Sunday, January 31, 2016

A dizzying display of speed in Cecile Licad Encore!

Cecile Licad, piano
Philippine Philharmonic Orchestra
Olivier Ochanine, conductor

Gioachino Rossini
     Overture to L’Italiana in Algeri
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
     Piano Concerto No. 1 in B flat minor, Op. 23
Sergei Rachmaninoff
     Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor, Op. 18

Francisco Buencamino Sr.
Earl Wild/George Gershwin
     Embraceable You from Seven Virtuoso Etudes on Gershwin Songs
Louis Moreau Gottschalk                     
     Souvenirs d'Andalousie, Op.22

Cecile Licad, without a doubt the Philippines’ most celebrated pianist, has captivated audiences with her performances here and abroad for more than three decades already. Such an impressive résumé gives her an aura that she could do no wrong. But her most recent concert, entitled Cecile Licad Encore!, saw her sprinting her way through piano concertos by Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff with such dizzying speed that she actually left the Philippine Philharmonic Orchestra, led by principal conductor and music Olivier Ochanine, huffing and puffing in her wake.

The concert actually started at the right tempo with the PPO coasting through Gioachino Rossini’s Overture to L’Italiana in Algeri at the expected tempo, although the sound was less explosive without the bass drum, the triangle, and the cymbals, leaving only the timpani as the sole percussion.

The explosion started early on right at the opening piano chords of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in B flat minor, Op. 23 with Licad going on a bit too fast. Any hope of her slowing down was dashed by when she did the cadenza at lightning speed. And right then and there, I somehow knew that she would stick with this blistering pace throughout the lengthy first movement. A moment of reprieve was granted when she slowed things down at the second movement. But dread started to creep in as she approached the central Prestissimo section and my fears were founded when she indeed reverted to her first movement antics and played this section a lot faster than usual. The third movement was no better as she went on faster than before with the orchestra struggling at times just to remain in the same measure with her. I do have to give her credit that despite the unearthly speed that she spurred with this concerto, her precision was still amazingly spot on.

Licad’s second piece of the night, Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor, Op. 18 fared a bit better with her surprisingly starting slower dragging out the introductory chords. Probably owing to the piano serving an accompanying role throughout most of the first two movements, her tempo remained in check. Alas, it was short lived. For every opening of a phrase that she stretched, she responded by accelerating inexplicably towards the end. And just like with the Tchaikovsky, the fast interlude in the second movement of the Rachmaninoff went by like a blur in Licad’s hands. There were more moments of brilliance with the Rachmaninoff but her penchant to speed things up, especially as she neared the end of the third movement, made for an unsettling listening experience. Spicing up a well-known piece, giving it a fresh and exciting interpretation is one thing. But I think that she crossed the line when she took extreme liberties in regards to tempo.

The audience’s rapturous response to Licad's performance was not surprising. Though it seemed to me that it was either due to her exuberance, the stunning sight of the speed of her hands and fingers as seen on two giant screens at each side of the stage, or most probably because she is Cecile Licad, the Philippines’ most celebrated pianist. While she had most of the CCP audience at the palm of her hand despite a less than ideal performance, it would be a different matter with a more discerning New York audience if she performs the same way this Tchaikovsky piano concerto when she joins the PPO at their Carnegie Hall concert later this year.

Most surprisingly, Licad’s three encores, namely Francisco Buencamino Sr.’s Lullaby, Earl Wild’s arrangement of George Gershwin’s Embraceable You from his Seven Virtuoso Etudes on Gershwin Songs, and Louis Moreau Gottschalk’s Souvenirs d'Andalousie, Op.22, actually showcased more of Licad’s musicality. By not rushing through the pieces unnecessarily, she exhibited delicate touch, finesse, and restraint, along with power, command, and spark that I wish she displayed with her two piano concertos.

Cecile Licad Encore! was a co-presentation of the Philippine Italian Association and the Cultural Center of the Philippines, with the Rustan’s Group of Companies, Calata Corporation, The Peninsula Manila, Starbucks, Royal Duty Free Shops, Inc.,  and the San Miguel Corporation. The proceeds of the concert will benefit the Philippine Italian Association Endowment Fund and also the Philippine Philharmonic Orchestra’s upcoming US tour this June 2016.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Robust, epic Beethoven in PPO's 2016 opener

April Merced-Misa, piano
Philippine Philharmonic Orchestra
Honna Tetsuji, conductor

Ludwig van Beethoven
     Piano Concerto No. 1 in C major, Op. 15
     Symphony No. 3 in E flat major, Op. 55 Eroica

The robust sound of Beethoven filled the CCP Main Theater when guest conductor Honna Tetsuji took the reins at the most recent subscription concert of the Philippine Philharmonic Orchestra. Scrapping the originally announced program of a Richard Strauss suite and a Haydn symphony, the concert became an all-Beethoven affair with the updated line up of the composer’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in C major, Op. 15 with April Merced-Misa as the soloist and Symphony No. 3 in E flat major, Op. 55 Eroica.

