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Casa San Miguel: Guardian of excellent art & music

Home is where the art is: The Casa San Miguel main house, built in 1921, is an eclectic brick and wood château that houses a museum, a café, and a 100-seater concert hall.

MANILA, Philippines - The Filipino has a long-standing reverence for the blessed San Miguel, the sword-wielding angel who trampled evil out of the heavens. Such sacred heroism had been a metaphor of sorts for the optimistic Pinoy, where the strong seraphim defeats the demon of desperation, finding them in pint-sized yet passionate Fernando Amorsolo depictions pasted on the countryside’s most-desired “blinding” brew, or in old English flourishes emblazoned in the country’s most celebrated beer; the spirit of San Miguel had always been the country’s “guardian of good times.”

But there is a home, hidden in the quaint seaside village in San Antonio, Zambales that, in the same likeness, image, and plight of the winged warrior saint, chooses to uplift and defend a different kind of good  —  this time, good art.

Casa San Miguel, found in the 15-hectare ancestral farmland and seaside estate of the Corpus-Bolipata clan, has, since 1921, been home to generations and generations of artistic prominence.

Its first resident, Ramon L. Corpus, was a celebrated concert violinist, a pioneer in what was the Manila Symphony Orchestra, who acquired the patch of land nestled between Zambales’s rolling hills and roaring seas, and deemed it perfect for the modest life of an agriculturist. Yet, what the grand patriarch cultivated, instead, was a lengthy love affair for wonderful music, beauty, and excellence found in the blossoming world of art. There was plenty of inspiration to come by in the rustic thatches of robust mango trees, the fine sand paths, and the calming waters of the San Miguel beach, that the house honed such Pinoy art luminaries as visual artist Plet Bolipata-Borlongan, writer and educator Rica Bolipata-Santos, master cellist Chino Bolipata, and internationally renowned concert violinist and Juilliard alumni, Alfonso “Coke” Bolipata. Yet, with whatever combined artistic prowess the siblings may have, there is still quite a lot of room for more art to thrive in the Casa.

So, in 1993, Coke Bolipata opened the gates of their creative retreat to a handful of San Antonio kids sharing the same passionate pursuit for excellence in the melodious craft of strings, and, soon after, the Creative Alternatives for Social Action in San Miguel took to light. Coke Bolipata explains, “Post-Pinatubo, people were looking for other sources of livelihood, like sari-sari store businesses, and the government was giving grants specifically for these. During these times, art and culture for Zambales residents were like, ‘what?!’ It was under these circumstances that we started and we haven’t stopped since.”

Now in its second decade, the Casa San Miguel has harnessed the talents of over 500 children, mostly coming from fishing, farming, and other meek backgrounds into the world of Vivaldi, Bach and Beethoven, and the inevitable standing ovations in China, Japan, Jakarta, in addition to our own stages.

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“Our question is, why does excellence come from the under-privileged sector? You cannot say that people who can afford to take on an instrument will amount to excellence. There’s that extra X-factor that if you’re poor, it’s your way to be identified away from your actual status in life. It is in our programs in Tondo, it is here in San Miguel, and more and more people excelling in music now are coming from the under-privileged,” shares Coke Bolipata, dispelling the stereotype that classical music is a thing of luxury, and describing his unlikely move of focusing on indigent communities in harnessing the some of the best musical talents this country will ever hear.

And, like a well-orchestrated changing of the guards, it had been a Casa San Miguel tradition to turn grown scholars  —  some have since been deployed in the Philippine High School of the Arts, UP Conservatory of Music, and UST Conservatory of Music  —  into mentors themselves, offering one-on-one mentorship programs to new scholars, some as young as three years old. “Every child is gifted, as long as you harness it at a very young age. With a really early exposure, they really get to master their talents. Mentorship is very vital in this formula. It’s very important that our teachers really care about who they are teaching. It is spiritual, in a way, like parenthood or siblinghood. They become more like ‘kuyas’ or ‘ates’ to these little kids, and who better to give this sort of passion than the alumni themselves?” reveals Bolipata.

 

The same focused and openhanded tutelage does not stop at music alone, as the Casa San Miguel had also been the address of acclaimed visual and literary artists in the country. In each of its 20 seasons, Casa San Miguel offered art residency to painters, multi-media artists, photographers, filmmakers, and writers, each with a distinct direction and output, yet all imbibing the same community-development spirit through creativity that is well found in the air and water of the Casa. Each season is highlighted with a summer arts program, a summer camp of sorts for creative-wielding youngsters coming from the various corners of the archipelago, each drawn by the passion of the house and its renowned residents. And such prolific output of artists coming, going, or staying, breathed life to the eclectic château-like architecture of the house, where attics were turned into museums, main living spaces were transformed into concert halls, and nooks and pathways were lined with conceptual sculptures and engaging installations.

The Museum of Community Heritage, found on the topmost floor of Casa San Miguel, displays amid skylights and lofty ceilings, the full-bodied heritage of the Zambaleño. From its textured history of heroic presidents and Pinatubo explosions, to its rich coastlines riddled with historical artifacts.

 “We are hoping that, with the museum, we can get more and more people to come and visit Casa San Miguel. We want more and more kids to get interested in picking up an instrument or learn an art form, just because they had a field trip here,” says Coke Bolipata.

