History was made in Carnegie Hall last Saturday night. For 125 years its walls have echoed with the greatest international performers the world has known, and yet it still opens its doors to the fledgling, dreamer, and believer who have heard the old quip and can afford a private debut.
Such was the case on this night. No small feat, however, as the Philippine Philharmonic Orchestra filed in to play a carefully chosen program under the baton of the young French music director Olivier Ochanine, first-prizewinner of the 2015 Antal Dorati International Conducting Competition. It was a project he had been dreaming of since his 2009 audition and appointment. At times in peril of being shelved, it would have been had it not been for Ochanine’s determination and unwavering persistence, Philippine Airlines providing transportation to the 80-plus members, and a long list of sponsors. Ochanine’s post actually ended in April, but he says he extended it to make sure his pet became a reality, inspired to have the PPO be recognized. “It was a lot of headaches, but in the end (after three years of working on it) I found the right partners.” In the afternoon rehearsal before the concert, the first sound the orchestra made onstage was the National Anthem of the Philippines. Some of the musicians cried, and “I also began to be teary-eyed. I knew it could happen and I refused not to make it happen for them.”
Playing to a mainly Philippine crowd, the band saw a packed hall buzzing with the excitement of “mga Kababayan” (compatriots) witnessing the historical event. Once announcements were made, the PPO struck up the Philippine national anthem. a moment of silence was requested for the victims of the Orlando shooting; Ochanine left the stage.
Returning, he launched into Shostakovich’s Festival Overture, in perhaps as full-throttle a tempo as only a Frenchman familiar with Offenbach could do. The playing was clean and brisk, especially in the reeling wind solos. In the tutti passages, one had the feeling that the orchestra was still trying out the space. They soon began to fill the hall with bright tone and brought the piece to a boiling conclusion.
An interesting choice of programming resulted not one but two concertos featuring Filipino artists. The first was violinist Diomedes Saraza Jr. playing the Sibelius Violin Concerto. Heralded as a prodigy, he is now living in America, having finished a bachelor’s degree at Juilliard and studying at Yale for a master’s. Competitions, scholarships and guest appearances fill his biography, and yet I had a difficult time being impressed. He showed himself to be technically proficient and possessing a virtuosolike temperament. The opening began with a sweet sound, but he soon descended into impatience. We were only a few bars in and before the first show of intensity—a bar before the low G-string melody—he was already in deep. We were left with a half-hour of lots of notes and a nervous, tightly knit vibrato, stealing the effectiveness of the throaty scrape of the third movement that one awaits; alas, we had already heard it all. The third movement was where some of the performance came apart, and neither accuracy nor interest could be recovered. The other thorn was persistent small intonation issues which seemed to grow as the playing progressed. Ochanine kept a tight rein on the orchestra, working to keep the accompanying sonority balanced and in check. Well-received as a native son, Saraza offered an encore of Cavatina by Nicanor Abelardo.
After intermission, international Filipina artist Cecile Licad took the stage for the second concerto of the evening, and perhaps Rachmaninoff’s best-known: his Piano Concerto No. 2. From the moment she walked onstage in a bright fuchsia gown, she owned the hall. The orchestra seemed more at ease than before. Her opening statement seemed pushed but was undeniably fine. There were times I felt the rubatos were rushed at the expense of clarity, not hers but our ability to hear it, yet the result was organic, as she clearly knew her pacing well. Ochanine became both partner and helmsman in charge of executing and driving the orchestral forces behind these abrupt rubatos, which sometimes came as lightning bolts. Tempering this fire, she used a dramatic, almost defiant patience in the construction of the first movement cadenza. Although finely played, the second movement also seemed to run hot and was a bit fast overall for my taste.
Any hesitation or uncertainty that one had heard earlier from the orchestra was completely dissolved by now, and the final return of the popular theme in the third movement was as satisfying as one would hope to hear from any pianist and orchestra in any concert hall, revealing a warm lush string sound and setting up a breathless, crashing climax as the audience erupted into a screaming ovation, this reviewer included. Licad, after several curtain calls, offered a one-minute ditty of an encore, a chirpy variation on a Filipino folk tune Planting rice is never fun, a perfect setup for the closing work.
Philippine Portraits by Redentor Romero is no throwaway medley of folk songs strung together but a sophisticated, well-written orchestral impression of many of the most beloved Filipino folk tunes. Features included a mournful extended flute solo, brilliantly played by Hercules Santiago, traditional pitched gongs and drums giving the effect of original Philippine percussion, rhythms sounded out col legno, and a strumming rondalla effect by the strings paying homage to musical roots from colonial Spanish times.
Altogether, despite the occasional droop into a less than polished mode, the orchestra has improved a great deal since my last hearing of them, before Ochanine’s tenure. The strings in particular made me wish he had programmed a Dvořák or Brahms Serenade. Other fine playing included oboist Reynato Resurreccion Jr. and clarinetists Ariel Santa Ana and Jayson Rivera.
After this concert, Ochanine’s last, the group’s new music director, Yoshikazu Fukumura, one of Japan’s revered maestros, steps in. Let’s trust that he continues this entirely justified development of Filipino talent. Experiencing them through the lens of a revered concert hall was daunting, but now that the die is cast, I have every confidence that they can continue to rise to a higher plateau of ensemble.
No Filipino gathering is complete without one more folksong. Ochanine announced they would play the well-known “Gaano ko ikaw kamahal” (How much do I love you?) to show how much they loved the audience, giving them a last dose of admittedly delightful sentimentality to finish off the 118th extended celebration of Philippine Independence Day.