The pre-concert chat with Olivier Ochanine, the PPO’s principal conductor/music director, and Honna Tetsuji recounted how their meeting during an event by the Embassy of Vietnam in Manila years ago paved the way for the latter to conduct the PPO.

I can’t begin to say how pleased I was on how April’s piano concerto turned out. Having a competent orchestra by her side this time around, she was able to course through the piece as if it was a walk in the park. An orchestra that bit more Tchaikovsky than it could chew hounded her piano concerto debut almost six years ago. And that performance became more a test of April’s resolve rather than a showcase of her musicality. I only had one quibble which was the unsettling reverb inside the hall that muddled the overall sound especially the numerous runs of the piano.

Whatever it was that caused the reverb earlier on was thankfully gone during the second half that was devoted solely to the symphony.  Second only to the 9th Symphony in terms of length, listening to the epic Eroica required a great deal of concentration for me. Thankfully, this piece is no longer a stranger to me and performances from a couple of seasons ago were still fresh on my mind. The European seating of the orchestra, with the second violins seated at the conductor’s right where the viola or cello section usually is, offered a fresh way to listen to the piece. The stereophonic effect of the violins gave a new dimension in the listening experience and this was most evident during the fugue of the fourth movement. I felt that Tetsuji rushed too much during the first movement and this speed gave me an impression that there wasn’t enough room for the music to breathe. Miraculously, the usually dodgy horns went without a hitch during the trio of the third movement.

Conducting wise, Tetsuji has a more subdued style compared to the more exuberant Fukumura, the guest conductor from the month before. Tetsuji did shake things up a bit in this concert starting with the more traditional European seating, not only placing the violins directly opposite of each other, but by lining up the double basses in a single row at the back. There were also new faces in the orchestra as few members of the Vietnam National Symphony Orchestra joined in for this concert.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Future of Philippine opera shines in concert

Roxy Aldiosa, soprano
Jan Briane Astom, tenor
Carlo Bunyi, baritone
Michaela Fajardo, soprano
Mheco Manlangit, soprano
Carlo Mañalac, tenor
Myramae Meneses, soprano
Anna Migallos, soprano
Nomher Nival, tenor
Stefanie Quintin, soprano
Mia Ariana Tanciongco, soprano
Marielle Tuason, soprano
Iona Ventocilla, soprano
Najib Ismail, piano
Gabriel Allan Paguirian, piano

Full length opera productions in the Philippines are a rarity which is a shame since there’s an abundance of talent in here. And a small number of these talents, thirteen to be exact, showed off their operatic vocal chops at a concert entitled A Night at the Opera, their culminating recital held at the Ayala Museum after going through an intensive three day workshop under famed Filipino tenor Arthur Espiritu.

The performers, namely Roxy Aldiosa, Jan Briane Astom, Carlo Bunyi, Michaela Fajardo, Mheco Manlangit, Carlo Mañalac, Myramae Meneses, Anna Migallos, Nomher Nival, Stefanie Quintin, Mia Ariana Tanciongco, Marielle Tuason, and Iona Ventocilla each had their moment to shine as they sang works by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Gaetano Donizetti, Gioachino Rossini, Giacomo Puccini, Giacomo Meyerbeer, and Roger Quilter. They were accompanied by pianists Najib Ismail and Gabriel Allan Paguirigan.

When Myramae along with Iona kicked things off with Prenderò quel brunettino from Mozart’s Così fan tutte, I had a realization that unsettled me for a bit. Myramae, who just a few years ago was a promising newcomer to the scene, now appeared as the seasoned veteran, along with Nomher Nival, in this concert. These two later on sang arias from Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore with Myramae doing Prendi, per me sei libero while Nomher delivering Una furtiva lagrima. Iona, on the other hand, gave me my first taste of Mozart’s Don Giovanni with Mi tradi quell'alma ingrata.

The evening served as an introduction for me to unfamiliar faces like Mia Ariana Tanciongco who sang Porgi, amor, qualche ristoro from Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro, Carlo Bunyi who did Madamina, il catalogo è questo from Mozart’s Don Giovanni, Marielle Tuason (Ruhe sanft, mein holdes Leben from Mozart’s Zaide), Mheco Manlangit (Chi il bel sogno di Doretta from Puccini’s La Rondine), and Anna Migallos (Donde lieta usci from Puccini’s La Boheme).

It was also the first time for me to see familiar faces like Michaela Fajardo (Voi che sapete from Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro), Carlo Mañalac (Quanto è bella, quanto è cara from Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore), Roxy Aldiosa (Una voce poco fa from Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia) perform as soloists. I’ve seen them a handful of times perform as members of Viva Voce so it’s nice to hear their solo voices at last.

Another very familiar face is Jan Briane Astom (Come Away Death from Quilter’s 3 Shakespeare Songs, Op. 6) and seeing him sing was a departure from what I know of him as a pianist. This wouldn’t be the first time for someone to change tracks since Myramae actually had her start as a violinist before switching to operatic singing.

