Matthew Rosen’s film “Quezon’s Game” is enjoying critical acclaim in Metro Manila and the provinces. I couldn’t help but recall my cultural Quezon connections.
Maestra Mercedes Matias Santiago, the first Filipino soprano to sing Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor,” taught voice lessons to former First Lady Aurora Quezon.
When Santiago sang the role of Amina in Bellini’s “La Sonnambula” at the Manila Grand Opera House in the mid-1930s, President Manuel Quezon was in the audience. But a blackout hit the opera in the sleepwalking scene. There was a long intermission. The opera resumed at 3 a.m. when power was restored.
After that dramatic performance of the Donizetti opera, Quezon sent Maestra Santiago a seven-foot bouquet with the inscription, “Ruiseñor de Filipinas (Nightingale of the Philippines).”
It was also Quezon who recommended that Maestra Santiago be given a teaching position at the UP College of Music, which was founded in 1916. The Maestra’s student assistant was no other than the young Lucrecia Kasilag, who would become Cultural Center of the Philippines president and National Artist for Music.
When I learned that Quezon frequented the Pasig Museum in the late ’30s—when it was still the mansion owned by Don Fortunato Concepcion (his daughter Vina Concepcion was married to actor Luis Gonzales)—I decided to convert the living room into a recital hall and founded the annual Pasig Summer Music Festival which lasted five years.
Among the performers were pianists Cecile Licad, Mary Anne Espina, Najib Ismail, tenors Otoniel Gonzaga, Nolyn Cabahug and Lemuel de la Cruz, violinists Diomedes Saraza Jr. and Chino Gutierrez, among others.
Opposite the Pasig Museum is the present Pasig town church across Plaza Rizal. It was in this church that the American Commission, headed by William Howard Taft, met on June 11, 1901, creating the new province of Rizal, with Pasig as its capital.
In the early ’90s, Sen. Helena Benitez hosted a welcome dinner for mezzo soprano Liang Ning (the first Chinese opera singer to make a debut at La Scala di Milan). It was held at the Benitez clan’s Mira Nila ancestral house in Quezon City. Built by Conrado Benitez and his wife Francisca in 1929, Mira Nila hosted the first reception for the first Commonwealth officials led by Quezon, who donated two chairs with the presidential seal in the main hall.
Among the guests were Kasilag, music critic Tony Hila, tenor Gary del Rosario, and yours truly.
Lopez heritage houses
Some time last year, two Lopez heritage houses in Jaro, Iloilo City, fascinated me: the Boat House mansion of Don Eugenio Lopez Sr., and the Lopez Heritage House (aka Nelly’s Garden) of Don Vicente Lopez.
Of the two mansions, I have a special preference for Nelly’s Garden, which looks like the mansion in the classic film “Gone With the Wind.”
After checking the state of the piano and the seating capacity, I decided that Nelly’s Garden would be my next recital venue for an all-Chopin recital by Licad.
It happened on Nov. 29, 2018. The crowd gave the pianist three standing ovations. It turned out that my new concert venue had served as elegant setting for receptions and meetings with governor-generals of the Philippines including Frank Murphy and Teddy Roosevelt Jr. (On top of that, two famous women used one guest room of Nelly’s Garden: former First Lady Imelda Marcos and former President Cory Aquino.)
Still on Quezon connections, it turned out that Iloilo City was officially established in August 1937 with the signing of the charter by Quezon after the National Assembly had created the four cities of Iloilo, Cebu, Zamboanga and Davao.
Present at the ceremony were Assemblymen Pedro Gil, Tomas Confesor, Victorino Salcedo, Ruperto Montinola, Jose Zulueta, Speaker Gil Montilla, Secretary Elpidio Quirino, Jose Aldeguer, and journalists from Iloilo.
I covered the 80th Iloilo City Charter Day presentation that featured the Manila Symphony Orchestra performing at the historic Molo Church and Iloilo City Convention Center.
After an evening of Bach and Beatles songs, over a thousand Ilonggos led by Sen. Franklin Drilon gave the orchestra a rousing standing ovation. It marked the first time a symphony orchestra was heard in Molo Church. “Music has charm and it contributes to the refinement of the soul,” said Drilon in his welcome remarks.
I also learned that Quezon was baptismal godfather of Presy Lopez-Psinakis, daughter of Don Eugenio “Eñing” Hofileña Lopez Sr. and Pacita “Nitang” Moreno Lopez.
The baptism coincided with the inauguration of The Boat House, his modernist mansion in Iloilo City, designed by architect Fernando H. Ocampo. Quezon stood as godfather and the beautiful Aurora Reyes Recto, Claro M. Recto’s second wife, as godmother. (Source: Phoenix: The Saga of the Lopez Family)
Two years later, Don Fernando Lopez invited Quezon as special guest at the baptism of Lopez’s daughter Milagros. On the day of the baptism, Quezon disembarked at the Iloilo City waterfront met by thousands of cheering welcomers. He drove straight to the Jaro Cathedral with an entourage of 30 cars. Later, he attended a dinner dance at Don Fernando’s mansion.
“Quezon’s Game” gave us time to recall the little-known chapter of the Commonwealth of the Philippine president’s life and times.
Reflecting on the house he once frequented in Pasig, and Iloilo’s Lopez mansions, one likes to remember the man for what he once said. I thought that was one message we sorely need these days: “I want our people to be like the molave tree, strong and resilient, standing on the hillsides, unafraid of the rising tide, lightning and the storm, confident of its strength.” —CONTRIBUTED