Art/Style/Travel Diaries

From Pablo Casals and Yo-Yo Ma to Damodar Das Castillo: My love affair with the cello

It has been 37 years since I got personally involved with cellos and cellists. Before that, I thought only pianos and violins existed

Cellist Wen-Sinn Yang

Rostropovich posing in a Philippine jeepney with Cecile Licad in the early ’80s

When Swiss cellist Wen-Sinn Yang (of Taiwanese parents) debuts with the Philippine Philharmonic Orchestra (PPO) under Maestro Grzegorz Nowak on Friday, October 13 at the Samsung Theater for the Performing Arts, I will resume my love affair with the cello through the favorite Dvorak warhorse.

New PPO music director Grzegorz Nowak

A music critic of the Frankfurter Rundschau wrote, after hearing Yang play the Shostakovich Cello Concerto No. 1 in Frankfurt: “Cellist Wen-Sinn Yang proved himself in terms of technique and expression as a worthy successor to Mstislav Rostropovich!”

That’s an even bigger reason to watch him and see if he will live up to his critical reviews.

I last heard the Dvorak concerto live at the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) in the early ’80s with no less than the great Mstislav Rostropovich as soloist of the PPO under Oscar Yatco. I remember he was given not just a standing ovation, but a shower of confetti on top of roses raining on the CCP Little Theater stage.

The great Mstislav Rostropovich greeting model Crispy Santamaria during a fashion show in Malacañang (Contributed)

Another cello legend heard at the CCP was French cello icon Pierre Fournier. The last Swiss cellist I heard live was Thomas Demenga in 2019, with pianist Charisse Dumlao.

A great cello-piano team-up happened at the CCP in 2009 with German cellist Alban Gerhardt and Cecile Licad, with both distinguished soloists also playing Bartok and Shostakovich concertos with the PPO.

I suppose I fell in love with the cello the same way Rostropovich did when he said once, “When I started learning the cello, I fell in love with the instrument because it seemed like a voice—my voice.”

I have a friend who swoons over the cello. Her name is Jullie Yap Daza, and she always buys me free beer after a good concert.

I have had dramatic encounters with the Elgar cello concerto in Cebu and Dumaguete City. I heard it first in the film Hilary and Jackie, which is based on the life of legendary cellist Jacqueline du Pré. The concerto as backdrop of Du Pre’s life was most fitting. It captured all her inner struggle and agony. I watched the film twice, until I totally identified the Elgar concerto with it.

The late filmmaker (now National Artist for Film) Marilou Diaz-Abaya told me she watched Hilary and Jackie twice in Germany, and both times she was reduced to tears.

When I heard it recorded live by Damodar Das Castillo with the Manila Symphony Orchestra last year, I couldn’t help it. I was reduced to tears as well by the slow movement. I wanted a memory of that moment, and bought Damodar’s old cello case. My grandson was surprised there was a cello case in the living room, when there is no cellist in the house.

When I first heard the Elgar concerto live in Cebu and Dumaguete with cellist Renato Lucas as soloist of a Cebu orchestra, there was backstage drama before the performance. The British conductor (male) had just broken up with his boyfriend and refused to conduct. The coordinator and I went to his hotel room, begging him to please set aside his private sorrows and perform.  He couldn’t do it. (Jeffrey Solares took his place in Cebu).

But in Dumaguete, Lucas had had enough of the conductor’s private drama and yelled at him, “Don’t you dare do this to me again here in Dumaguete!” The conductor picked up the pieces of his life and performed the Elgar concerto with the Cebu orchestra. It was beautiful. Perhaps his private pain blended with the concerto. I asked cellist Renato Lucas to autograph my score of the cello concerto after the performance.

In Dumaguete, Lucas had had enough of the conductor’s private drama and yelled at him, ‘Don’t you dare do this to me again here in Dumaguete!’ The conductor performed the Elgar concerto with the Cebu orchestra. It was beautiful

When I first heard it live last year in a private recording session with the young Damodar, I couldn’t help thinking about my late daughter. The slow movement was beautifully played; my eyes welled and I couldn’t help it. Part of it, perhaps, was that I was hearing live music after two years of the pandemic. The concerto has become a special piece for me, with tragic events happening in the family one after the other.

