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Manila Symphony Orchestra says 'viva la vida' to opera fans

By SCOTT GARCEAU, The Philippine STAR Published Mar 09, 2024 5:00 am

Did you know Manila once had its own opera house? It’s true, says Italy’s Ambassador to Manila Marco Clemente: a century ago, going to opera here was “as popular as going to the movies.” 

Manila Symphony Orchestra (MSO), nearing its 100th anniversary, shook the chandeliers of the Jaime Zobel de Ayala Hall lobby at Samsung Performing Arts Theater for a mini concert. Puccini was the main order of the day, with conductor Marlon Chen at the baton; a mini-program featured selections from Giacomo Puccini’s operas Suor Angelica and Gianni Schicchi, with soprano Rachelle Gerodia-Park lending her voice to the upper registers. These two Puccini classics are scheduled for a “double bill” concert this March 16 and 17 at Hyundai Hall, Areté, Ateneo de Manila University. It’s a fundraising opera gala for the benefit of the MSO Foundation, as it nears an exciting centennial in 2036.

The MSO’s two-year "Road to 100" begins with the Puccinia double bill, followed by Gala Concert Series, Rush Hour Concerts, and provincial tours, as well as continung to nurture the next generation of Filipino talents by way of the MSO Foundation, the MSO Music Academy, and the Manila Symphony Junior Orchestra.

This April, the MSO embarks on a nationwide tour that will continue into 2025: from the hills of Batanes to the lush landscapes of Mindanao, visiting patron cities like Cebu and Iloilo and adding more cities and provinces along the way, this will be the MSO’s road trip towards 100. Then, in 2026, expect a lavish commemorative book as the MSO celebrates a century through words and images, and a splash of culminating concerts and projects.

As pointed out, the MSO is not government funded (like the PPO), but a non-profit foundation that relies on its patrons, commercial concert season, and memberships to continue, almost for a century now.

Endurance: Guest conductor Herbert Zupper conducts the MSO for troops and Manila residents in May 1945.

Today was an opening salvo, a call to jump aboard “the streetcar” of opera before it disappears forever, as Clemente put it. “Unless knowledge and interest in opera is cultivated, we will lose this. Because opera is the public. If we lose the public, the destiny of opera is almost doomed. It will be confined to a museum, and dead. And opera is very much alive.”

MSO trustee Corazon Alvina agreed: “Music is one of the pillars of a people’s cultural heritage. That’s equally true of Italians as it is of Filipinos. So let’s keep this a living legacy.”

Whatever else MSO represents, it is proudly Filipino. Still, MSO Foundation executive director Jeffrey Solares clarifies a bit of history: MSO was not, as some claim, the first symphony orchestra in Asia. Founded in 1926, where the MSO held court at Manila Grand Opera House, they were preceded by Shanghai Symphony Orchestra which started in 1879. “But that whole band was composed of Filipinos,” Solares happily points out. Imported musicians were a common feature of Asian orchestras then, including the Tokyo Philharmonic, which started in 1911 with numerous guest players. But the MSO, since its inception, has had a mission to represent the best of homegrown talents.

The Manila Symphony Orchestra, conducted by music director Marlon Chen, gave a pocket concert at Jaime Zobel de Ayala Hall lobby of Samsung Performing Arts Theater (with soprano Bianca Lopez-Aguila, in white dress).

Nearly 100 years on, that pursuit continues.

Speaking of imports, musical director Marlon Chen is an American-Taiwanese import who’s lifted this group of young players to new heights in the past few years. Their mini program for the day included not only Puccini, but lively ventures into Coldplay’s Viva La Vida and a medley of Rico Blanco numbers, complete with Chen beating out time with his dancing feet.

Soprano Rachelle Gerodia-Park joins the MSO with Marlon Chen at the baton.

“The MSO is dedicated to the Filipino,” Chen said in opening remarks. “We hope the concerts leading up to our centennial can unite people by building a bridge across time, and through generations to come.”

Chen points out a real selling point of hearing a live orchestra: It’s extremely powerful. You know how vinyl records can release previously unheard levels of instrumentation and balance in your sala or bedroom? A live orchestra can lift you to the rafters—and the raptures.

Italy Ambassador to Manila Marco Clemente with MSO trustee Corazon Alvina, MSO Foundation executive director Jeffery Solares and MSO trustee John Silva

“It’s that sheer, visceral feeling you cannot get anywhere else,” he says. “It’s different from a rock concert. The collective community of 80 musicians playing together—a rock concert is four or five musicians, but 80 playing together: that’s powerful.”

But mostly, he says, there’s a shared sense of community that comes from watching, and playing with, an orchestra. And that tradition, that feeling, has to continue, even beyond 100 years. "This isn't just a celebration of longevity; it's a commitment to a legacy that belongs to every Filipino—a symphony for the people. This belongs to the people.”

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Look forward to MSO Season 98, as it continues “In Pursuit of Excellence 2024-2025” on the journey to celebrating its centennial. For inquiries, contact Ms. Coeli at [email protected] or 0917-4613374.