Asian Youth Orchestra in Manila

Asian Youth Orchestra in Manila 
By Walter Ang
Sept. 8, 2004
Philippine Daily Inquirer

I'm one of the very few people I know who can mess up singing the Alphabet Song. This is probably why, after announcing to friends that I would be watching the Asian Youth Orchestra, I was met with a multitude of eyebrows rising to the heavens.

I smiled, asked them to tug their eyebrows back into place and defended myself.

"Just because I can't sing doesn't mean I can't appreciate music," I said. So on a muggy Wednesday evening, I made a beeline to the Manuel Conde Theater of the Cultural Center of the Philippines to catch the orchestra's second day performance in Manila.

Coming together
The Asian Youth Orchestra is an annual six-week undertaking. Musicians from all over the region (namely China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam) audition to win spots in the orchestra. Those who are chosen go through a three week Rehearsal Camp under internationally renowned musicians and conductors. The remaining three weeks is slated for their performance tour.

Filipinos in this year's line up include Maria Victoria Regalario and Maurice Ivan Saraza (Violins); Ariston Payte III and Joven Tidon (Double Basses); Floyd Ricafrente (Flutes), with Rodel Hernandez and Saturnino Tiamson (Percussion).

Founded by Yehudi Menhuhin (Musical Director) and Richard Pontzious (Artistic Director and Conductor), the AYO had already completed performances in China, Thailand, Singapore and Malaysia this year before arriving in Manila. The group will then move on to Hong Kong and end their rigorous 15th anniversary tour with a 4-city performance in Japan.

Making music
For the first act, the orchestra peformed Dmitri Shostakovich's "Festive Overture" and Richard Strauss's "Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks." The pieces were light and fun, reminiscent of Looney Tunes and Disney cartoons. The music had a different effect, however, on my companion.

About five minutes into the first piece, she leaned in and, with much gusto and said, sotto voce, "At nahawi ang kurtina papunta sa kaharian!" This hilarious line caused us to have the giggles throughout the first hour. Good thing we knew ourselves well enough to have sat ourselves at the very last row when we came in the theater.

We made our own fun and peppered the piece with annotations like, "At eto na si Prinsipe Amante!" or "Road Runner 2, Wily Coyote 0." You get the idea. Occasionally, we would watch Pontzious as he conducted (Menhuhin conducted the evening before), his body swaying this way and that, with much energy and passion. The evening was off to a great start.

The universe had other ideas, though, and the night had decidedly taken a turn from thereon. The first act would have gone smoothly if not for the lady seated in front of us who seemed to have doused an entire bottle of perfume on herself. Her stench became so unbearable that we had to transfer seats.

Ladies and gentlemen, please keep in mind that while overindulging in fragrances is not against any theater etiquette rules, it is, however, a crime against general good taste and the civil liberties of oxygen-loving people!

Accidental lullaby
Then came the second act's piece, Gustav Mahler' Symphony No. 1 in D, "Titan." The souvenir program describes the first part of this piece as "Slow. Dragging."

It was. So slow and dragging, in fact, that people (horror of horrors) started dozing off. One person in our row even started (embarrassment of embarrassments) snoring! Strangely enough, who ever he was with didn't seem to think it necessary to wake him up.

This seemed to be the case in several rows of seats throughout the theater, causing two ushers to keep going up and down the aisles, trying to find the guilty parties. This would have been fine if they had tried to wake the snoring individuals, but they didn't. Add to that the annoying squishy sound of the usherette's skirt rubbing against itself as she repeatedly sashayed by and you can imagine how things were starting to sound.

Too bad for me and my friend. We could no longer stand it and snuck out before reaching the last part of the piece. It would have been fun since the program describes it as "With violent movement," but we were afraid that if we had to sit through the snoring and the squishy skirt sounds any longer, we would be the ones causing violent movements.

Fun for all
Despite the unexpected and unintentional audience participation, the evening was still a lot of fun. The bright beaming faces of the young musicians and their enthusiastic performance was very inspiring. And who would not be awed by the whole concept of bringing together different nations for the sharing of music?

