Before I Forget

Philamlife Theater: A quiet death

A precious part of the country’s musical history: ‘Right after playing here, I realized I’d like to be a pianist forever’—Cecile Licad

Cecile Licad, at eight years old, doing her orchestral debut at Philamlife Theater in 1969 (Pablo Tariman photo file).

Philamlife building, a mid-20th century masterpiece by architect Carlos Arguelles, its theater acoustic design done by the same firm that did those of the UN General Assembly Hall and the Sydney Opera House (Photo from conservation architect Gerard Lico)

IF the Philamlife Theater along UN Avenue survived, it would have been 60 years old this September.

But it had only a 52-year life; the last concert was in 2013. Since it opened in 1961, it had been home to distinguished local and foreign performing artists, from Cecile Licad to Pinchas Zukerman.

It faded away in sad stages.

In 2012, SM Investments (a subsidiary of SM Development Corp) purchased the three-hectare  Philamlife Manila complex, which included its theater. The initial plan was to “redevelop” the property into a condominium complex. Or a shopping mall.

Its last concert was An Evening of Brahms in April 2013 featuring pianist Sofya Gulyak and the Philippine Philharmonic Orchestra under Oliver Ochanine.

Before this last concert, there was talk about its closure in the music circle. Then PPO music director and resident conductor Ochanine spearheaded an online campaign to save the theater. The petition drew more than 10,000 signatures.

In Ochanine’s last dialogue with SM Development Corporation (SMDC) chief executive officer Henry Sy, Jr., a plan was made to preserve the theater.  Sy’s original idea was to move the hall within the complex to complement the overall master plan of the property. But “the complete theater—including all its elements and most especially its acoustics—would be preserved in close consultation with the country’s music, acoustics and design experts.”

As it turned out, no such consultation had been reported.  The plan to save the theater was reportedly scrapped after further study showed it would cost billions of pesos.

In February 2021, someone posted on FB a picture of a totally demolished Philamlife Building, along with the theater.

A little internet sleuthing revealed that historic parts of the theater—among them Jose Alcantara’s masterpiece depiction of Philippine life and folklore in the form of carved wood which used to adorn the outsize halls of Philamlife Theater—have been donated to the National Museum.  They’re now at the Gallery XVI of the National Museum of Fine Arts, where they were unveiled as early as 2019 by the Philamlife Foundation. Relatives of sculptor Alcantara were present.

A historic theater died as quietly as that.

The Philamlife Theater wasn’t just a part of a corporate edifice. It was a cultural oasis of the community and a precious part of the musical history of the country.

In the early ’70s, opera icon Renata Tebaldi, a rival of the great Maria Callas, performed in a memorable recital at the Philamlife Theater

One of my first exposures to music, theater, and dance was in this theater in the late ’60s. Many musical icons made their mark at Philamlife Auditorium.

In the early ’70s, opera icon Renata Tebaldi, a rival of the great Maria Callas, performed in a memorable recital at Philamlife Theater, and her voice cracked in a Manon Lescaut aria. Instead of boos, she was showered with “Brava!”

The great black contralto, Marian Anderson, also sang at Philamlife.

The first Filipino winner of a voice competition named after Anderson, tenor Otoniel Gonzaga, sang there with soprano Camille Lopez Molina and Dulce, with the Manila Philharmonic Orchestra under Rodel Colmenar.

On Jan. 22, 1969, piano prodigy Cecile Licad, only eight years old, made her orchestral debut at Philamlife with the University of the East Student Orchestra under the baton of Col. Antonino Buenaventura, now National Artist for Music, playing Avery’s Concertino Based on Familiar Tunes.

Licad recalled: “In that theater, I heard Ashkenazy playing Chopin etudes, Fou T’song playing Debussy. My debut here was very special to me. Right after playing in this theater, I realized that I’d like to be a pianist forever. Sad to say goodbye to Philamlife Theater.”

The prodigy went on to reap honors, including the prestigious Leventritt Gold Medal that launched her international career.

Another recipient of the Leventritt Gold Medal, violinist Pinchas Zukerman, also performed at the Philamlife Auditorium in the ’90s.

Music Impresario Ray Sison of the ROS Music Center has time and again praised the clear and distinct sound coming from the artists onstage, even if one was seated in the last row.

