The next stage

Under a new musical director, a stronger PPO emerges.

WORDS  JOHANNA POBLETE | PHOTOGRAPHY  JOJO MAMANGUN


You could hear a pin drop, there was such a hushed reverence in the air.

All 65 members of the Philippine Philharmonic Orchestra (PPO) trod carefully on the maple floor, filing in through the two entrances allotted for musicians, while taking in the softly lit interiors: a rather stunning view of thousands of red seats fanning out in five tiers from the stage in a curvilinear horseshoe arrangement. The architecture is specifically designed for everyone inside to hear an exquisite buildup of symphonic sound, from a whispering passage to an epic fortissimo. Once all the doors are shut, no external noise dare breach the inner sanctum of New York’s Carnegie Hall.

“It’s like an egg, you’re all sealed in there. You could hear a whisper, and that whisper could be [emanating from] the other side of the hall,” says Crisancti L. Macazo, First Violinist and PPO Committee Chairman. Five minutes before the orchestral sound check—the only rehearsal allowed onsite before the actual performance—he couldn’t resist testing the feedback from all corners. “I played one note, and then I went into the back of the hall and played another note—the sound was exactly the same. And it’s so rich. When you play one note, it reverberates there for a few seconds…perfect for an orchestra musician. I told my seatmate that we have to savor every moment, because we won’t hear it again, because we don’t have a hall that is capable of producing this sound.”

PPO 5-CarnegieHall-June2016-JosephPe (15)
Philippine Philharmonic Orchestra (PPO) at New York’s Carnegie Hall. (Photo courtesy of Joseph Pe)

Carnegie Hall has been dubbed a “cathedral for music” because of its finely tuned acoustics. A combination of room geometry and electronics affect how the hall transmits sound and how human listeners perceive sound. “It’s amplified ten times. You are enveloped by the sound,” says Mr. Macazo, who likens the way you’re able to discern every section of the performing orchestra to how recordings are sound-engineered for the optimal aural mix. “Like the CDs now, the good ones, they had to perfect the sound because they had to imitate the nicest halls, and one of them is Carnegie. That’s why you could really enjoy the music. I would think that’s also the reason why Carnegie Hall does not want musicians performing there who are half-baked or who are not that good, because it will amplify how bad they are.”

Since it opened in 1891, Carnegie Hall has undergone renovation and thus been subject to countless debates on whether it has retained its famed sound quality. Yet it remains beloved by musicians (a group led by violinist and conductor Isaac Stern, for whom the main auditorium is named, even saved Carnegie Hall from a wrecking ball in 1960). Who can forget its historic lineup of greats, from the classical Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff, to the flexible George Gershwin, alongside jazz giants like Benny Goodman, Louis Armstrong, and John Coltrane, to rockstars like The Beatles, and The Rolling Stones? The world’s greatest voices have trilled in the very same space: sirens like Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, and Sarah Vaughan, crooners like Frank Sinatra and Judy Garland, all the way to the high octaves of operatic singers like Luciano Pavarotti and Maria Callas.

Though members of the PPO are often invited to play abroad and have experienced auditoriums of the same caliber (and some newer), no Filipino orchestra had yet performed at Carnegie Hall. It was the PPO’s previous music director, Olivier Ochanine, who sent over video recordings of the PPO as their audition, fully aware that the music hall had harbored not only the great American orchestras, but also hosted the philharmonic orchestras of Berlin and Vienna, the Amsterdam Concertgebouw, and the Kirov Orchestra. It took three years of hard work, some fund-raising, and meticulous practice for the orchestra, but the invitation finally came and the PPO flew to New York City for their first ever performance at Carnegie Hall on June 18.

 Ariston G. Payte III, Assistant Principal Contrabass, says he’d gotten accustomed to performing in top-caliber halls abroad with other orchestras, so the novelty for him was in performing with his own orchestra. All of the members were determined not to ruin the experience for their fellow Pinoys. “Siyempre, yung takot ko lang dun, Filipino community ang mga nanonood, tapos sariling orchestra mo na,” he says.

On top of that pressure, the PPO was also grappling with the weight of the history of the place—a bit awed not just of every genius that came before them, but also the fact that founder Andrew Carnegie had once argued against the American colonization of the Philippines in that very hall, and in 1898 offered US$20 million to the Philippine government so it could buy back independence from Spain. “We knew that as part of our history, and this is the very hall [where Carnegie made his appeal]. And that added to the emotion I guess,” agrees Mr. Macazo. Without any prior discussion, completely in sync, they knew what they had to play first. “No Filipino orchestra had performed there yet, except for us. The first song we ever played was the national anthem. I had goosebumps everywhere.”