When I re-introduced the cello to Iloilo City’s music lovers in 2019, I asked the question: When was the last cello live recital in the city? I couldn’t get an answer. I figured cello prodigy Damodar Das Castillo made history as the cellist who re-introduced the cello repertoire to Ilonggos after a long, long time in an evening of Tchaikovsky, Schumann, and Saint-Saens. (Nelly Garden was where my first production of an all-Chopin recital happened, with pianist Cecile Licad.)

Then I got something from former Tourism Secretary Narzalina Lim. It turned out that Nelly Garden—also known as the queen of Iloilo’s heritage houses—has a cello connection. The son of its owner, Don Vicente Lopez, Jr., played the cello. In fact, he owned an 18th-century Hasert cello, according to his grandson Martin Lopez.

An active cultural worker, Martin Lopez added that he lent the late Miguel Cornejo his grandpa’s cello, which the latter played for an audience in Manuel de Leon’s heritage house built by Dona Sisang de Leon in New Manila. Donya Sisang, the grand old lady of LVN Pictures, is a grand-aunt and baptismal godmother of Cecile Licad. By serendipity, the August 17, 2019 cello recital at Nelly Garden was in honor of the late cellist Miguel Lim Cornejo, son of the former Tourism head.

It has been 37 years since I got personally involved with cellos and cellists. Before that, I thought only pianos and violins existed. I rediscovered the cello when Cecile Licad married Brazilian cellist Antonio Meneses, a gold medalist in the Tchaikovsky Competition. The result was my CCP debut as impresario, when they performed together for the first time in Manila in the late ’80s.

Cecile Licad with Antonio Meneses in Baguio City in the late 80s

After that marriage (which lasted all of 10 years), there was no way I could avoid the cello.

Earlier, my concert programming which consisted mainly of piano sonatas and piano concertos (for pianists) and operatic arias (for singers) now expanded a little bit to include pieces for cello, namely the Bach Suites (solo unaccompanied pieces), and the Haydn, Schumann, Elgar, and Dvorak cello concertos, among others.

Relatively good pianos await Licad wherever she goes concertizing, but do cellists have that luxury? Nope. They carry their own instruments, most of which are twice or thrice expensive as the pianos.

To top it all, you have to buy a separate seat just for that non-breathing passenger. For a cellist of Meneses’ stature, it had to be first-class. After all, he was using a Pablo Casals cello! (That was one of the many big reasons why checking it in as baggage or putting it in the overhead compartment was out of the question.)

On TV many years back, I saw legendary cellist Pablo Casals perform for the Kennedys in the White House. At that time, my cello IQ was non-existent. I only knew Casals was a great cellist, but in the ’60s, I had yet to hear and even see an honest-to-goodness cello in Catanduanes and Manila.

When I heard my first live concert in the early ’70s at the Concert at the Park, I only treated the cello as part of the string section, with the instrument uniquely situated in between the knees.

With Meneses, my late cello education started at close range. His cello was no longer part of the string section, but one with soloist status.

You have to buy a separate seat just for the cello. For a cellist of Antonio Meneses’ stature, it had to be first-class. After all, he was using a Pablo Casals cello!

What was special about that Pablo Casals cello? Meneses explained it to me thus: “It is actually a much stronger instrument, with more possibilities for the soloist. It has such a penetrating sound, and I imagine that is one of the reasons Casals liked it so much. It can rise about the sound of an entire orchestra, which is not a normal thing with the cello.”

When Licad and Meneses opened my First International Music Festival in Baguio City in 1988 along with tenor Otoniel Gonzaga, I remember that we went back to the Hyatt Hotel without the Pablo Casals cello after a sumptuous meal from Cafe by the Ruins. We were so overwhelmed by the food, we forgot we had a super-expensive cello with us. The cello was still there when we frantically returned to the cafe. If it got lost, I would have died figuring out a program of sonatas for cello and piano without the latter, and Meneses would have paid millions for a lost collector’s-item instrument owned by Casals himself.

I was still a stranger to the cello when Rostropovich received a shower of confetti after a performance of the Dvorak cello concerto in 1982. Thus, I was startled to see how the former US first lady Jackie Kennedy reacted to Casals at the White House. Now I know why Mrs. Marcos adored Rostropovich, as though he were a living saint.

