Filipino pianist Rowena Arrieta had just finished her second year as a student at the Moscow State Conservatory under the tutelage of Professor Yevgeni Malinin, a National Artist of the Soviet Union, when she came back to Manila to perform with the Philippine Philharmonic Orchestra (PPO) in its inaugural concert in 1982.
Fresh from her successful stint as the first Filipino, the first Southeast Asian and the youngest to win in the so-called “Piano Olympics” at the 7th Tchaikovsky International Competition, Winnie, as she was fondly called, stepped onstage, performing Camille Saint-Saens’ Piano Concerto no. 2 in G minor, Opus 22.
Originally, the Philippine orchestra was inaugurated in 1973, christened as the CCP Philharmonic. With Maestro Luis Valencia as its music director, it was established to accompany performing artists at the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP).
Six years later, then First Lady Imelda Marcos asked Maestro Oscar Yatco to reorganize the ensemble. So, on 16 August 1982, with its new name and new vision to become a world-class symphony orchestra comparable with the finest, the PPO that we know today was born.
On that fateful Monday night, the PPO, under the baton of Maestro Yatco, performed Beethoven’s Symphony no. 3 in Eb Major, Opus 55 “Eroica” and Angel Peña’s Igorot Rhapsody, which was based on Three Themes from Mountain Province.
The following day, the PPO had a back-to-back concert, with guest soloist violinist Sinnhoffer, then concertmaster of Bavarian State Orchestra, performing Haydn’s Violin Concerto in C Major to celebrate the composer’s 250th anniversary. Their second day program included Mozart’s Overture to Don Giovanni and Beethoven’s Symphony no. 3 in Eb Major, Opus 55 “Eroica,” which was part of the previous day’s performance.
Becoming a world-class symphony orchestra
That concert was the beginning of an amazing musical journey for the orchestra. It moved on to become one of the leading ensembles in the Southeast Asian region that maintain an active performing schedule and working with renowned local and international soloists, artists and conductors.
“Through the years, the PPO has distinguished itself as an all-Filipino orchestra with an impressive repertoire of symphonic works and programs. The PPO has been actively promoting Filipino music, and presenting premieres of compositions by many prominent and young Filipino composers,” said PPO associate conductor Maestro Herminigildo Ranera.
In the past four decades, the PPO has performed with renowned conductors including Israeli conductor-composer Mendi Rodan who received the Israel Prize for being the leading artist in Israeli music; Italian conductor Piero Gamba who was hailed as one of the greatest conductors by famous critics and world-renowned musicians; Israeli-born conductor Yaacov Bergman who is raved for his varied repertoire and is known to be an intensely communicative musician; and Chicago-born conductor Jeffery Meyer who was once called as “one of the most interesting and creatively productive conductors working in St. Petersburg,” among others.
The orchestra has also collaborated with known Filipino and foreign musicians such as French-born pianist Monique Duphil, Filipino pianist Cecile Licad, singers Martin Nievera, Lea Salonga and Regine Velasquez, American pianist Van Cliburn, Italian soprano Renata Tebaldi, Viennese pianist Judith Engel, London-born oboe player Anthony Camden and American jazz pianist David Benoit, among others.
Among their most unforgettable performances in recent years, Maestro Ranera recalled the performance at the National Center for Performing Arts in Beijing, China in 2011 as the closing event of activities commemorating the 35th anniversary of the establishment of the Philippine-China Diplomatic relations, and the concert tour in the United States to celebrate the centennial of the first Filipino migrants to Hawaii and California in 2006.
One can also mention the 2004 Charity Royal Command Concert at Bangkok’s National Theater at the invitation of Princess Galyani Vadhana, elder sister of the King of Thailand. The concert was a project of the Fund for Classical Music Promotion, a nonprofit organization that provides scholarships to young musicians to further study music, in cooperation with the Embassy of the Philippines in Bangkok and the Ministry of Culture of Thailand.
Of course, who can forget the historic performance at the Carnegie Hall in New York City in 2016? Conducted by former PPO musical director-conductor Olivier Ochanine, it was the first time a Philippine orchestra has performed in the prestigious concert hall.
The PPO also performed during the 50th ASEAN held in Manila in 2017, the biggest diplomatic gathering attended by the presidents and prime ministers of the Southeast Asian countries, as well as US President Donald Trump.
With its music director and principal conductor Maestro Yoshikazu Fukumura, the PPO is making another milestone with its participation in the Asia Orchestra Week in Kuji and Tokyo, Japan this coming October. This is the second time that the PPO has been invited to participate in the prestigious music event. The first time was in 2002.
When Maestro Fukumura took over the reign, he vowed to make PPO one of the top orchestras in Asia, anchoring his strategy on improving the technical skills of its musicians, increasing corporate and government support and designing programs that involve collaboration with known artists. The Japanese conductor was quite happy that professionalism has taken root among the PPO’s musician since he took over two years ago.
Facing the challenges
Forty-five years after, the PPO continues to evolve, adapting to the time and its environment.
But even the best has its bad days. There are challenges to meet, obstacles to overcome.
For years, PPO has been working hard to dispel the common misconception that classical music is only for the elite.
“If you don’t understand Mozart or Beethoven, it’s okay. But you don’t have to be afraid to listen to these composers. You may not understand everything, but somehow will speak to you. Music is a universal language after all. Music is art and it is yours. It belongs to you,” CCP president Arsenio J. Lizaso said during the press conference for the PPO’s 45th anniversary held recently at the Manila Hotel.
The PPO is looking through doing outreach concerts to bring classical music closer to the Filipino people. For the past years, PPO has been performing in the different regions. It just finished its concerts in Antique, Iloilo, Baguio and Bulacan. The group will be in Davao City on 23 and 24 November, at the University of the Philippines-Diliman on 9 December, in Muñoz City, Nueva Ecija on 20 December, and in Bacolod on 29 December.
“We want to make an impact on society with music education, training and outreach activities, while bringing music to everyone. We want everyone to know the importance of orchestral music by creating an orchestra movement that celebrates and encourages both musicians and music lovers of all levels. We are totally committed to achieve the highest standards in music making,” said Maestro Ranera.
Another challenge the orchestra has to overcome is reaching out to the younger audiences. After all, their core audience is not getting any younger.
“No matter how good the performance is, if it does not result in more audience listening, I think that is a big problem. It is important to make sure that program contents are more attractive to the audience. Inviting international conductors and collaborating with guest soloists will generate bigger audiences,” said Maestro Fukumura.
In the recent past, PPO would incorporate crossover concerts with non-classical groups.
Aside from creating a program that would interest the young people, it is vital to educate them. In their outreach concerts, the program has some well-known classical pieces that the varied audience can easily digest, combined with popular Filipino and Western songs.
“We plan to expand our repertoire to include not only Broadway and Western music, but also Asian music. We like to include popular songs that we think the audience will like, but still anchor our program to classical pieces that might strike a chord with the young generations.
PPO will continue to reach out to all people from all walks of life, and will not stop finding ways to enable more direct communication between audiences and performers at concerts,” said Maestro Ranera.