Year 2018 may be almost over, but the University of the Philippines is not yet done with the business of outdoing itself.
Last week, it seemed like the whole nation rose up and rallied an overachieving UP basketball team into the championship finals, ending 32 fruitless years of just being in the sidelights. The faithful who cheered loudest for a squad they called “16 Strong” are expected to this week embrace their “Sixty-Five Strong”—the new University of the Philippines Symphony Orchestra (UPSO).
It has taken UP almost 70 years to reconstitute its symphony with a fresh crop of fine musicians, since it began in the 1950s led by Professor Ramon Tapales. This cultural milestone is happening in the same storied varsity year, and almost by design. For not only has UP been favored with an avid sports fanatic, but also a devoted champion of the arts, in university president Danilo Concepcion.
A full-size orchestra with regular members is the crowning achievement of efforts in the past year to create a vibrant performing arts scene on campus. Led by the 102-year-old UP College of Music and its new dean, Dr. Verne de la Peña (who was appointed in November 2017), the goal was to help Abelardo Hall—as the College of Music is also known—produce a steady musical fare for the enjoyment of diverse concert-goers, not for the UP crowd alone. Hence, February 2018 saw the birth of the Abelardo Hall Concert Series. To date, this platform for monthly high-caliber productions has showcased UP’s musical jewels: the Madrigal Singers, Jazz Ensemble, Symphonic Band, Concert Chorus and “Mr. C” himself, former College of Music professor Ryan Cayabyab who returned to his Abelardo roots just a few weeks before he was bestowed the National Artist award. Innovative performers also took the stage including the UP Dance Company, Tugma Koto Ensemble, Ripieno Ensemble, and the Baihana and Lozada trios.
Performing soloists were led by concert pianist Albert Tiu, tenor Jonathan Badon, sopranos Maria Kit Navarro, Stephanie Quintin and Kelly Peralejo, flutist Tony Maigue, cellist Giancarlo Gonzales, guitarist Patrick Roxas, folk singer Bullet Dumas, and emerging jazz divas Lara Maigue and Phoebe Bitoon.
Circle of friends
With a fixed concert season in place, audiences have been sustaining the different shows and filling up seats at the 55-year-old Abelardo Hall Auditorium (fondly nicknamed “AHA” by music students). The venue is fast transforming into a cultural hub envisioned for the northern side of Metro Manila. Where they used to head south to catch similar performances at the Cultural Center of the Philippines, Resorts World Auditorium, and other distant venues, QC people now have AHA as an alternative.
A group of UP alumni also lent a hand by organizing the “Friends of Abelardo”—a small circle of, well, friends belonging to different colleges. The group purchased full season tickets, coaxed sponsors, and brought other friends and families to see the shows.
“They kept asking if UP had an orchestra,” Dean De La Peña remembers; “they” referring to his band of alumni volunteers and concert regulars. “Then they’d ask some more, until the question finally evolved into: What would it take to have one?”
At first, the dean would reply with a prudent reality check. “I would tell them that a university orchestra depends mainly on two things: availability of resources, and availability of musicians. At the College of Music, we neither had enough of both.”
Even if someone suddenly shouldered the high cost of maintaining an orchestra, he continued to explain, enrollment in the college was just too small to be able to form a full-blown ensemble. The college only had its smaller orchestra class, but this was disbanded at the end of every semester. Encouraged nonetheless by bubbling enthusiasm among the “Friends,” De la Peña began pencil-pushing a proposal for an orchestra, composed of members not entirely from UP. An orchestra would be a key pillar of the community cultural center concept he had in mind. (Later on, it was decided that UPSO slots would be filled up by UP students, faculty, staff, and alumni from different campuses).
De la Peña’s boss, the UP president Concepcion, turned out to be the orchestra’s biggest patron. “Dannycon” (the president’s popular monicker) was in fact a regular concert attendee in AHA. He sometimes snuck in alone at the end of his workday in Quezon Hall, UP’s administrative building just across the auditorium. The idea for a university orchestra was said to have caught on fast with Concepcion after the proposal reached his table. In August this year, he successfully persuaded the UP Board of Regents to give the orchestra its green light, along with enough of a budget to mount at least six different concerts in a year. Orchestra members would also be receiving honoraria for every rehearsal and performance.
Not a student orchestra
The public will catch its first glimpse of the new UPSO during an open-air Christmas concert on December 13. It will debut more formally next February in a gala performance that will also kick off Abelardo Hall’s 2019 concert season.
The choice of a conductor who would lead UP’s very own symphony was anything but debated. Professor Chino Toledo, who has taught orchestration, conducting and composition courses at the College of Music, was tapped quickly as UPSO's first musical director owing to his lengthy experience and international credentials. He most recently conducted China’s award-winning Guangxi Symphony Orchestra and the Metro Manila Concert Orchestra. Toledo oversaw UPSO’s auditions where he went through about a hundred aspirants. He picked a final cast of 65 musicians with a diverse profile: 34 are students, including non-music majors from the Diliman, Manila and Los Baños units. Also with the pioneering group are a couple of teachers from the College of Engineering, another two who work in the university’s human resource and development office, and a few teaching in the non-degree music extension classes.
“Though half our members are still studying, we are not a student orchestra,” Toledo emphasized. “Our goal is a (performance) level that’s comparable with, if not better than other full orchestras.”
He is optimistic for the orchestra’s sustainability in the next years. Toledo believes that if they can perform often in a regular venue like Abelardo Hall, the group can only become more cohesive and be able to raise their standards over time.
It’s difficult for orchestras to play to an audience’s whim and fancy. After all, they aren’t designed to take requests for particular tunes. Pieces are rehearsed way ahead (sometimes two years in advance!) and repertoire must be planned forward. That’s because some music may need new arrangements, soloists have to be identified, and copyright payments are tightly budgeted, among many other factors.
“It’s a given that our repertoire will be versatile. We’ll try to balance the old and new, the local and foreign works,” Toledo says. “We will perform the appropriate program for the appropriate venue. However, we won’t be boxed into certain types—for example, music for corporate shows or weddings that already have countless interpretations on YouTube.”
UPSO hopes to create its own niche of works to interpret, Toledo adds. “We will always look for an interesting program, the one that audiences will be talking about because it gave them a new and challenging experience.” Accordingly, many of his musicians were motivated to join UPSO so they could be part of a distinct mark which Toledo can only describe as tatak-UP.
“We will seek the Filipino’s soul and psyche through orchestral works,” says Toledo. “It’s also good to make the audience think and analyze, even as we bring our music straight into their hearts. Yan ang musikang may utak at puso.”
The UP Symphony Orchestra performs for the very first time on Thursday, December 13, 2018, 6 p.m. at the sprawling grounds of the UP Amphitheater. It’s free so concert-goers can lay back, relax (have a picnic!) and enjoy some of the best-loved pop and traditional Christmas music.
The author helped organize the “Friends of Abelardo.” They intend to make it a wider circle by welcoming more friends. If you’re interested to know more about the 2019 Abelardo Hall Concert Season, please drop them a note at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit music.upd.edu,ph