I was given a first-hand explanation of the significance of Rostropovich’s existence when Italian conductor Pierro Gamba recounted to me, during a break in the rehearsal of a Saint-Saens cello concerto with Wilfredo Pasamba as soloist: “I conducted Rostropovich in the Dvorak concerto in Canada and later, the Rococo Variations. At that time, there was no doubt that he was the greatest cellist alive. When I heard that he was going to lie low as a cellist and turn to conducting, I wanted to send him a telegram to say not to abandon the cello. Because as a cellist, he was sublime. He was still great, but he was greater before he turned to conducting.”

(As then editor of the CCP Arts Monthly Magazine, I invited then Associated Press photographer Bullit Marquez to a private party for Rostropovich in Malacañang. Not heeding my plea not to take incriminating pictures, he actually did the opposite. He took a rare photo of Rostropovich dancing with Mrs. Marcos. That photo landed on the front page of newspapers in New York, London, and Moscow.)

In the ’90s, the byword in cello was Yo-Yo Ma, and I was thrilled to discover that the cellist’s sister Yeou Cheng Ma, who is a violinist, is married to a Filipino classical guitarist, Michael Dadap.

Like Pavarotti, Yo-Yo Ma interacted (read: crossed over) with musicians of other genres like jazz, and it did not diminish him as a classical artist. He is the only cellist to appear in a Rolex ad (other endorsers were Japan’s prima ballerina Yoko Morishita, Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, and Placido Domingo).

A signed photograph of Yo-Yo Ma in my living room, as pointed to by my granddaughter

Cellist Willie Pasamba—who figured in the first and last cello recital in Albay in 1997—cites Casals, Rostropovich, and Yo-Yo Ma as cellists who are worthy role models.

Pasamba saw Yo-Yo Ma perform six Bach suites at the Tanglewood Music Festival, and he recalled his impressions thus: “He does a lot of music exploration, which is good for the cello. However, it is his interaction with the audience which is incredible. It is as though he was embracing the audience when he plays. He does not simply read notes. There is music in everything he does.”

When I covered the Singapore Arts Festival in 2004, I was told that tickets to several concerts with Yo-Yo Ma in it were sold out ahead of time. Every day during my three-day stay in Singapore, I pestered my Singapore guide about getting a ticket to the Yo-Yo Ma concert with the Silk Route Ensemble, even if it meant dying for it.

One day at the Singapore Esplanade, my guide shrieked at a van with a man carrying a cello. She said, “Look, Pablo! Your Yo-Yo Ma is right there, and you don’t have to watch his concert!” I asked for Yo-Yo Ma’s autograph and told him I knew his Filipino brother-in-law.

That personal encounter made me even more determined to watch a Yo-Yo Ma concert in Singapore, even if the official box office verdict was that tickets had been sold out two months earlier. In my last itinerary in Singapore was an interview with the manager of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra (SSO). It was also the last day of the Yo-Yo Ma concert series in the festival. I told myself that interview had to be a bravura performance so I could ask a favor later. Trying to sound like a CNN interviewer, I got what I needed about the birth and resurgence of the Singapore orchestra. Then coyly, but with great but understated determination, I asked the SSO manager if she could help me with a big problem. I said I wanted to watch a Yo-Yo Ma concert but tickets were sold out months ago. Could she do something about it?

“It is really sold out,” she confirmed. However, in the next breath, she told me, “I’ll see what I can do. If you see me in the theater lobby 30 minutes before concert time, then it is good news. But if you don’t, that means it’s a big sorry.”

I left my hotel early to the Esplanade and waited gingerly at the lobby. Deep inside me, I was still determined: I could not leave Singapore without watching Yo-Yo Ma play. Then lo and behold, I saw the SSO manager smiling at me. She handed me a ticket to the Yo-Yo Ma concert and I told her, “I can’t thank you enough.” I got an orchestra center seat!

Lo and behold, I saw the Singapore Symphony Orchestra manager smiling at me. She handed me a ticket to the Yo-Yo Ma concert and I told her, ‘I can’t thank you enough.’ I got an orchestra center seat!

It was actually a concert of Asian music with Yo-Yo Ma as a special guest. The only decipherable music in the program was Debussy’s sonata for cello and piano. The rest were a cacophony of Asian sounds. It was still a great Yo-Yo Ma experience. It wasn’t just the musicianship that impressed me; it was more of his overwhelming humility.

