MANILA, Philippines - To spread the holiday cheer, the ABS-CBN Philharmonic Orchestra gave a Christmas concert last Sunday at the Rockwell Tent. Under the baton of Maestro Gerard Salonga, the ABS-CBN Philharmonic opened the Yuletide show, A Christmas Gift, with Leroy Anderson’s A Christmas Festival, the well-loved orchestral tapestry of famous Christmas tunes from Joy to the World, Jingle Bells, O Come All Ye Faithful to Hark the Herald Angels Sing, The First Noel and Silent Night. This was followed by another great work of the American composer, the season staple Sleigh Ride, which amused the audience as instruments imitated the crunching sound of horses’ hooves on snow — or at least, we couldn’t help imagine.
“This is the first Christmas of the orchestra as a Kapamilya,” said Salonga of the orchestra which was formed early this year as a joint venture of the TV network and First Philippine Holdings Corp. The orchestra has since held classical concerts, performed in network-hosted events, appeared in TV shows like ASAP and provided film scores for such films as A Beautiful Affair and the 2012 Metro Filmfest entry El Presidente.
During the concert, Salonga also talked about their other programs which aim to educate schoolkids who can come and visit them at their home at the ABS compound, the Dolphy Theater, where they rehearse daily. They also do outreach training for underprivileged but musically-inclined youngsters, which is patterned after Venezuela’s successful El Sistema de Orquestas, a foundation that looks after orchestras made up of youths from poor socio-economic backgrounds.
Salonga was proud to note that on their first year, “a lot of people who come to us are seeing an orchestra for the first time,” which is really their goal — to make orchestral music accessible especially to the masses.
Some of the orchestra’s 40 instrumentalists were also spotlighted on stage, like the principal trumpeter Robert de Pano. After they had their auditions for members early this year, Salonga left the position of principal trumpet player vacant, as he reserved it for De Pano, a former child prodigy who became an OFW as he worked as a musician on an international cruise ship — a reality for many Filipino musicians since there are not enough jobs for them in the country, Salonga said. De Pano’s virtuosity shone in the jazzy rendition of I’ll Be Home For Christmas.
There were also excerpts from The Nutcracker, the full production of which they did last month at the CCP with the Philippine Ballet Theater. “It’s a totally different challenge when you set music into something visual,” said Salonga.
The hour-long concert also featured Star Magic artists. First to appear was K-La Rivera, who performed Grown Up Christmas List. K-La is fresh from her stint as Princess Jasmine in the Atlantis production of the musical Disney’s Aladdin — a role Salonga said he knows very well as the singing voice in the animated film was that of his sister Lea.
Winning over the audience was Xian Lim, who apparently has many talents besides acting. The story was that he approached ABS-CBN Philharmonic executive director Mickey Muñoz to ask if he could jam with the orchestra. Muñoz, in turn, told Xian, that “you can’t just jam with an orchestra,” but he could learn from them. Salonga praised the actor for his courage (“There’s no safety net here, like other people singing for actors lip-synching”) and his persistence as he followed them around to continue his studies under the principal trombonist Romeo San Jose. So Xian had his trombone solo in The Christmas Song, visibly nervous but his enthusiasm and effort proved endearing to the audience.
“May isa pa,” added Xian, and this time with confidence, as he played Turkish March on the piano. Xian had music lessons when he was growing up in the States and, in fact, there are old YouTube videos of him playing instruments. Rumored girlfriend Kim Chiu also came to lend her support.
According to Salonga, there are no definite responses to an orchestral performance, that “you can clap, holler or scream when you feel like it.”
The audience hollered and cheered when the orchestra, upon the suggestion of Muñoz, played a medley of the 2012 hits — Maroon 5 to One Direction to Psy of Gangnam Style — to show that while they can play classical music to showcase the breadth and depth of musical and instrumental creativity, they can give pop melodies (usually simple and repetitive in structure) a grand orchestral touch.
In 2013, the ABS-CBN Philharmonic will have a major classical concert, a repeat of the John Williams tribute show they did last September, plus the Sights & Sounds concert. The orchestra will also have a collaboration of shows with the ABS-CBN special projects department.