Also impressive was the long list of corporate sponsorships that gave life to the show. Splashed on the posters and souvenir programs were entities like Cathay Pacific (Tour Patron) and JP Morgan (Manila performance sponsor). Of note is worldwide superstar Jackie Chan sponsoring scholarships through his charitable foundation. This becomes a challenge to local businesses: to support the performing arts more. Aside from the obvious tax write-offs, helping homegrown talents shine is definitely a noble investment in community relations. Hey, if Jackie Chan thinks it's cool to support the arts, why can't we?

Women and war onstage: Lysistrata and Trojan Women

Women and War Onstage 
By Walter Ang
September 2004

THOSE born in the first half of September fall under Virgo, a zodiac sign associated with deities such as the Egyptian goddess Isis or the Greek goddess Demeter. Perhaps it is Virgo's cosmic influence this month that has spurred two theater companies to stage productions that feature quite opposite renderings of the same theme from ancient Greek drama: women and war.

First is Aristophanes' comedy "Lysistrata," revived by the University of the Philippines' Dulaang U.P. For a company that thinks nothing of full frontal nudity, director Ameil Lenoardia has staged a surprisingly restrained and straightforward version of this sex satire.

In the English run, Missy Maramara injects Lysistrata (whose name means "breaker of the army") with an almost masculine authority as she leads the Athenian women to hold a sex strike to force their husbands to end the Peloponnesian war. The energetic cast attempt to stick to their vow of abstinence on a classically designed set by Tuxqs Rutaquio at the Wilfrido Ma. Guerrero Theater.

While the women convince their husbands to "make love, not war" with hilarious encounters, opening night jitters may have made the cast seem guarded with the usual cheeky attitude and bawdy body language expected of a Greek comedy. The cast's dynamic should blossom though by the time they start performing the new Filipino translation by Jerry Respeto.

In contrast, the Cultural Center of the Philippines' Tanghalang Pilipino does not merely resurrect Euripede's tragedy "Trojan Women," it thoroughly deconstructs it. When you enter the Aurelio Tolentino Theater, the look alone of the set design tells you this won't be the usual Greek drama where characters wear togas and wave olive branches above their heads.

Production designer Gino Gonzales has created a harsh, off-kilter space. He sets a vast raked (theaterspeak for inclined) platform biased against the actual stage's edge. The backdrop is a towering wall of corrugated metal sheets punctuated by industrial light fixtures and barbed wire.

Foregoing her signature ornate gobo (light shone through cut-out patterns) designs, lighting designer Shoko Matsumoto orchestrates the light fixtures so that they alternately shine with menace or glow with sorrow. By illuminating mostly from the side of the stage, Matsumoto adds to the sense of imbalance required by this play that deals with the aftermath of the fall of Troy.

Gonzales and Matsumoto have done an outstanding job of casting a foreboding atmosphere for director Jose Estrella's interpretation of women left in the wake of war. To set the tone, Estrella begins the tragedy with her cast prostrate on strewn clothing that covers every available surface.

To further draw the audience into the confusion and dread caused by warfare, the disjointed elements keep on coming. Here is an ancient Greek tragedy where women wear kimonos over their evening gowns and male soldiers are in fatigues. The characters speak in Filipino and Taglish while making modern references to electricity and Princeton University. Then the cast merges Euripedes' text with lines from Charles Mee's modern interpretation, "Trojan Women: A Love Story."

Jose Capino's Filipino translation makes the lines sound visceral and earthy, yet it was also delicious to hear Helene (played by Kalila Aguilos) speak in straight English and even sing in French. She is a foreigner after all and unlike the popular movie "Troy" which portrays the face that launched a thousand ships as an oh-so-delicate innocent, here she is despised and reviled as the root of much strife.

Bearing the brunt of all this strife is the central character Hekabe (Hecube) alternately played by Divina Cavestany and Madeleine Nicolas. Cavestany leads a strong ensemble with her compelling performance as the Trojan queen. Never leaving the stage throughout the two-hour run, she epitomizes anguish while anchoring the wretched stories of her daughters, whose miserable fates are made known one by one.

The cast's suffering is made flesh by the nuanced but striking choreography of married tandem Nonoy and Edna Vida Froilan. This unyielding inventory of pain, misery and humiliation culminates in a powerful ending not to be missed.

The enduring power of these Greek dramas shows us the universality of striving for human dignity amidst discord and dismay. With current world socio-econo-politics the way it is, Lysistrata and Hekabe are the everywoman in our lives. So it was in the 400s B.C., so it still is in the 2000s A.D.