Choirs sing the Songs of Heaven
- Susan Isorena-Arcega () - January 3, 2010 - 12:00am

MANILA, Philippines - Following the wane of the boy band phenomenon and subsequent repositioning of girl groups thanks to the Korean music invasion, it’s back to basics as music impresarios reeling from age-old Yuletide traditions turn their attention to the cradle of vocal artistry among young people – the choristers.

With Blue Mountain cards giving way to YouTube videos and other cyber-greetings, social networking sites were rife with “Wee-Wee-Chu” notes and other humorous takes on the carolling tradition so popular among Pinoy folk at Christmas time. 

But in bold strokes far removed from their usual affinity with entertainment for the masa, Manila Broadcasting Company treated the public to a gathering of the country’s finest young choristers in a week-long program showcasing the top 40 choirs that passed the nationwide audition, culminating in a marathon five-hour showdown at the Aliw Theater last Dec. 19.

No less than renowned choral music gurus Jonathan Velasco, Fidel Calalang Jr., Arnel de Pano, Sebastian Trinidad, and Moy Ortiz of The CompanY sat on the elite jury which was tasked to determine the year’s winners in both the children’s choir division and the open category. 

Velasco, who heads the Philippine Choral Directors Association, was elated at the turnout, not only because it drew more choral talent than has ever been assembled, but because choirs from all over the country were able to gain public appreciation for a music form heretofore branded as “high art.”   

Indeed, the grand finals of the MBC National Choral Competition was nothing short of a palarong pambansa for choral music. Each of the 12 choirs that made it through the semifinal eliminations brought busloads of supporters that filled the theater to the rafters. And while the audience was requested to reserve their applause until after each song, the deafening cheers that resounded after each choir’s performance were collectively points in favor of music appreciation programs on the grassroots level. 

The children’s choir category featured two-time champion Hiyas ng Pilipinas going up against Batasan Hills Elementary School and three international music festival titlists, no less – Vox Angeli of Santuario de San Jose Greenhills, the Adventist University of the Philippines Young Voices from Silang, Cavite, and the Calasiao Children’s Chorus from Pangasinan. 

In the open category, defending champion Coro de Manila had the daunting task of facing a predominantly Madz-trained roster that included De La Salle University’s Coro Animo, the Mapua Concert Singers, Koro Ilustrado from Santuario de Antonio, Manila Adventist Medial Center Church Choir, Coro San Benildo, Tarlac State University, Baguio’s St. Louis University Glee Club, and Cebu’s University of the Visayas Chorale. 

Innovating on the usual choral platform of three songs per ensemble, MBC asked each choir to prepare its version of the competition hymn – “Payapang Daigdig” for children, and “Pasko Na Sinta Ko” for the open category, together with one novelty number, and three other elective works from which the judges chose on the spot. While the elective compositions expectedly drew the finest chords from each group, the novelty numbers literally brought the house down. 

Calasiao Children’s Chorus, reprising their performance in the World Choir Games by donning highland costumes from the different Cordillera tribes, broke out into a cheeky version of the pop hit “Nobody.” NAMCYA champion SLU Glee Club capped their bid with a Sex Bomb medley, while the UV Chorale (recent winner of the CCP International Choral Competition) essayed marionettes singing the Jason Mraz hit “I’m Yours.” But it was Makati City’s all-male ensemble Koro Ilustrado that had the audience in stitches with their naughty rendition of “Pagbigyan Mo Ako” in stylized harana form.

When the results were announced by Velasco as jury chair, pandemonium broke loose. Hiyas ng Pilipinas, a ragtag group of public school students conducted by Nick Infante, scored their third straight victory in the children’s choir competition, with Vox Angeli taking 2nd, AUP Young Voices 3rd, Calasiao 4th over-all and Batasan Hills taking home the consolation prize. It was a bittersweet win for Hiyas, which only decided to defend its title a week before the contest, fearing an ignominious loss in the hands of three world titlists in the competition roster.

University of the Visayas Chorale, under the stewardship of Anna Piquero, took home the P100,000 grand prize in the open category, edging out SLU by a fraction of a point, with Coro Animo taking third, and audition top-seed Koro Ilustrado settling for fourth place. The glorious win completely overshadowed the Cebuanos’ ill luck upon arrival at the pier the day before, when three of their members fell prey to a gang of thieves.

With Filipino choirs perennially bringing home titles from the world’s most prestigious choral competitions, it was not surprising to see hard-fought battles back home. But what is it that makes this experience of choristership so special and still so prized in an age not often committed to such a demanding enterprise for young people?   

Perhaps it is the history and the continuity of a great musical tradition. Or the amazing music, and   the professionals with whom choristers work. Others reel in the excitement and glamor of concerts, tours, broadcasts, and countless “gigs.” The fine schools, committed teachers… proud lolos, lolas, and yayas… are all very inspiring to the impressionable young – plus, of course, the discipline, performance skills, and standards of excellence that are imbued.

Some will argue that the same adrenalin high and sense of fulfillment can be achieved as a solo vocalist via competitions, or in today’s cyber-age, on YouTube. But there is more to musicianship among the youth than an instant ticket to fame. As choristers mature and move on, they will certainly look back at the happy memories and glorious music they made, carrying a deeper appreciation of drama and precise movement, of beautiful language and proper diction… of silence and stillness and “the holy.” Yes, perhaps it really is the sacrifice involved at the different levels that provides choristership a high and noble ideal, in the name of church ministry or community service.  

Indeed, the role of the chorister provides a tangible link between the past and future of music for and by young people. The rhythm of this contribution is constantly renewed as children’s voices change and their places are taken in their respective choirs by other young musicians. Successive generations of choirs, whether from Cambridge, Vienna, Las Piñas, Malaybalay, or Bohol, have stirred the hearts of audiences, and are now poised to bring wider enjoyment to the Filipino public.

Sony BMG scored a recording industry success with Angelis upon the initiative of Simon Cowell. EMI had recent Manila visitors Libera topping the charts for months. Even Universal had the cherubic Choir Boys selling their version of Tears in Heaven to much acclaim before their voices eventually broke.   

Perhaps local music industry pros can also turn the chorister tradition into a viable commercial alternative?

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