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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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Monday, September 17, 2007

entry arrow10:07 AM | Quaching the Luce

[Note: I didn't want to blog this until today's issue of the Lifestyle section of the Philippine Daily Inquirer. Read the article online, but the one below is the longer version.]

There were three “beginnings” you could derive from the Manila Symphony Orchestra in Concert which had a gala premiere at the Claire Isabel McGill Luce Auditorium last September 7.

First, there was the resounding start as the orchestra opened its repertoire with a tempestuous rendition of the “Lupang Hinirang,” which alone was worth any price of the ticket. Surely, one had never heard the Philippine National Anthem rendered in quite the same way, with such oblique passion, stirring and sweetly troubling at the same time. It made you sit up and think there’s bite to this night yet. In the end, such expectation was justified by the relish one felt when the last notes had rung off, and yet the audience still lingered and hesitated to leave, hoping for an encore that never, unfortunately, came. Nevertheless, it was an evening of classical music that proved a resonating fulfillment for both head and heart—and, yes, ears. For once, the typically testy Dumaguete crowd was moved.

The national anthem, of course, was grand introduction enough to what was to come: under the baton of the world-renowned Helen Quach, the Manila Symphony Orchestra—one of the oldest orchestras in Asia, and which has played host to such luminaries of the classical scene as Montserrat Caballé, Yehudi Menuhin, Igor Oistrach, Eugene Istomin, Fou Ts’ong, Barry Tuckwell, Paul Badura-Skoda and Rony Rogoff, as well as conductors like Andre Kostelanetz, Arthur Fiedler, Mendi Rodan, Robert Feist, and Gareth Nair—has created music that was tantalizing in its control and beauty.

The second beginning comes with the first composition in the programme that the orchestra dove into. In choosing the “Leonore Overture No. 3” by Ludwig van Beethoven, the venerable Ms. Quach set the tone for a night with the masters in their sweeping romantic best. The overture—taken from Beethoven’s sole opera titled “Fidelio” (which is the story of a woman named Leonore coming to the rescue of her imprisoned husband Florestan while dressed as a prison guard named Fidelio)—is known in music circles as the very apotheosis of Beethoven’s dramatic music. The orchestra beautifully managed to clinch the demands of the beginning with strings and woodwind slowly descending for an octave, and in that musical instant I could picture Florestan in his subterranean prison, despairing. It is a highly dramatic piece that ranges from the deep sighing of strings and bassoon to a feisty main section with the violins and cello—and through it all, Ms. Quach, who conducted without any scores, showed herself the full master of her art with exquisite sense of “timpla” for each instrument, massaging each section into one another which made the overture truly the drama that it promised to be. That sweeping drama is equaled in intensity with the orchestra’s third and last piece for the night, with Pyotor Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 in E minor, where Ms. Quach effortlessly strove to render the dramatic arc demanded of the piece, from the funereal first movement to the triumphant march of the last.

With Edvard Grieg’s “Piano Concerto in A minor” as their middle piece, the orchestra is joined by concert pianist Cristine Coyiuto, who has been dubbed by critics as the “poetess of the piano.” That distinction is a right perfectly earned by Ms. Coyiuto for her intense virtuoso take on the piano, and last Friday night, she seamlessly took on the haunting first movement of Grieg’s masterpiece, but retained a surprising nimbleness verging on savage grace that somehow came to me as a grand gesture towards the Norwegian folk sound of the composer’s birthplace whose centenary we celebrate this year.

That Ms. Coyiuto is a brilliant pianist is a matter of wide recognition. She has attended the Juilliard School in New York City under Jacob Lateiner. In Europe, she furthered her development as an artist of the first rank with renowned pianists Nikita Magaloff, Gaby Casadesus, Philippe Entremont, and Fou Ts’ong—and she ultimately became a lauréate of the Académie Internationale de Musique “Maurice Ravel” in St Jean-de-Luz, France and in the Genève Conservatoire in Switzerland.

Grieg’s composition—one of my favorite pieces—has been described once by Geoff Kuenning as having an “unforgettable dramatic opening cadenza to the sweepingly grand final chords…,” and the concerto itself “filled with invention, originality, and sparkle that cannot help but please the ear.” In Coyiuto’s explorations of the music’s sweep, under the intense guidance of Quach’s directions, Grieg sounded almost like the best of guilty secrets.

I mentioned a third beginning in the beginning of this article. Perhaps a better word is “reemergence.” That rightfully belongs to that exact moment when Ms. Quach took to the Luce Auditorium stage, ready to pounce—for that was how her energy seemed to be like last Friday night—on the music, and to wrest from the score an orchestral equivalent of heaven.

For Dumaguete to see a living legend in action is astounding enough to consider. Ms. Quach, who was born in Saigon to Chinese parents and who had made her conducting debut in 1960 with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra (the first woman ever appointed to the post), had retired from active conducting a few years back after she had an electrocution accident, after which she also discovered she had breast cancer. She chose to bow out from a career that had her leading some of the best orchestras in the world, including the Washington’s National Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center, the American Symphony at Carnegie Hall, Germany’s Gottinger Symphony, and a host of others in Japan, Korea, Italy, Denmark, Hong Kong, France, among others. She opted to convalesce in her home in Sydney, Australia where she would do battle with the disease, resolving to heal herself without surgery, chemotherapy, or radiotherapy, aiding herself only in the Eck spiritual exercises of chanting “hu,” which involved a higher sense of consciousness beyond the physical realm.

The experience had left her a gentler soul—that was the conductor we saw on the Luce stage Friday night—a perfect contrast to a temperamental reputation that had earned her the title “the lady tyrant of the podium.” That was not without merit, however. Her mentor, the famous Leonard Bernstein, called her a maestra with “[sharp] rhythmic sense… [quick] reflexes, her address to the orchestra captivating.” Grace Shangkuan Koo writes of her reputation in the Philippine Daily Inquirer: “A music treasure of Asia, Helen was known for her fashion sense, whether wearing a miniskirt or a cheongsam. She is also distinguished by a set of huge commanding brilliant eyes framed by her signature thick black bob bouncing in rhythm.”

The bob and the commanding brilliant eyes remain, although the cheongsam is gone, replaced Friday night with a tailored dress in severe black, punctuated at the back with a triangular patch of gold. The sartorial consideration must pale of course to the music she wrought from the Manila Symphony Orchestra: she made sumptuous a night’s excursion through classical music, commanding the Luce stage like the baton queen she was, and continually is.

[photo of the orchestra by john lacson]

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