Before I worked with Pasamba, I heard a 17-year-old music scholar of the Philippine High School for the Arts named Victor Michael Coo. His musicality at such a young age awed me.

After winning the National Music Competition for Young Artists (NAMCYA), I gave him a debut at the Philamlife Theater, then I brought him to Catanduanes, Albay, Palawan, and Antipolo because I wanted to hear his Schubert and Saint-Saens pieces in various settings: in a hall facing the Pacific Ocean in Virac, Catanduanes; his Mendelssohn in the shadow of Mayon Volcano; Elgar in idyllic Puerto Princesa; and Abelardo’s Cavatina by an Antipolo creek.

In the year 2000, I heard Chinese-American cellist Angela Lee in an evening of Schumann, Schubert, and Rachmaninoff at the St. Stephen’s Parish Concert Hall. In her, I caught a whiff of the artistry of the British cello legend, Jacqueline Du Pre. I brought her to Ilagan, Isabela, and that was probably the first and last time a cellist was heard in that part of Northern Luzon.

It turned out that the two cellists (Yo-Yo Ma and Lee) had one thing in common: They both studied with eminent British teacher William Pleeth.

After I saw Hilary and Jackie,  I knew that my love affair with the cello would go on and on. In the ’90s, I brought Meneses (with Licad) to Cebu, Bacolod, Tagaytay, Antipolo, and the Pundaquit Festival in San Antonio, Zambales. In the same decade, I brought Pasamba to Legaspi City, Cebu, and Dumaguete. I brought back Victor Michael Coo as soloist in Dvorak’s cello concerto with Manila Philharmonic Orchestra, under Rodel Colmenar, and everybody was ecstatic.

In 2009, I secretly yearned to hear German cellist Alban Gerhardt. Since I could not finance a cellist of his caliber, I told Licad about this obsession and passed on the idea to the CCP. The result was a fantastic cello recital with Licad, and an evening of Prokofiev piano and Shostakovich cello concerto in one evening!

Some years back, I heard Li-Wei Qin, a Chinese silver medalist in the Tchaikovsky Competition, play with Albert Tiu. It was sheer heaven.

I thought that my cello life was over after Casals, Rostropovich, Gerhardt, Meneses, Pasamba, Lee, and Coo. Then I heard the then 10-year-cellist Damodar Das Castillo in a concert five years ago.  He was amazing. And then he was accepted into Salzburg’s Mozarteum at age 11. (It reminded me of Licad entering Curtis at the same age.)

Out of the blue, in five years, the then young Castillo won first prize in five international competitions for young artists, from Estonia to Dusseldorf, Italy, and other places. Last year, he was soloist in the Elgar concerto with the Manila Symphony Orchestra, which performed in Tokyo in celebration of Orchestra Week.

On Friday, October 13, there is more music fare awaiting music lovers, apart from the Dvorak cello concerto, with a concert by the PPO at the CCP.

The famous Bicol folksong Sarung Banggi by Potenciano Gregorio will be given symphonic treatment in the opening number Sarung Banggi: A Symphonic Serenade. The Bicol composer Gregorio turned 143 last May, with a festival carrying the name of his composition.

His famous love song has two birth dates, one in 1897, when Gregorio was just 17. But in research by Bicol historian Dr. Merito Espinas, who conducted interviews with descendants of the composer, it appeared that the piece was only completed on May 10, 1910, which makes it 113 years old.

It was premiered three months later on the same year—not in Sto. Domingo (previously named Libog), where the composer was born —but in the town fiesta of Guinobatan, Albay. Among those reportedly impressed by the Guinobatan world premiere of Sarung Bangui was American President Howard Taft, then governor general of the Philippines. As the Espinas research indicated, a band arrangement of Sarung Banggi materialized in 1918 and was performed by Banda de Libog.  Another version was made for a symphony orchestra in 1930.

The Sarung Bangui symphonic version for Oct. 13 was arranged by Angel Pena. The PPO concert will be capped by Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 4, Op.90, A major (“Italian”).

For tickets, call CCP at tel. no. (0999) 884-3820 or TicketWorld at tel. 8891-9999 or (0931) 033-0880.

The author (Pablo Tariman) as cellist as sketched by Vergel Santos. He was baptized “Palso Casals.”

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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