Art/Style/Travel Diaries

Manila Symphony Junior Orchestra wins gold: Arthur Espiritu, Filipino artists out to conquer Europe in July

Separately, these artists set milestone performances, from Budapest to Vienna

MSJO conductor Jeffrey Solares with the gold and grand prix citations in the Bratislava International Music Festival. (Contributed photo)

Arthur Espiritu as Pollione in Bellini’s Norma. (Contributed photo)

The Manila Symphony Junior Orchestra in a sendoff concert at the Department of Foreign Affairs. (Contributed photo)

Just a few days after their sendoff concert in Manila last June 27, the Manila Symphony Junior Orchestra (MSJO) under the baton of Jeffrey Solares was awarded the gold prize plus the Grand Prix in the 13th Bratislava International Youth Music in Slovakia Thursday, July 4. Over 50 youth participants from 13 countries attended the three-day festival for youth choirs and orchestras presided by the festival’s artistic director Prof Milan Kolena.

On July 7, they compete in the Summa Cum Laude Youth Music Festival in Vienna where they won twice—second prize in 2017 and first prize in 2021. 

Filipino musicians are making news in Europe in July.

MSJO conductor Jeffrey Solares: The sponsorship of Standard Insurance allowed the touring orchestra to focus on artistic preparation, instead of fund-raising.

The Manila Symphony Junior Orchestra (MSJO) under Jeffrey Solares just flew to Budapest June 30, and bound for Salzburg (July 2) and Prague (July 10).

Then MSJO will compete in the Summa Cum Laude Youth Music Festival set in the most stunning music venues in Vienna and its surroundings.

The MSJO is not new to the Vienna youth festival.

In 2017, it won second prize and at the height of the pandemic in 2021, it bagged the gold medal on the basis of videos submitted to the festival jury. (The competition went online because of the pandemic.)

Of its initial Vienna conquest in 2017 in the 11th Summa Cum Laude International Youth Festival, the MSJO became the first Filipino orchestral ensemble to set foot in the famous Golden Hall of the Musikverein, considered one of the best concert halls in the world.  MSJO stunned the Austrian jury and audiences with its unique musicianship, easily the standout among the participants.

Solares said then, “We all feel blessed just being here in Europe and having this opportunity to play in these historic venues. Winning in the competition is just a bonus for us.”

MSJO made its Vienna debut on July 6, 2017 in Salzburg, the hometown of Mozart. It performed Mozart’s Divertimento in D, K. 136 from his set of “Salzburg” Symphonies written in Mozart’s hometown.

It bagged the top prize in in 2021, besting over 140 orchestras from 33 participating countries. It was a tie with the Jerusalem Hassadna Conservatory String Orchestra. There was no second place; the Montreal Suzuki String Orchestra placed third, and the Nanyang String Orchestra from Singapore, fourth.

‘Vienna is envious of the Philippines because we don’t have the sea. We can feel the waves of the sea while watching you perform’

One jury member remarked after MSJO’s 2021 performance: “I have seen so many great orchestras perform in this hall, but your orchestra has a different warmth in your sound. Vienna is envious of the Philippines because we don’t have the sea. We can feel the waves of the sea while watching you perform.”

Last June 27, on its sendoff concert at the Apolinario Mabini Hall of the Department of Foreign Affairs, the MSJO received a rousing standing ovation.

In a program consisting of the works of Dvorak (Serenade for Strings), Lucrecia Kasilag (Lullabye from Philippine Scenes), Ryle Nicole Custodio (Tagu-Taguan) and Ryan Cayabyab (Kay Ganda ng Ating Musika), among others, the MSJO sounded fresh and so compelling.

Cellist Damodar das Castillo as MSJO soloist. (Contributed photo)

In Miravite’s Transcendence for cello and voice and re-arranged for strings, Damodar das Castillo unleashed his piercing cello we felt like it was coming from the legendary Pablo Casals.

