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This is the blog of Ian Rosales Casocot. Filipino writer. Sometime academic. Former backpacker. Twink bait. Hamster lover.

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Tuesday, October 03, 2006

entry arrow10:08 PM | Step 1 Back to Normal Life : Watch an Orchestral Concert

The thought came to me that Thursday night, a little more than a week ago, that the choice of orchestral music was ironically and strangely appropriate for our town.

It had been half a decade since we last heard them play. But when the Philippine Philharmonic Orchestra finally came to Dumaguete for that rare concert, this time in the newly-refurbished Sofia Soler Auditorium in Foundation University, they chose Franz Schubert's Symphony No. 8 as its opening salvo. The Schubert piece is otherwise (and perhaps more famously) known as the Unfinished Symphony, and for those in the know, it can very well be both metaphor and irony for this atypical gathering of Dumaguetenos come to this corner of our "university town" for a taste of classical music.

I will get to the metaphor later, but first must come the irony.

That a musical score left undone by the Austrian composer should be played in a packed Sofia Soler Hall is ironic. Sofia Soler Hall had, for the longest time, been relegated to the doldrums of local theater for the sheer horror of its cramped accommodations, imperfect acoustics, and non-existent, even hellish, ventilation. Unfinished, indeed, if we only consider the potential it could have realized as a legitimate stage for local performances. When was the last time all of Dumaguete watched anything at all in Sofia Soler?

Today, however, we celebrate Sofia Soler Hall's reincarnation -- and the Sincos do it one better by inviting Maestro Eugene Fredrick Castillo, PPO's fourth music director and principal conductor, to come with the country's foremost orchestra and rededicate Sofia Soler to an invigorated thrust to become one of Dumaguete's leading centers for the performing arts.

Consider the careful redesign of the theater that comes at the heels of Foundation University's earnest efforts to refurbish its campus and its academic programs. Many of the changes are subtle, but some are quite dramatic. All in all, it is essentially a better, and perhaps more imaginative, reworking of the old building, the structure of which has stayed for the most part. There are some structural changes in the stage (now bigger) and in the acoustic and sound system (now modernized). But what has changed dramatically is the open-air design concept, each side wall of the auditorium making way for the natural ventilation of night air, of nothingness. Which may be strange for any auditorium, but in Sofia Soler's case, a strange suitability.

There is also the welcome banishment of the old and uncomfortable bleachers with wooden chairs, and raising the floor to a balcony level. There are now the orchestra seats and the balcony seats, perhaps to appropriate the old (and beloved) snobbishness to the theatergoing experience where your seat assignment largely determines your social status. I have no quarrel with that: it's a quaint practice now invariably lost in the "democratization" of local theater -- which, for the longest time, largely means the Claire Isabel McGill Luce Auditorium, where even gala shows now have patrons going to the ballet in jeans. (Sofia Soler -- like the rest of the civilized world -- insists on long skirts or dresses for balcony ladies. Which makes for a merry and beautiful sight. In my snobbish heart, I sometimes wonder whether the masa-fication of local theater-going is a factor in the declining interest in performance art in Dumaguete, given the mere fact that most Dumaguetenos, for better or for worse, love to be seen. Because, really, we used to go to the theater partly to entertain ourselves, partly to indulge in sophisticated artistic treat, partly to keep a necessary appointment in the local social calendar, and partly to dress up and be seen. Now, even what remains of high society in Oriental Negros has shied away into the shadows, leaving culture in Dumaguete City bereft of patrons, except jeans-clad teenagers required by their Fine Arts teacher to watch and write reaction papers. How perfectly dreary.)

But to get back to the music.

The concert was not exactly Philippine Philharmonic Orchestra's best, which is not to say they were not good. They were very, very good -- it's just that I've heard them play better. Seven years ago to be exact, when they were still under the baton of Ruggero Barbieri. But there has always been that tendency among some Manila performing companies to "tone down" their standard for provincial shows. (Read: Promdi lang ang mga 'yun, they don't know any better.)

