whenever the piece took some unexpected left turns. The world premiere performance of Jeffrey Ching’s A Chamber Requiem was dedicated to the memory of Celia H. Fernandez.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Baihana and Pinopela join forces in Akapela concert

April 23, 2016, 7:30 PM
Carlos P. Romulo Auditorium
RCBC Plaza, Makati


Contemporary a cappella music is in full swing here in Manila as Baihana and Pinopela join forces to present Akapela, a one night concert where the human voice reigns supreme happening on April 23, 2016, 7:30 PM at the Carlos P. Romulo Auditorium, RCBC Plaza in Makati.

Baihana, composed of Krina Cayabyab, Anna Graham, and Mel Torre, burst into the music scene as a jazz/doo wop trio with tight harmonies in the vein of the Andrew Sisters and with each member possessing lead singer capabilities. Not only a frequent performer at jazz festivals and corporate events, the trio has also showcased their versatility by covering current hits with their own brand of a cappella that can be viewed online.

Coming from Baguio, members of the Saint Louis University Glee Club originally formed Pinopela to join the inaugural Akapela Open competition back in 2013. Pinopela became one of top contenders in the field as it placed second in 2013 before finally bagging the championship in 2014. Soon enough, the group found itself the performing/gig circuit here in Metro Manila. The current roster of Pinopela are made up of Ingrid Payaket, Roxanne Omilda, Sheevani Brylle Sibayan, Charmaine Irish Suyo, JJ Valiente Pimpinio, Anthony Castillo, Deo Ramirez, Timmy Go, and Zsaris Mendioro.

The one night concert Akapela is presented by the Philippine Contemporary A Cappella Society spearheaded by Krina Cayabyab and JJ Valiente Pimpinio. The concert also serves as a fundraiser for Pinopela to shoulder their expenses as they head for international competitions later this year including one in Singapore.

Akapela’s artistic team consists of Mara Paulina Marasigan (Director), Krina Cayabyab and JJ Pimpinio (Musical Directors), Stephen Viñas, Nicolo Magno and Delphine Buencamino (Choreographers), Joseph Matheu (Lights Designer and Technical Director), and Joee Mejias (Video Design).

Ticket Prices:
P1500 Orchestra Center
P1200 Orchestra Side
P1000 Loge
P800 Balcony

For inquiries:
Ryan Cayabyab Music School 914-5055, 637-9840
JJ Pimpinio (0917) 678-0952
Ronah Rostata (0906) 451-1926

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Olivier Ochanine conducts final PPO season concert, violinist Odin Rathnam returns

April 22, 2016, 8:00 PM
Tanghalang Nicanor Abelardo (CCP Main Theater)
Cultural Center of the Philippines
CCP Complex
Pasay, Metro Manila

Odin Rathnam, violin
Philippine Philharmonic Orchestra
Olivier Ochanine, conductor

     PPO Composition Competition Winner
Erich Wolfgang Korngold
     Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 35
Jules Massenet
     Suite for Orchestra No. 6 Scènes de Féerie
George Enescu
     Romanian Rhapsody No.1 in A major, Op. 11
Alberto Ginastera
     Four Dances from Estancia, Op. 8a

Olivier Ochanine, the outgoing music director/principal conductor of the Philippine Philharmonic Orchestra takes to the podium for his last season concert with the orchestra this April 22, 2016, 8:00 PM at the Cultural Center of the Philippines’s Main Theater. Special guest for the evening is violinist Odin Rathnam.

Music to be performed at the concert include Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 35, with Odin as the soloist, Jules Massenet’s Suite for Orchestra No. 6 Scènes de Féerie, George Enescu’s Romanian Rhapsody No.1 in A major, Op. 11, Alberto Ginastera’s Four Dances from Estancia, Op. 8a, and the winning piece of the PPO Composition Competition.

Odin is no longer a stranger to the PPO audience as he was the orchestra’s featured soloist for Johannes Brahms’ Violin Concerto in D minor, Op.77 at their February 2014 season concert held at the Meralco Theater. He was very kind enough to grant me an interview leading up to his performance here.

RAd: It was initially announced that you were to play Nielsen's violin concerto. I've heard a few people get disappointed when they learned of the change to Korngold. How can you convince those disappointed few to come see you perform the Korngold?

Odin Rathnam: Korngold is a better piece, no offense to my fellow Danes.

I love the Nielsen Concerto too, but sorry, Korngold is better architecturally, melodically and in terms of the harmonic language, at least for MY TASTE!

And I am half Danish.

I love Nielsen. But there is a reason why he is Nielsen and not Brahms. In Korngold’s case, the direct connection to the Viennese tradition is very strong. His biggest enemy is how players interpret him, biased on their perception writing for Hollywood somehow cheapened or compromised his art.

RAd: What do you mean by Nielsen not being Brahms?

Odin Rathnam: I guess what I was saying is that Nielsen is a wonderful, second tier composer, to me, who wrote a few things that touch greatness and timelessness. A couple of the symphonies, some chamber works, some of the concerti. I LOVE HIM, biased on being half Danish, proud and biased, but I also know he isn't Brahms.

Brahms is an infinitely more complex and satisfying composer for my ears. Nielsen has a wonderful and unique "Nordic" vocabulary of melody and harmony, but I don't see it ever grabbing the masses the way Brahms, Beethoven, Bach, Tchaikovsky, and others do.

Personally I love Nielsen. I don't expect everyone else to though. His sounds for me are Danish, familiar, and tied to my upbringing and childhood memories. So I am the wrong one to ask. I am very biased, and proud of him.

Dominicans and Puerto Ricans love salsa and merengue.

Argentines, the Tango. I could go on… but rating all these different things??? Perhaps they are all great, but DIFFERENT.

RAd: I do think that it’s silly to rank these things. I mean, 5 people will react differently to the same piece of music, literature, artwork, etc. And that is what makes art so great.

Odin Rathnam: Exactly! So we can love a composer, for specific things, regardless of whether critical scrutiny would make him or her generally rated as ok, good, very good or great. And the ratings are always somehow biased or subjective.

But in the end, something has to grab you, by the throat, in your gut, or in your loins, or in the depth of your HEART.

If it does that, there is no need to compare to anything else. It is ART.

RAd: Lastly, how does it feel to be part of the final season concert of Olivier Ochanine with the PPO?

Odin Rathnam: It is an absolute honor to be invited back. I love his musicianship, character and how he WORKS. PERIOD. That is the starting point. Interpreting scores with him is always honest, uncompromising and inspiring. My favorite Brahms Concerto was with HIM. So I am truly excited to present Korngold with him and the PPO on the 22nd. I think it will be an important collaboration, at least in my life.

Aside from the upcoming concert, Odin will also conduct a workshop on Galamian principles at Coke Bolipata’s Casa San Miguel in Zambales. And the concert with Odin may be the Olivier’s last season concert with he PPO but he is not yet finished with the orchestra. This June, he and the orchestra will embark on a US tour including a concert at the famed Carnegie Hall.

Ticket prices:
P1500 Orchestra Center
P1200 Orchestra Side
P800 Extreme Orchestra Side
P500 Balcony I Center
P400 Balcony I Side
P300 Balcony II

For inquiries:
CCP Marketing Department 832-1125 local 1806
CCP Box Office 832-3704
TicketWorld 891-9999
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