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Sunday Lifestyle

The little orchestra that could

IN A NUTSHELL - Samantha King - The Philippine Star

Iwalked into the bar welcomed by a great rush of strings. The air was thrumming with them, the players weaving long, open notes as they went about tuning their instruments for rehearsal.

These were the crème de la crème of the University of the Philippines-College of Music strings department — young, unassuming, classically-trained musicians; dressed in typical UP wear (loose denim, even looser T-shirts), brandishing their wooden weapons of choice.

As I took my seat beside a blown-up photo of Pepe Smith engaged in an arm-wrestling match with Noel Cabangon, the small orchestra took up their positions. The looming double-bass and cellos sat at the rearmost, with the second violins occupying the middle section. Fanning out into a semi-circle were the violas on the right, first violins on the left, and in between them, the timekeeper to their musical pulse, was conductor Prof. Edna Marcil “Michi” Martinez.

It was an unusual sight, to say the least. The venue, My Bro’s Mustache, was a folk bar, an adjunct of the hip and quirky Hive Hotel in Tomas Morato. The walls were lined with posters and photos of the folksy, rock-and-roll variety — Joey Ayala, Freddie Aguilar, Florante, Chikoy Pura, among others — and the area leading up to the second floor was a mad, hand-painted swirl of psychedelic wall art. Behind the principal violist, Emlyn Ponce, a sign read: “No farting.”

I sat alone with a Pale Pilsen in hand, thinking how bars could benefit from the strange, yet pleasant, addition of a string orchestra amidst its crates of beer. Then silence suddenly swept the room, and in the second after Ma’am Mich’s right hand descended, a bright, relentless sound appeared — the opening of Praeludium from Grieg’s Holberg Suite — bearing down on us like the dawn.

* * *

The UP String Orchestra, more popularly known as the UP ARCO, is one of the resident performing groups in the UP-College of Music. They form the backbone of the larger UP Orchestra, comprising the strings section. UP ARCO has around 20 members, students handpicked and trained under the keen eye of Prof. Mich, herself a master violist before picking up the conductor’s baton.

“Anyone can have fast fingers, but I look for attitude,” shares Prof. Mitch. “I would rather have someone weak in technique, but with the drive to train harder, the will to learn.

“Besides,” she adds, “in an orchestra, everyone needs to be a team player. You can’t have one musician racing ahead of the other, refusing to take my tempo.”

UP ARCO has around 20 members, students handpicked and trained under the keen eye of Prof. Mich, herself a master violist before picking up the conductor’s baton.

It was in November 2011 that a brochure surreptitiously appeared in Mich’s pigeonhole — an invitation to the 2012 Festival International de Musique Universitaire in Belfort, France.

“We took it as a challenge. I told the group, if we were going to do this, we had to go all-in,” recalls Mich. That Christmas break was a frantic whirl of cramming rehearsals, raising enough funds for air travel, and finally recording and sending off their audition piece. The group was accepted, made their way to France, and closed their first international run with no less than eight curtain calls.

“Technically, hindi na dapat pwede mag-encore, kasi sunod-sunod yung mga tutugtog,” recalls Emlyn. “Pero pina-encore nang pina-encore kami.”

It was an overwhelming response; the audience visibly moved to tears after UP ARCO closed their set. “I think we particularly won them over with our rendition of La Vie En Rose,” says Prof. Mich, smiling.

Their next international appearance was the 2015 Budapest Music Festival and the 2015 Bratislava International Youth Orchestra Competition, where the group took home the silver medal for the Philippines.

Most recently, a judge at the Bratislava competition, Leonardo Sagliocca, who happened to be director of the 2016 Music Festa Florence Festival, sent an invitation last December announcing UP ARCO’s inclusion in its string orchestra lineup.

Citing the group’s youthful enthusiasm, the purity of sound, their excellent “insieme” (the tonal and rhythmical uniformity of the instruments, which makes the group sound much larger than they are), and interesting repertoire, Sagliocca waived the need for any audition.

“He said, ‘Just come!’” notes Prof. Mich.

Which brings us back to the folk bar at the Hive Hotel. The Hive had generously said yes to the group using its space for free, transformed for the night into a mini-concert-slash-fund-raising event for the UP ARCO.

The orchestra had finished their run-through with a stirring performance of Ryan Cayabyab’s classic Limang Dipang Tao, and the players quickly dispersed to change for the performance proper. By then, I was well and thoroughly covered in goosebumps.

The clock ticked six, quarter past, half past. There were only around 10 other people in the audience with me. Finally, the musicians reappeared, dressed in formal white and black, hair slicked back, faces fresh with a hint of makeup.

Conductor Mich assumed her place at the head of the group. “We were counting the guests from upstairs, wondering if we would be more than all of you gathered here. Some told me they were stuck in traffic,” she joked.

“Nonetheless, whether it’s for an audience of one or 100, we’re very glad to be performing for you tonight.”

I watched as the baton arched through the air, the instruments of 14 musicians coming to life — breathing, moving, and feeling as one.

* * *

Help send UP ARCO to Florence (festival date is from March 15-17)! The group will gladly accept donations or sponsorship deals. Please contact Bernice Go (assistant concert mistress) at 0917-844-3934, or Janine Samaniego (concert mistress) at 0998-555-6856.

For more information on the “eco-chic” Hive Hotel, visit www.hivehotel.com.

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