DAVAO CITY -- Every singer has a signature song and for top baladeer Erik Santos, it has always been "This Is The Moment" from the Broadway musical "Jekyll and Hyde."
It was his winning piece when he won the first "Star in a Million" back January 2004, and became his first hit as recording artist.
By pure chance, I was able to experience Santos singing it live on two occasions with the Philippine Philharmonic Orchestra (PPO) recently in separate venues in Davao City.
Experiencing "This Is The Moment" sang by Santos live with the PPO made me see it in a different light. There's something about the arrangement for a live orchestra that makes it more soulful and heartfelt.
The Davao City event with Santos was one of PPO's outreach concerts. The premier orchestra in the country performed in Los Baños (May 5), Baguio (August 3), Malolos (August 29) and also abroad. They were part of the Asia Orchestra Week in Tokyo and performed in two venues, at the Kuji Amber Hall on October 4 and at the Tokyo Opera City Concert Hall on October 6.
They're probably one of the busiest orchestras in the country. Barely a week after the Davao City concerts, they're on the road again. They performed in two venues in the capital town of San Jose de Buenavista in Antique province, on November 30 at the University of Antique and on December 1 in an open space infront of the town's New Capitol buidling.
In terms of logistics, these outreach concerts are a gargantuan task. The PPO, now on its 45th year, is dubbed the country's leading symphony orchestra and the resident company of the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) composed of nearly 100 regular members, including guest musicians. Imagine transporting all of them by plane, not to mention the bulk of fragile and expensive instruments. Rest assured, they don't bring a grand piano with them.
I've tried to catch the monthly concerts of the PPO at the CCP Main Theater and it was my first time to see them beyond Manila Bay. I've read there were also annual concerts at one of the open-air tree-shaded areas in the Philippine General Hospital for the indigent patients and employees who may have never heard of PPO and their kind of music. This goes parallel to the saying that music and its healing effect, like laughter, could be the best medicine.
Giving credit where it's due, I've read also that this annual PPO concerts at the PGH, usually in January every year, were among the pet projects of CCP president Nick Lizaso when he took over the post, same with the outreach concerts of the PPO. There have been provincial tours in the past decades but they have been more frequent now, like the Davao and Antique concerts that were barely a week apart.
Suffice it to say, I saw the PPO 45th anniversary concert at the Manila Cathedral on November 15 with Japanese violinist-conductor Ryu Goto. This was just a week before the Davao concerts.
An insider at the CCP accompanying the PPO concerts said the two-day Davao concerts were the most applauded among the provinces they've been to. The crowd was responsive with their cell-phone cameras recording the orchestra's live performances. Then of course, we can't disregard the effect of the Prince of Pop to the audience.
It rained on the first night Santos performed "This Is The Moment" with PPO at the Davao City's Rizal Park. Good thing he was able to finish his repertoire for the ceremonies that opened Dan-Ag Davao and Pasko Fiesta. Despite the rain, it was followed by the lighting of the City Hall, which was a few steps from the park. I was used to seeing the musicians in elegant black, flowing dresses and tuxedos during their usual concerts at the CCP Main Theater; it's my first time to see them perform in casual jeans and T-shirts and gathered on a town plaza stage.
It was the second night when the real concert of the PPO with Santos happened. This time, they're in formal clothes but not their usual black getups at the CCP. Held at the RMC Petro Gazz Arena, the crowd was composed of a mix of Davaoenos. Besides the usual group of millennials documenting everything on their gadgets, families, government workers, there were also nuns, soldiers, priests and seminarians in the well-ventilated and roofed venue.
Santos was the soloist for the night but before his segment, the PPO treated the crowd with popular pieces of orchestra music. These were the upbeat Johann Strauss "Die Fledermaus Overture," Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky's "Swan Lake Suite, OP 20," the danceable "Danzon No. 2" by Mexican composer Arturo Marquez and "Intermedio from la Bode de Luis Alonso" by Geronimo Gimenez.
