Arts and Culture

The life and times of Helen Quach

- Caitlin Alisa Coyiuto -

Who is this amazing woman who has earned for herself the title maestra? How does she live, considering that she once worked as assistant conductor to Leonard Bernstein at the New York Philharmonic? After attending rehearsals and concerts of the Manila Symphony Orchestra at the St. Scholastica’s College and at the Cultural Center of Philippines with my mother Cristine Coyiuto as piano soloist, I discovered the ordinary, yet extraordinary thoughts, feelings, and life of the renowned conductor Helen Quach.

Living in Castlecrag in Sydney, Australia, Quach wakes up at 4:30 a.m. for half an hour of spiritual exercises, something she does three times a day. She chants and prays in an activity she calls “soul travel,” which has been the source of her inspirations, ideas and insights.

Chanting the word “Hu,” an ancient word for god, she becomes a calmer person, helping her to become less fearful and emotional. When she reaches this level in her meditation, she says she feels that her soul has risen from her body, and that is beyond pain.

Quach learned about her fate during a trip to Taipei many years ago. She learned that she was a very lucky person. While most people grew old and weaker, she was told that as she grew older, she would get better and more famous.

After her prayers, she feeds her collection of wild birds, including kookaburras, kurrawon, crimson parrots, lorikeets and a tawny owl that actually came to her windowsill, She also looks after a cat and three dogs. Her cat Jeddah is ginger white, and has been with her for more than 10 years, a gift from a friend. After feeding her birds, he looks after her dogs, an Alaskan Husky named Zorro, a cross-Labrador called Tinkar, and Blacky, which she named for its long, black, curly hair.

Quach’s home overlooks the sea, sitting on the edge of a rocky cliff. She climbs down a 48-step spiral staircase with her dogs for a workout. After she goes back up, she then makes breakfast, usually fresh fruits and congee.

She spends the morning studying operas, including Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde, Lohengrin, and Tannhäuser, which she is now reviewing. Because of opera, she knows five languages: English, Mandarin, Cantonese, French, and Italian. She is also learning old German to further understand Wagner.

During high tide, she enjoys snorkeling, thrilled to see a whole of stingrays, yellowtails, breams, mullets, crabs, sea horses, eels, squids, leather jackets, catfish, and even a 10- to 12-foot-long shark that swam past her. But now, even at low tide, she can snorkel since the recent tsunami deepened the ocean floor.

Lunch is either chicken, pork, beef or any cooked meat, pasta, brown rice, and salad. She says she is able to stay fit and strong following this diet. Dinner is similar, but less. When she dined out with us at a Japanese restaurant in Manila recently, she declared she likes uni, along with caviar and oysters.

Aside from conducting, Quach also plays the piano and sings. She says singing is much simpler than conducting an orchestra, but it requires strong muscles in the diaphragm.

Why did she choose to become a conductor? From the beginning, she loved symphonies, and she was fortunate to have had the chance of working with the great Russian conductor Nikolai Malko.

Quach, who was born in Saigon, led an amazing life like her father, who left school to work on a rice farm to help pay for his uncle’s debts. It was his father’s work delivering vegetables to the city that helped them move from Vietnam to Australia when she was 10.

What does she think of Manila, and of the Manila Symphony Orchestra?

She says that our musicians are talented, hardworking and smart. They have the ability to learn and observe, and listen to each other well. Since she was absent from Manila for a long time, she was amazed to see all the new buildings and malls.

During the three weeks she was in Manila, she repeatedly told friends with a smile that she would definitely return to Manila, seeing that she had good friends here, all supportive, and most of all, who appreciate and love music.

I had one last question for her: If you were to have a single wish granted by God, what would it be?

She replied, “Whatever He gives me is the best that I can have. May the blessings be!”

* * *

Caitlin Alisa Coyiuto is 12 years old, and is a Grade 7 student at the International School Manila. A wide reader and a lover of music, she plays several instruments, namely flute, cello, and piano.









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