Violinist Jeanne Marquez, MSJO soloist for the third time in Vienna. (Photo by Richard Sy-Facunda)

This year’s MSJO has 40 musicians (20 girls and 20 boys), registered in the Vienna festival as early as November 2023. Solares explained to “It is an uncanny coincidence that in all our tours since 2017 we have exactly 50-50 ratio between boys and girls. Almost half are new members and are on their first tour while the other are back for their third or second tour. This time we also have five international scholars studying abroad. The youngest is nine and oldest 26. “

Their main sponsor, the Standard Insurance, covered all the expenses (hotel, airfare, meals). “That is the reason why we were able to focus on the artistic preparations, instead of having to do fundraising,” said Solares.

The Manila Symphony Junior Orchestra all set for European musical conquest this year

One of the most well-applauded numbers in the sendoff concert was Ryle Nicole Custodio’s Tagu-Taguan inspired by games Filipino children play. The orchestral variations on the keyword taya—with the orchestra supplying the speech choir—was local color at its best.

Pointed out Solares on the MSJO tour programming: “The local compositions were the hardest to decide on. We almost wanted to just repeat pieces from the 2018 tour. Finally, I decided on two choral pieces that we transcribed for strings: Nahan by Cuenco transcribed by Cyro Cloui Bon Moral, and Tagu taguan by Custodio. I have always idolized the Madz (Philippine Madrigal Singers) for the quality of their performance and repertoire selection. Several of our pieces are transcriptions of works they have performed. I even let the orchestra listen to their singing as reference for interpretation.”

Since the European trip is a sponsored tour, members of the orchestra were chosen on the basis of skill level. “The most important is their commitment to rehearsals. I believe that compared to the 2021 team when we won first place, this year I think we have much better and more mature players. At least 12 are NAMCYA winners and some had already studied abroad.”

Part of the MSJO tour are teachers Sara Gonzales and Arnold Josue, who were involved in the preparations. “We also got guest musicians to coach us, especially Mark Ramirez of the Sun Symphony who came to give workshops.”

The conductor shares lessons from the first two competitions. “What we have learned is that given enough support and committed teachers, Filipino musicians have great potential to reach levels of excellence at par with the best in the world. Musicians from Europe recognize our natural instincts and innate musicianship, and all we need is a sustained and systematic support and a culture of excellence.”

Upon arrival in Budapest with the Salzburg and Prague engagements awaiting them, Solares sums up the morale of the youth orchestra. “Everyone is excited, everyone is grateful and all are eager to give their best. There is some pressure in matching our achievement in 2017 and 2018, but we are just happy to have the opportunity to just go back.”

Dual challenge: Arthur Espiritu before the posters of ‘Don Carlo’ and ‘Norma’ at Operclosterneuburg. (Contributed photo)

Over at the Operklosterneuburg festival in lower Austria, Filipino tenor Arthur Espiritu is all set to sing in five performances of Verdi’s Don Carlo and Bellini’s Norma as the Roman consul Pollione, set from July 4 to the third week of August.

The last time he sang a Bellini role was in the opera Il Pirata, in the role of Gualtiero at Theater St. Gallen in Switzerland.

We got in touch with the tenor during the 10 am rehearsal of Norma last June 29—the second act when Pollione finally realizes his love for Norma. (The other lead singers in the Bellini opera are Karina Flores, Margarita Gritskova and Beniamin Pop).

Norma happens back to back with the revival of Don Carlo, with Espiritu on the title role, as part of the opera festival.

The Bellini opera will be conducted by Christoph Campestrini, with direction by Monica I. Rusu-Radman, with the Beethoven Philharmonic and the Operklosterneuburg Choir.

Norma is described in the Vienna promotion material as a stirring drama full of love, intrigue and epic settings: “Enter a world where druid priestess Norma is torn between sacred duties and a forbidden love for a Roman proconsul. In the splendor of the imperial court, this story becomes an intense musical experience. Feel the dramatic tension when the conflict between duty and passion is brought to life in a symphonic production in the magnificent Klosterneuburg Abbey.”