AMONG THE BEST IN THE WORLD

Established in 1973 as the CCP Philharmonic, and reorganized as the Philippine Philharmonic in 1979 by Oscar C. Yatco at the behest of then First Lady Imelda R. Marcos, the orchestra was always positioned with a view to being “ranked among the best in the world.” Rumor has it that Mrs. Marcos took to the notion after watching a performance at the Lincoln Center, home of the New York Philharmonic. (Incidentally, it was Carnegie and not Lincoln Center that saw an early performance of songs from the concept album and later off-Broadway “disco musical” Here Lies Love by David Byrne and DJ Fatboy Slim, inspired by the life of Mrs. Marcos, in 2007).

Pioneering member Adelaida Perez was a self-supporting 19-year-old at the time, fresh off Col. Antonino Buenaventura’s University of the East Student Orchestra. Under Prof. Yatco, she earned her place as Assistant Principal Viola. “Pet kami ni Imelda, maraming programa,” says the now 64-year-old violist and music teacher. “Noon, programa dito matinee, tapos papasok ka pa. Medyo mahirap kasi nag-aaral at nagtutugtog ako. Pero masaya ako kasi ito yung dream ko.”

Concertmaster and Principal Violinist Nemesio A. Ibero, Jr., whose 43 years of service is “older than PPO,” says there was great demand during those days for the orchestra. They had all the support they needed from the government, but much was also expected of them. Members were constantly told there were 10 music students—who didn’t need to work—lined up and waiting to replace anyone who made a mistake. “Yung director namin nun, talagang Hitler, ang tapang. So one miss, you die,” jokes Mr. Ibero. “Kasi order ni Mrs. Marcos we had to practice like hell.”

These days, absences are still not tolerated — they’re required to practice as a group three hours a day, for performances that last an average of one hour and 30 minutes—but the PPO members feel a little more secure about their tenureship. However, in-house rivalry remains fierce. In fact, the PPO Committee chaired by Mr. Macazo exists simply to iron out any differences between members. Controversy could arise simply from a reshuffling of the performance seating, as a more senior member would feel slighted if passed over for a younger talent. Members are protective of their spot in the hierarchy, with principals and assistant principals taking full responsibility for their respective sections. Being singled out by the conductor could spark resentment, since protocol demands he deal first with the concertmaster and principals.

Even the conductor doesn’t get off scot-free. Call it initiation, but members of the orchestra tend to test a new conductor’s mettle by tweaking a chord or two. How the conductor reacts determines the dynamic; the good ones usually cop to the joke. “Parang mga bata, mga high school,” rues Ms. Perez, who says the trick to surviving the telenovela-worthy shenanigans is to stay professional and focus on the music. “Kung naka-focus ka sa piesa, at mahirap pa, nawawala lahat yun. Gutom, pagod, hindi mo mararamdaman. Umaalsa sa katawan lahat ng problema, kahit kung minsan walang pera. Kaya maganda ang trabaho namin.

TASKMASTER AND PROBLEM-SOLVER

The general consensus is that the orchestra lucked out when Maestro Yoshikazu Fukumura, who had already performed with them before as guest conductor, agreed to audition for—and subsequently landed—the post of music director and principal conductor recently vacated by Mr. Ochanine. Mr. Fukumura’s record speaks for itself, as he’s conducted his way through Europe, Latin America, and Asia. Mr. Payte, who worked with the maestro for both the PPO and the ASEAN Symphony Orchestra, describes Mr. Fukumura as a far more disciplined taskmaster as the principal—as opposed to a guest—conductor, but is quite fair. Those who have worked with him are most impressed with how Mr. Fukumura is a problem-solver who can easily demonstrate the right technique required to bring out a desired sound.

What that “desired sound” sounds like depends on where you are. Mr. Macazo, in a flurry of onomatopoeia, said that Russian orchestras go for a “wham!” sound, a quick punch; Americans play like they’re setting music aflame—“voshooom”—or shaking your hand really hard; Asians, on the other hand, are polite. If the analogy were ported into combat, Russian sound comes out of nowhere. An ambush. Americans allow a moment’s warning—I’m coming—before the assault. An Asian orchestra, meanwhile, gives you advanced notice of its arrival: there is a warm-up.

In a previous interview with BusinessWorld, Mr. Fukumura said he was even drawn to work with the PPO because of its “unique sound,” which he praised as “something that is warm, something which is bright, meaning light.”

“You have to get the trust of the musicians and he has it. We connected right away, just by the way he stood on that podium, the way he talked to us with the baton,” says Mr. Macazo. “So the composer wrote it this way, but those are just notes and inkblots. How would you make that alive, how will it resonate for the audience that they would really appreciate it? That’s our task, it’s not just the conductor’s task. That’s why if the conductor does not click with the orchestra, then the orchestra would just work superficially, it doesn’t feel pure or genuine.”