There was overwhelming applause when PPO principal conductor-music director Yoshikazu Fukumura and the musicians took the mandatory bow to the audience. They left the stage for a break and the female duo, composed of Bianca Camille Lopez and Ma. Rhina Paula Palma-Cruz, called The Nightingales took over. They started with the light and comic piece "Habanera" by George Bizet and I can hear some laughter from around my seat.
The Nightingales's music accompaniment wasn't live but the duo didn't disappoint. It's their voices that made the difference anyway. I had goose bumps when they followed it up with a piece from the opera "Carmen," and aria by Yanni and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov's -- surprise -- "The Flight of the Nightingales".
All these may have sounded new to the audience but they applauded after each song and were taking videos through their cellphones. Before the duo left the stage, they performed"Runaway" by The Corrs and Trina Belamide's "Shine."
These were like appetizers to part two of the program when the PPO performed recent pop hits, this time with PPO resident conductor Herminigildo Ranera.
What brought the crowd to their feet were the two sets of medleys of popular hits simply titled "2015 Playlist" and "2016 Playlist," all arranged by Derrik Atangan. I first heard these sets during PPO's concert with Aegis at the CCP early last year and they're surefire crowd-pleasers. They're like PPO's secret weapons in their outreach concerts. The playlist sets are performed without a solo singer so it's usually the segment when the audience would have their -- pardon the term -- "videoke moments," usually punctuated by collective shrieks if the orchestra would shift to the next familiar piece.
The same thing happened at the RMC Gym-Arena. It's like the name-that-tune portion for the audience. Everytime Ranera would slowly sway his baton for the next song, I heard collective "wows" from people in the bleachers. They instantly knew the next piece just by hearing the first few notes and they'd supply the lyrics for the sing-along.
When a soloist-trumpeteer did the intro of Justin Bieber's "Love Yourself," it's like the gym-arena would collapse, the same way the string section did the first few notes of Bruno Mars' "Versace On The Floor." I hope PPO and music arranger Atangan would soon come up with their "2017 Playlist."
But it's not all foreign material. When the PPO did "Usahay," arranged by National Artist Ryan Cayabyab, I heard the groups of seminarians, nuns, priests, goverment workers near my seat sing along with it.
Now going back to Erik Santos. Seeing him again in person after 14 years, performing live onstage and this time with the country's premier orchestra was a surprise for me. I only found out Santos was a guest when I arrived at the jampacked Rizal Park on the first night of the PPO concert and he was already working the crowd.
On the second night at the RMC Gym-Arena, as the guest soloist Santos did a Basil Valdez medley that also had the crowd singing along with him. The list includes Valdez's classic hits that have become titles and theme songs or both for movies and soaps like "Kastilyong Buhangin," "Gaano Kadalas Ang Minsan," "Ngayon at Kailanman," among others.
After singing "Ikaw," arranged by David Angelo Jorvina, many thought Santos would leave the stage. As an encore, he did "This is the Moment." At some point, he went down from the stage and shook hands, posed selfies with some members of the audience.
Performing one's signature song in every out-of-town concerts for almost a decade-and-a-half could be monotonous and boring for some music artists.
In what looked like a basketball gym turned into concert hall, Santos' enthusiasm and vigor that night could made me feel like he's the same competing newbie on "Star in a Million," clips of which we can always view on You Tube. He's making sure he's hitting the right notes with the right gestures, making no innovations or short cuts. He owned the song and nurtured it like how his career has blown.
It's not an unfamiliar territory for him. In a follow-up interview via Facebook Messenger, Santos said he has performed with the PPO before, same with Manila Philharmonic Orchestra and the ABS-CBN Philharmonic Orchestra. He can't remember the exact years but he feels at home with an orchestra.
"I think I'm a tenor," he said, when asked about his vocal range.
The crowd asked for more but Santos declined saying, "Sorry kahit gusto ko man, may 'ASAP' pa ako bukas." After he left, the PPO did two medleys -- one with Beyonce's hits and the last with modern ballroom.
I failed to see the two final PPO numbers, which I presumed were meant to entice the crowd to stand up and dance. I left the gym right after Santos' segment to avoid the human traffic that would surely fill the exits and the roads outside the gym.
But I have to admit, after 14 years and through the PPO, I became an Erik Santos fan.