Should you be a patron looking for a prodigy, an artist in search of his muse, or an art lover craning to find her romance, a stay at Casa San Miguel could very well satiate one’s creative cravings. With six deluxe rooms, or casitas, if you will, and one stately VIP accommodation, the Casa offers a unique respite from the usual diversions. With rooms equipped with the barest essentials and the most unexpected touches, a night at the Casa surely does a lot to inspire. What it lacks in the flash of hotel gizmos and gadgetry, it makes up for in the infinite sources of entertainment, from the echoes of the violins from the scholars learning their daily share of symphonies, the well-opened doors of the Siemens Gallery and its often groundbreaking displays of visual art, a charming corner in the Casa’s Backstage Café where gourmet flavors find their rustic flair, or, if you’re lucky, a star-lit performance of a world renowned orchestra in the open-air ampitheater — you realize this is not your usual weekend accommodation.

And, as though the heart of the house as it was built, the Ramon L. Corpus Concert Hall — a wooden wonder of acoustic and architectural design — is a resounding monument to world-class performance. Melodic names such as Joey Ayala, Grace Nono, Cecile Licad, the Oberlin Conservatory, Madrigal Singers, David Eggar and an aria of other musical wunderkinds have all shared the stage of the historic concert hall, but it is, after all, the Pundaquit Virtuosi who is always its most notable showcase. 

The Pundaquit Virtuosi, a 20-piece ensemble of the finest Casa San Miguel scholars, has been the face and hands of the foundation, representing the art house’s excellence in stages well across Asia and the country. Most aged below their 20s and coming from around San Antonio, Zambales, the members have now gone to universities around the metro, and most come home during the weekends to train some 140 budding scholars of Casa San Miguel. Some of them have even set up Casa San Miguel satellite workshops in Tondo, Manila. 

Such is the heritage the house wants to imbibe among its students, just as well as its audiences, a sense of selfless community development through shared talent, a sense of social responsibility grounded in the arts, and a sense of the possibilities of achieving one’s dreams despite their limiting realities. And it is also in this same spirit that Casa San Miguel unveiled the 20th season of its renowned Pundaquit Festival with a concert performance and a multi-media exhibition at the promenade of Harbor Point Mall in Subic Bay Freeport.

After taking the guests to a “peep” through the Casa San Miguel’s history, the Pundaquit Virtuosi climbs on stage, led, of course, by their mentor, Bolipata. The party playlist did not fail to enthrall; its guests, comprised of shopping-tired mall-goers, were treated to a polished premiere of Antonio Vivaldi’s La Primavera, then the passionate renditions of Scent of a Woman’s Fortuna Cabeza Tango and Carmen’s Habanera, off to the more playful Hungarian Dance No. 5. Pundaquit Virtuosi also played Coldplay’s Viva La Vida.

Such a promising unveiling for the five-month festival that quickly follows, Casa San Miguel’s 20th Pundaquit Festival, aptly entitled Pamana, becomes a collection of dates, personalities, ar,t and experiences that are quick to become heirloom-worthy features in our art history. A celebration of food, film, and photography takes center stage today, Feb. 9, as Casa San Miguel’s Backstage Café hosts the Samedi Gras Food Celebration coinciding with the exhibit opening of photography resident artist, Geric Cruz, entitled, “I Feel Safe.” March 16 will see the unforgettable pairing of Philippine Philharmonic Orchestra musical director Oliver Ochanine and founder Coke Bolipata with the Pundaquit Chamber Players for the Casa San Miguel’s Foundation Day celebrations. April 1 will usher in the start of the annual summer camp arts program, where Casa San Miguel opens up to young workshoppers interested in developing their excellence in the fields of music, visual arts, film, photography, and creative writing. And on May 25, the “Pamana: 20th Pundaquit Festival” culminates at the Fort Bonifacio Global City where Coke Bolipata and the Pundaquit Virtuosi are set to perform their symphonic best. Indeed, a very busy season where music, art, and the celebration of the finest things in life are concerned, Casa San Miguel could only have brightness and optimism in store for its future.

While art gives us the power to dream and music gives us the joy and freedom for its pursuit, Coke Bolipata admits that Casa San Miguel also faces certain limitations. While the house can only dream of more and more students to come into its doors, the cost of raising future Vivaldis and Bachs don’t come cheap, rounding the total house expenses to P5-million annually. “We survive. We’re like zero balance in the beginning (of the season) and zero balance in the end. As a business model, we are in the red, and we have every reason to close. But, we’re lucky enough that we have corporate sponsors like Starbucks that give us a good 35 to 45 percent of our budget every year. Without them, we would have closed five or seven years ago, or our program wouldn’t be as rich or productive,” Bolipata reveals.

While some are subsidized by the newly-opened Casa San Miguel Community Heritage Museum, Backstage Café, and Bed & Breakfast, and part come from the foundation’s generous corporate and individual patrons, Bolipata is quick to agree that Casa San Miguel could only hope for more, just so it can continuously equip a succeeding generation of classical musicians, visual artists, filmmakers, photographers, and writers.

Where there is a dream so strong and a handful of benevolent, generous people behind you, the vision will continue to thrive and bear fruit, just as is the case of Casa San Miguel.

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For more information on Casa San Miguel, its amenities, art showcases, or how you can help out on its art programs, visit www.casasanmiguelph.com.

 

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