‘This is by far the best hall I’ve sung in’—Arthur Espiritu, who ranks the acoustics second only to Carnegie Hall little theater

“This is by far the best hall I’ve sung in,” said Arthur Espiritu, the first Filipino tenor to sing at the La Scala di Milan. Espiritu ranks the theater’s excellent acoustics second only to the little theater in Carnegie Hall.

Since then the tenor has developed a sentimental attachment to the theater. His Philippine debut happened there in August 2010. “If this theater goes, part of my life goes as well because I would never be able to tell this story of my debut recital to my kids because it’s no longer there,” Espiritu said. “Philamlife Theater has become a fixture in my life as a singer.”

Choral composer Nilo Alcala said that  his album with the Philippine Madrigal Singers (Onomatopoeia: The Choral Works of Nilo Alcala) was the last recording done in the theater before it was torn down.

Film producer Eduardo Rocha said Philamlife Theater was part of his theater-directing days. Impresario Joseph Uy who has brought first-rate artists to the Philamlife Theater, from Zukerman to John Aler, said, “The acoustics of the theater is a natural wonder. I believe that the architect never in his wildest dreams thought of building a theater of this grandeur. I used to tell people that the theater is alive and full of passion. It supplements the artists in making love to music. It caresses every note before transmitting the sound to the audience.”

I loved the theater the first time I saw it.

When I tested the acoustics, I knew I could go on mounting concerts there with the kind of dream sound every impresario was looking for (without the aid of a microphone).

I remember bringing my two three-year-old grandchildren to my Philamlife production. Featured artists were Romanian violinist Alexander Tomescu and pianist Mary Anne Espina.  I seated them at the back of the theater just in case they got unruly.

But the acoustics of the theater was so good, my grandchildren’s giggling even in the last row could be heard by the violinist onstage. Naturally, I banished my grandkids in the last part of the concert.

The acoustics was so good, my grandchildren’s giggling even in the last row could be heard by the violinist onstage

I knew its capacity (780), and every impresario’s goal was to fill every seat. The artists I have presented at Philamlife included Licad, tenor Otoniel Gonzaga with Dulce, Camille Lopez Molina, soprano Eleanor Calbes with Raul Sunico and Jay Gomez, and a host of foreign artists.

They all have good words for the theater’s good sound. Why the acoustics wonder?

The theater’s acoustic design was carried out by BBN Technologies (Bolt, Beranek and Newman), which also created the acoustics for the United Nations General Assembly Hall in New York City, the Lincoln Center’s David Geffen Hall, and the Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall in Baltimore.

One of those who saw the theater in its dying days in August 2020 was conservation architect Gerard Lico.

He said he had the rare privilege to have the last look at the iconic Philamlife Building, a mid-century opus by Carlos Arguelles, before its “transformation.”

One of the things he pointed out was that the developers vowed to preserve its cultural history, and that its theater, which sat 780, was famous for its top tier acoustics done by Bolt, Beranek & Newman, the same group behind the acoustics of the Sydney Opera House.

Added Lico in an interview with ANC: “I consider the building a fine specimen of Philippine modernism, which navigated the language of the International Style and the context of tropicality.”

The structure has come to mean more to the architect after doing a documentary video series featuring the works of Arguelles, titled Masterbuilders

‘It is a building that speaks about optimism and the progress of rebuilding after World War II

He added: “It is a building that speaks about optimism and the progress of rebuilding after World War II, employing a curtain wall, steel aluminum, and the plastic potential of concrete—the latest technology of the mid-century.”

Venturing out to Manila after a year of pandemic, I alighted at UN Avenue and took a look at my favorite landmark.

The building was gone. And so was the theater. As I walked away, I could still hear the applause, the bravos.

Producing a concert is never fun. Away from the applause and the standing ovations, you suffer blood, sweat, and tears for sponsorships that never materialize, and ticket sales that could go badly.

Like my other past productions, mounting concerts at Philamlife Theater was an education.You love music, all right, but you never realize a lack of sponsors could spell financial agony.

But for the love of it, I continued staging music. The sight of the happy faces of audiences was enough to see me through.

And all those good musical memories happened at Philamlife Theater.

About author


He’s a freelance journalist who loves the opera, classical music and concerts, and who has had the privilege of meeting many of these artists of the performing arts and forging enviable friendships with them. Recently he’s been drawing readers to his poems in Facebook, getting known as the ‘Bard of Facebook.’

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