Mr. Fukumura also has the right connections to pull in international talent. For one, he invited soloist Ryu Goto for PPO’s season premiere, and prevailed upon the young violinist to accept a taxable talent fee of US$3,000—much lower than his usual US$20,000-US$30,000. For a cash-strapped government agency like the Cultural Center of the Philippines, it’s certainly a boon. Other soloists that are slated for the upcoming season concerts are guitarist Eduardo Fernandez, bassoonist Adolfo O. Mendoza, violinist Diomedes Saraza, Jr. (who was with the PPO at Carnegie Hall), cellist Renato Lucas, and pianist Monique Duphil.

FROM SUPERMAN TO THE ERASERHEADS

Maintaining an orchestra is an expensive practice. The last time the PPO bought new instruments, it cost the government PHP30 million—that was back in 2003; Mr. Ibero’s violin alone costs half a million pesos (and he demurred from pricing his personally bought violin). A set of violin replacement strings cost a conservative PHP2,500; Mr. Payte’s contrabass strings cost PHP14,000. The sheer expense is also why most members started out as music scholars, and learned practical instrumentation late. “As a young boy, I watched the TV program Batibot, and there was a segment there where a girl played violin, and I said: ‘Oh I want to learn that instrument.’ But it was not until college that I got to hold a violin,” admits Mr. Macazo, who is currently finishing up his doctorate at the University of the Philippines.

And while most Filipinos are music-lovers, very few are exposed to classical music when young—unless they come from a family of classical musicians, or their parents happen to appreciate classical music. Sometimes music teachers in the provinces, says Mr. Macazo, can’t even read music or play an instrument. Not exclusive to the Philippines, the so-called decline of classical music started decades ago, long before the current generation: elsewhere in the world radio stations skewed towards popular music rather than the classical format, budgetary cuts in schools hit music programs, and technological advancements in the recording industry generally made it easier to forego live performances. Not that classical musicians haven’t been busy; classical music Web site Bachtrack.com lists 17,100 concerts performed in North America and Europe last year alone.

 Also, contrary to anecdotal evidence that very few modern compositions get noticed, Bachtrack.com observed that the concert halls resonated with 20th and 21st century works — so the playbook is being expanded and replenished, although admittedly, the romantic and classical era still holds sway for the most part, with a little baroque thrown in. The top five most popular composers last year were the usual suspects: Mozart, Beethoven, Bach, Brahms, and Tchaikovsky (who is still “king of the ballet”).

Of course, the challenge is still to attract more listeners. Insights from music streaming service Spotify indicate that classical music is at the far end of the spectrum, worldwide, when it comes to loyal (read that as: repeat) listeners. In the Philippines, as of 2015, classical music ranks fifth in terms of garnering loyal fans at Spotify, behind original Pilipino music, pop, metal, and rock—in that order.

Natatalo ng OPM ‘yung classical,” admits Mr. Ibero. Given the trend, PPO is not immune to orchestral arrangements of pop songs, and on YouTube you’ll find them playing songs of the Eraserheads to a pleased, singing-along crowd. For an encore piece this season, they’re playing the Superman Theme by John Williams, which is a nod to pop culture while retaining their classical roots. At Carnegie, “Gaano Ko Ikaw Kamahal,” a classic love song composed by Emani Cuenco, was their encore piece. The hope is that such touchstones will bring listeners closer to an appreciation for classical music. “We’re doing our part. The media can really help us,” Mr. Macazo, who suggested creating another TV program for children that incorporates classical arrangements of folk songs, or a teleserye featuring a score performed by a symphonic orchestra.

Time will tell whether Mr. Fukumura, the so-called maverick maestro who’s already in his seventies, might be thinking in terms of legacy-building and if he will be able to shake things up as far as the local classical music scene is concerned. Already, Mr. Fukumura has added some diversity in the lineup—the PPO will be performing the music of Mexican composer Arturo Marquez later in the season. Mr. Ibero reveals that the maestro is also looking at some standards to add to their repertoire, the likes of the Glenn Miller Band. There’s also talk of mounting fund-raising events to bring more international soloists into the country.

Members of the PPO, most of whom sideline as music teachers, are ready and willing to take on the challenge of educating and engaging people’s ears, while furthering the nation’s classical music appreciation. “If you think of it as a job, then you’re just one of those employees with eight-hour or 10-hour shifts. But then if you see it like you’re an artist, you should be empowered to perform because the music is an art to give to the people,” says Mr. Macazo.