The latest staging of Norma is also described as a “cultural gem nestled within the majestic Imperial court of Klosterneuburg Abbey. Set against the backdrop of this historic abbey in Klosterneuburg, Austria, Norma presents an enchanting fusion of music, art, and history.”

Espiritu told that there wasn’t much time to prepare after Oper Klosterneuburg presented the Bellini role to him. “As of the moment, it feels okay as long as I don’t listen to current singers singing this role now.  I find it exciting that I can still go for the notes that were originally written by Bellini.  Most of the heavier more dramatic tenors will opt to do the lowered options.  There are some melismas and coloratura passages and some great trios and duets in this opera. (Melismatic music is when a singer stretches a syllable to fit more than one musical note. A singer can turn syllabic music into melismatic music by decorating the melody with extra notes.) There are some very heartbreaking show of passages and sections in the music where I plan on taking advantage of.”

The tenor said he will probably take some risks on repeats and opt for high note replacements. “There is this beautiful duet with Adalgisa and the trio with both Norma and Adalgisa.  Bellini truly has a gift for beautiful melody. Moreover, these harmonies can go on for a long time without one getting bored with it.  I plan on singing this with my own voice and we will see how it plays out.  So long as I maintain my lyricism, I think I will be on the right track.”

It is challenging that Don Carlo and Norma don’t have the same vocal demands. “Don Carlo is more lyric and higher for me, I think.  It fits my voice well, at the where my voice currently stands.  Norma requires more wholesome delivery and execution, but it can be sung in a fuller lyric manner to make way for the more demanding higher extension of the tenor voice. Perhaps I should focus on executing the lower harmonics of the low to mid voicing of the lines.  Again, this will depend on the other singers which I’m quite sure they have the capacity to be more bel canto.”

As Espiritu does his research on who sings Pollione, he finds out there is great mixed bag of very dramatic tenors. “They all sound great but it does not have the ties to the old tenors such as one Domenico Donzelli whom Bellini wrote it for. It showed off his range from low D to high C.  But then Giacomo Lauri-Volpi upped it to new heights as well as Giovanni Martinelli. I believe that this can be done by such a tenor like myself.”

Espiritu pointed out he likes a good challenge. “I like to put myself in this position to see how competitive I can be with it. I can feel that excitement before opening night.   Such is how I view my artistic career thus far.  I take calculated risks.”

He admitted that the role of Pollione requires great technique and understanding of the bel canto style of singing. “It needs a great capacity for singing beautiful lines without it being too strident and pushed.  Not many can achieve this.  Especially on that number made famous by La Callas, Casta Diva.   Many singers of today try to emulate her because of her ability to abandon everything and to try to communicate to the audience in such delicate abandonment.  Only a number of sopranos make this so special.  Besides Callas, I would say Sutherland, and perhaps Caballe.”

Doing his debut with the Polish National Opera as Rodolfo in La Boheme last April, and with another engagement in June while doing one more performance as Edgardo in Lucia de Lammermoor at Oper Leipzig, he was stunned to see how big the Warsaw theater is. “I had a wonderful time there.  I realized that I have been singing more than 60 performances of Boheme. I was not even thinking about it.”

Indeed, the Warsaw theater is vast and wide he would compare it to Paris Opera (Bastille). “You have to sing out and you can’t make unsupported tones.  You have to sing full front or else they will lose your sound.  It was a reminder for me that every theater is different and you must make the adjustments.”

About author


He’s a freelance journalist who loves film, theater and classical music. Known as the Bard of Facebook for his poems that have gone viral on the internet, he is author of a first book of poetry, Love, Life and Loss – Poems During the Pandemic and was one of 160 Asian poets in the Singapore-published anthology, The Best Asian Poetry 2021-22. An impresario on the side, he is one of the Salute awardees of Philippines Graphic Magazine during this year’s Nick Joaquin Literary Awards. His poem, Ode to Frontliners, is now a marker at Plaza Familia in Pasig City unveiled by Mayor Vico Sotto December 30, 2020.

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