Should I say uninspired? Perhaps. There is the matter of the short program -- only two symphonies and a scattering of local musical pieces that is at best interesting. In their rendition of Ludwig van Beethoven's Symphony No. 8, the rigorous score -- famous for its cyclic legro vivace e con brio with its overwhelming crescendo near the end, its amusing and even affectionate allegreto, its coarse menuetto, and its fierce and fast allegro vivace -- does not approach transcendence like the best renditions of it. I've heard this symphony performed before in Suntory Hall in Tokyo by the Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra when I did not know my Mozart from my Bach, and the piece -- the first time I heard it -- moved me because it was ... well, cheerful. I did not expect that of classical music. But it has always been a score often left to the sidelines of more famous Beethoven pieces because it is not as overtly heroic as some of the others, nor too emotional. Which may be why I like it: its beauty is subtle. Carl Czerny once asked Beethoven why the Eighth Symphony was not -- as it is also now -- as well-received by audiences as the Seventh. The master was supposed to have replied: "Because the Eighth is so much better."

Their take on Schubert's Unfinished Symphony -- which opens the concert -- was comparably so much better. Or perhaps my initial reception to it was colored by the fact of personal excitement. But I have always loved Schubert -- always my secret pick every time people ask me who my favorite composer is, and I invariably reply, "Mozart," because people always get that answer without necessitating explanation. Schubert's Symphony No. 8 -- a seminal piece since the symphony's key, in B minor, had never been done before even by Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven -- may be best known to ordinary people (those who loved the Tom Cruise sci-fi thriller Minority Report anyway) as incidental music in that Steven Spielberg movie. Those who grew up watching The Smurfs will also get its first movement as the accompanying music to the villain Gargamel. I like the way the score begins in virtual silence, and then straining, as in a call, into a mournful arc that ends each time in dramatic crescendo. The piece, like the first time I heard it in a borrowed CD recording, gave me goose bumps.

I don't remember much of the "Matud Nila" number, perhaps because I found it unnecessary, a token gesture for the Bisaya in all of us. What I found delightfully surprising was the vigorous reworking by Carmelo Elli (who conducted in lieu of Maestro Castillo) of the often sedate "Dumaguete Hymn," composed so many years ago (and sang in schools!) by Cate Villariza, and eternally reminding me of the classic Christmas paean, "Silver Bells." (Doesn't it?) But it worked, the whole new arrangement -- easily becoming one of the highlights of the short show.

But what was virtually the highlight of the show -- precipitating a standing ovation -- was the encore, a medley of all the favorite songs from the musical The Sound of Music. Everything, from the title song to "Do-Re-Mi" to "Climb Every Mountain." Because it was familiar, because everybody loved and grew up with this musical by Rodgers and Hammerstein, and because everybody in the popular mainstream had lost that feel for the classical (Schubert who?), it proved the musical hit of the night, so much so that many in the audience refused to budge from their seats even after conductor and musicians bowed out from the stage. Perhaps they were hoping to hear more popular fare, and perhaps they were feeling that the concert had only and barely begun. I will not quarrel with popular appeal -- hey, I found myself singing along all the songs, too -- simply because film scores (by musical theater greats, as well as composers such as John Williams, John Barry, and Thomas Newman) really are the new "symphonies," sadly relegating the music of the masters to the Museum of the Sophisticated Old Fart.

That the Dumaguete audience -- composed for the most part by the local culturati and what remains of the local "socialites" (even the mayor was there!) -- watching the concert that Thursday night embodied this very last realization provides me my example for that metaphor I mentioned at the beginning of this essay. How sadly "unfinished" we all are, taste-wise, not that it matters anymore either.

It brought me some sad realizations, but nonetheless I enjoyed a really good show.

But one last note to Dumaguetenos: please don't clap between the movements of symphonies. It's like applauding the singer after the first stanza of the song and right before the chorus. You just don't do that. It's rude.

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