Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Three grands at the CCP

This is my column today; it's one of those pieces that I had to finish in less than an hour because the original material for my column today didn't work out. Sigh.

Can you imagine the kind of sensory and musical experience that can be produced by three grand pianos, three of the country’s noted pianists, and the Philippine Philharmonic Orchestra performing together in one stage? I couldn’t, so I went to watch 3 Grands: A Piano Celebration at the Main Hall of the Cultural Center of the Philippines last Friday, Jan. 9.

It was an astounding experience. To say that I was blown away is an understatement. The kind of music that can be produced by one musical virtuoso playing on a grand piano can already be marvelous beyond words. How much more three musical geniuses on three grand pianos, along with a full orchestra?

The concert was the opening salvo of the CCP for 2009. Since the CCP is also celebrating its 40th year anniversary this year, it can be said that the concert kicked off the year-long celebration of the CCP’s “new life,” 40 being the proverbial start of a new lease on life. I can only say that it was an auspicious opening salvo—if the rest of the performances scheduled this year can approximate the kind of sensory overload produced by 3 Grands, then the CCP is really off to a great new beginning.

The title of the concert, 3 Grands obviously also referred to the three grand musicians featured in the concert. They are three of the country’s distinguished pianists, namely, Abelardo Galang II, Pia Margarita Balasico, and Jose Artemio Panganiban III.

They performed two Mozart pieces—a sonata for two pianos and Concerto in F Major for Three Pianos and Orchestra, a highly dramatic piece by F. Poulenc, and presented the world premiere of Kulay-Tugtugin, a suite for three pianos comprised of local folksongs arranged by Augusto Espino.

The Mozart pieces, as expected, were immensely delightful. Mozart’s pieces offered contrasts that alternately caressed, tickled, overwhelmed, and calmed the audience. One friend described the experience as riding on a train and going through rustic villages, forests, and cityscapes.

The Poulenc sonata performed by Galang and Panganiban was riveting and highly dramatic, presenting alternating contrasts from fragile quietness, to dark gloominess, to spirited exuberance. Galang and Panganiban performed like they were master storytellers and actors fleshing out parts of an epic. The duo proved that music alone can evoke multi-sensory experiences.

But the piece that brought the concert to a rousing close and brought the audience to its feet was Kulay-Tugtugin, a suite comprised of Ang Alibangbang, Atin cu pung Singsing, Ambo Hato, Ili-ili Tulog Anay, and Sampung mga Daliri. Because these pieces are familiar to most Filipinos as they are songs we learned in childhood, it was expected that people would be able to relate with them. But Espino’s arrangement redefined the concept of elegance.

Listening to the folk songs being performed on three grand pianos reminded me of nugget of wisdom shared by a beloved college professor: The mark of a genius is not in the ability to make the simple complicated, but in the power to make the complicated simple. Making folk songs into symphonic pieces is a tall order and sometimes arrangers go overboard to make them more complicated than they really should be. But being able to transform folk songs into symphonic pieces without losing their original texture and their soul is something else; it deserves commendation. After all, Atin cu pung Singsing and Sampung mga Daliri are not just melodies they are an important part of our lives as Filipinos. I swear I have never heard Ili-ili Tulog Anay arranged and performed in such a way that brought tears to one’s eyes.

Of the three, Galang is probably the more recognizable on account of previous solo performances here and abroad. He had also done two recordings, including a 2005 CD of Schumann and Chopin works. His latest CD is of kundiman songs arranged by Ryan Cayabyab and featuring celebrated Filipino baritone Jonathan de la Paz Zaens. At the concert last Friday, the one word that came to mind to describe his performance was “poetry.”

Balasico, on the other hand, is another celebrated pianist who is known in academic circles as a mentor and professor. She is in the faculty of the University of the Philippines College of Music. This was the first time I watched her perform and her performance last Friday gave us appreciation of the nuances in tone, color, emotion that can be derived from a piano performance.

If Panganiban III has a name that sounds familiar, that’s because he is the son and namesake of the former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court who was present in the audience last Friday and rightfully beamed like a proud father. One word that describes Panganiban’s performance last Friday was “intense.”

I know Panganiban III not as a piano prodigy but as a banker. In fact, I had no idea that he was a renowned concert pianist until last week. He is currently a Vice President in one of the global financial institutions. How he has been able to effectively balance finance and music—two seemingly irreconcilable fields of discipline—is a source of wonder and inspiration to me.

I also took up piano lessons as a child but had to give it up because I was a victim of the phenomenon called the “Tyranny of the Or” which says that people should make painful choices—they can either be left-brained or right brained, right-handed or left-handed, bankers or artists. The fact that Panganiban is highly successful in two disparate fields—finance and classical music—should serve as inspiration to many out there who have trouble striking a balance between seemingly incongruent passions.

It’s been quite sometime since I last set foot inside the cavernous Main Theatre of the CCP. I’ve watched a number of performances in the complex, but mostly in the Little Theatre or in the smaller and more functional Huseng Batute theatre, where most plays are staged. If my memory serves me right, the last time I was inside the Main Theatre prior to last week was to watch a performance of the Broadway musical Miss Saigon a number of years ago. If even regular art lovers have not been patronizing the major shows of CCP in the last couple of years, it speaks a lot about the need for CCP to put in place more aggressive marketing programs to generate an audience, or in my case, to bring back people who used to be part of its regular audience.

The CCP is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year. The main celebration will be held on September 8, which will be highlighted by day-long activities, culminating in a gala presentation that will feature—hold your breath—five orchestras, a number of soloists and chorales, and a host of popular and concert singers and dancers. There are a number of other programs and concerts scheduled throughout the year. Hopefully, these are enough to rekindle interest in the performing arts, and in the CCP, once again.

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