It was when Gerard Salonga was playing in a corporate show for the First Philippine Holdings’ (FPH) 50th anniversary that he learned of the plan of ABS-CBN to establish a symphony orchestra.
He met FPH chair Federico Lopez, the son of Lopez patriarch Oscar Lopez, who turned out to be a music lover himself.
“We started talking about my orchestra [Filharmonika] which at that time had already disbanded. I was searching for funding sources for the orchestra. I was quite amazed at how much Mr. Lopez knew. I think we clicked on the subject of the musicians of Venezuela, and the miracle there that is El Sistema.”
For those who have not heard of El Sistema, it is a state foundation which watches over Venezuela’s 125 youth orchestras and the instrumental training programs which make them possible. It supports 31 symphony orchestras involving 310,000-370,000 children attending its music schools.
The most notable thing about it is that some 70-90 percent of the students come from the poor.
“Tocar y Luchar” (Play and Fight), a 2004 documentary on El Sistema, won several awards, including Best Documentary at the 2007 Cine Las Americas International Film Festival and Cine Albuquerque Latino Film Festival.
The 2008 documentary “El Sistema,” by Paul Smaczny and Maria Stodtmeier, won Best Documentary Feature award at the Chicago International Movies and Music Festival in 2010; and Best Documentary at the Orlando Hispanic Film Festival in 2009.
Salonga said Lopez even gave him a copy of the latest El Sistema book and DVD. Later, they had informal dinners that turned into afternoon meetings with Charo Santos-Concio and Gabby Lopez in the FPH boardroom.
“Later I gave a little keynote presentation and spoke from my heart,” Salonga said. “In that meeting, it was confirmed that ABS-CBN had already been thinking about forming its own orchestra. Ms Concio asked Mickey Muñoz [formerly head of ABS-CBN special projects] to work with me to explore this thing more.
“After going back and forth with Mickey via Skype and e-mail, he gave me one of the most amazing phone calls of my life when he said we got the green light.
“The green light had also been given for the formation of a youth orchestra and training program modeled on Venezuela’s El Sistema.”
The good news is that the orchestra will not be limited to corporate work with the network and its sister company, Star Cinema.
“We aim to bring live orchestral performance closer to the Filipinos and give them an option of what to listen to,” Salonga said.
Salonga marveled at the huge influence of the TV network and said the ABS-CBN Orchestra was a boost to classical music.
“Everyone here knows the reach of ABS-CBN,” he said. “Think about it, how many times would we have to fill up a concert hall to be seen by the same number of people who’d see us on one TV appearance? The power of this network to make this orchestra known to people is something I’m still trying to fathom.”
Salonga said the network had approved his outreach programs that would give both kids and adults a chance to experience a medium not easily accessible to all.
What is in store for the newly recruited musicians in this new orchestra?
For one, wages for the musicians are decent; and, second, the orchestra has been given a very good rehearsal space: Dolphy Theater at the ABS-CBN compound.
“The acoustics of Dolphy Theater was designed by Mike Pedero, and it has that scoring-stage feel to it, and, at the same time, it is perfect for rehearsal, not too reverberant,” said Salonga.
“One of the goals is to not have rehearsals that are not directly aimed at a specific performing event. The result? Concentration is higher,” the conductor added.
Salonga said he had learned from working with Cecile Licad.
“I learned to go with the flow, and that you can’t force a leaf to fall from a tree in the manner, tempo and intensity in a way other than the way it just wants to fall,” he said. “Another lesson I learned from her is that music has to come from inside. She has hugely influenced the way I listen to music, the way I perceive it, and the way I perform it. I’ll never be able to repay her for that, not even to mention all the encouragement and support she has given me.”