The one who stole the show was Stefanie Quintin who dazzled with great dynamics, humor and charm despite most of us in the audience not having any idea what the French words of Ombre légère from Meyerbeer’s Dinorah mean. Later did I find out that the aria is actually a duet for one with Dorinah singing alongside with her shadow.

Aside from the solos, there were also duets between Mheco and Marielle (Sull'aria...che soave zeffiretto from Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro) and Nomher and Anna (O soave fanciulla from Puccini’s La bohème) that eventually capped the concert. For an encore, all the performers sang Ikaw ang Mahal Ko by Tito Arevalo and Levi Celerio, a surprising choice but eventually a breath of fresh air since it was not yet another Libiamo ne' lieti calici which has already been done to death.

Throughout the concert, I was greatly amused seeing Arthur Espiritu get all excited and nervous as he watched at the sidelines. At the start, he gave opening remarks and told the audience how these young singers need the support especially when they pursue further studies to improve their craft. He clearly wanted these young singers to have the opportunities he has had to study and perform in opera productions here and abroad. Of course, the audience didn’t let the evening end without Arthur singing and he caved in to demands and did Giuseppe Verdi’s La donna è mobile from Rigoletto.

It’s been only few years since I got first exposed to full length operas and this night only told me that there are still new faces and voices to discover and more operas to explore out there. A Night at the Opera was presented by Cultural Arts Events Organizers and MusicArtes Inc.

Monday, January 18, 2016

An emotionally charged "Saraza in Concert"

Diomedes Saraza, Jr, violin
Greg Zuniega, piano

Ludwig van Beethoven
     Violin Sonata No. 5 in F major, Op. 24 Spring
Nicanor Abelardo
Manuel Velez
     Sa Kabukiran
Frédéric Chopin
     Nocturne in C-sharp minor, Op. posth
Franz Waxman
     Carmen Fantasie
Richard Strauss
     Violin Sonata in E-flat major, Op. 18

Willy Cruz
     Sana'y Wala ng Wakas
The sudden announcement of violinist Diomedes Saraza, Jr.’s upcoming concert at the Cultural Center of the Philippines caught me by surprise. The concert was happening on a Saturday, and I learned about it on Monday when Saraza himself made the announcement in Facebook. But I knew that I have to catch it no matter what. So on Saturday, I left home before noon, more than eight hours before the actual concert, just to avoid getting stuck in my hometown that was having a parade at the main roads in celebration of its foundation day.

For this concert, Diomedes, along with the ever reliable Greg Zuniega on the piano accompanying him, prepared a program that I initially thought was generally positive, light and brimming with optimism. With this in mind, I was taken aback with his opening piece, Ludwig van Beethoven’s Violin Sonata No. 5 in F major, Op. 24 “Spring” which he performed with too much tension and drama for my taste. The all too familiar first movement, Allegro, felt like it teetered on the dark side but the tricky Scherzo of the third movement, with the violin seemingly chasing the piano in a game of tag, was handled very deftly. If performed by less capable hands, this part can come off as a mess, but Diomedes and Zuniega were up to the task.

The next couple of pieces, Nicanor Abelardo’s lyrical Cavatina and Manuel Velez’ playful Sa Kabukiran, showed Diomedes’ range as he was able to showcase the contrast between the two short, well known pieces. And it was crystal like clarity when he tackled Nathan Milstein’s violin transcription of Frederic Chopin’s Nocturne in C-sharp minor, Op. posth. The way he made the violin sing as it flowed from the primary theme to the next made me want to attempt to replicate such clarity on the piano as soon as I arrived home after the concert.

Diomedes displayed a great deal of fireworks with Franz Waxman’s Carmen Fantasie. Listening to it should be a walk in the park seeing that this piece was made up of various music from George Bizet’s opera Carmen. But familiarity with another Carmen Fantasie, the more popular one composed by Pablo Sarasate, meant that there were times during the performance when I was taken by surprise by how some parts went into unexpected turns. I had to remind myself that this was a different arrangement and whatever differences the Waxman have with the Sarasate was not a mistake.

Clearly, the main highlight of the concert for me was Richard Strauss’ Violin Sonata in E-flat major, Op. 18. Before starting, Diomedes offered some insight regarding the piece, telling the audience that Strauss wrote this when he was in love with his eventual wife and that we should all watch out for the contrasting lyrical and rhythmical themes in the sonata. Lastly, he recounted how this piece was assigned to him by Stephen Clapp, his teacher at the Juilliard School shortly before he passed away. With this piece having such a personal and profound meaning for him, it was no wonder that Diomedes delivered an intense and emotionally charged performance. He even looked like he was on the brink of tears during the second movement. Again, Zuniega proved himself as one of the most reliable accompanists here and it was hard for me to imagine anyone else in the piano during the Strauss. For an encore, Diomedes did Sana’y Wala Ng Wakas by Willy Cruz which prompted a few members of the audience to hum along.

With the very short notice for this concert, the audience turnout was not surprisingly the full house that his last concert was. Still, I am pleased by how the concert turned out which is incidentally my first for 2016 that also marked my return to this blog after some months of inactivity. May this be the fuel that will invigorate me for a more fruitful and musical year ahead.
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