Passions and Obsessions

This cultural volunteer confesses: ‘I could just be watching Netflix’

Why we do what we do despite the difficulty in chasing after patrons and sponsors

Curtain call for Mariel Ilusorio, Stefanie Quintin Avila and Arthur Espiritu. The trio will perform December 9 at Manila Pianos Showroom, 4th floor, Ronac Lifestyle Center, Paseo de Magallanes, Makati.

Photos and videos by Sarah Sison

There will be Dec. 9 repeat performance of ‘Christmas Solstice’ featuring Arthur Espiritu, Mariel Ilusorio, Stefanie Quintin Avila, at Manila Pianos Showroom, 4th floor, Ronac Lifestyle Center, Paseo de Magallanes, Makati. (For tickets, see below)

While waiting for the members of the audience to arrive, impresario Joseph Uy and I, a cultural volunteer, again wondered aloud why we do what we do despite the difficulty in chasing after patrons and sponsors to subsidize fine music programs.

Even our favorite classical music station DZFE.FM, with its already limited range, is reduced to a staff of two doing all the work just to continue its broadcast mission.

Joseph said, “Tita, we could just be watching Netflix.”

But the evening of Dec. 2 was different from past deficit concerts. What began as an envisioned intimate concert for 50 swelled to 82 people in the all-purpose old house in the Canto Bogchi Joint compound on Kisad Road, Baguio. Made of glass and wood, the venue promised perfect acoustics, and had seen rock, jazz, and classical music performed in it.

The upright rented Kawaii piano traveled all the way from La Union. Pianist Mariel Ilusorio ran her delicate, candlestick-like fingers over it in approval early Saturday afternoon after lunch with tenor Arthur Espiritu and family at Bulalo Joint on Kennon Road. The admirable breastfeeding and multi-tasking soprano Stefanie Quintin Avila brought her three-month-old Ilia everywhere, including rehearsals. Her husband, lawyer Anton, cuddled and soothed the child after each feeding.

With Stefanie Quintin Avila (center) are Vangie Ram, Dee Nolasco Javier, the author and Mita Dimalanta

The wonderful thing about the trio of talents—Arthur, Stefanie, and Mariel—is how easy they were to please, how heartily they dug into their food. Whether it was at Bonuan Restaurant at a dinner hosted by Des and Auring Bautista, with the oxtail kare-kare paired with pork adobo, pinakbet, grilled boneless bangus or the famed lomo ribs, roast chicken, or at Canto with the restored callos, not one was a prima donna. They were appreciative of whatever was served them. They even signed the baby grand piano at Bonuan. Their signatures rest there along with Cecile Licad’s, another earlier dining guest of the Bautistas.

Sarah Sison and her mother flanking cool-as-cucumber Arthur Espiritu

Another impresario, writer Pablo Tariman, always threatens that this or that will be his last concert organizing venture. Joseph has not reached that point yet. He reasoned that once the music washes over you, the exhaustion of preparation vanishes and your soul is restored. The insanity behind the scenes becomes worth it.

I recall trying to strategize where something as simple as the Christmas Solstice concert posters would go. I had to sing Pakiusap to friends and strangers to please post in their condominium, church, or commercial bulletin boards.

The insanity behind the scenes becomes worth it, what with talents like soprano Stefanie Quintin Avila, pianist Mariel Ilusorio, and renowned tenor Arthur Espiritu

Most of my November was spent huddled over the computer promoting the event on social media through private messages on Viber or Facebook Messenger. I’d breathe deeply and exhale at length once I’d finish writing my marketing spiel.

Response was warm when people learned that a tenor of international caliber like Arthur was singing in Baguio for the first time. Prof. Vangie Ram of the University of the Philippines Baguio (UPB), one of the earliest to reserve, lamented when she learned of the intimate venue, saying, “No bigger venue? Baguio is so deprived of world-class events like this.”

But that is what my fellow volunteer, retired UPB Prof. Ben Tapang, and I seek to change little by little with each concert. Since 2015 and except during the pandemic, we’ve explored assorted city venues like the Maryknoll Ecological Sanctuary open field for the Manila Symphony Orchestra, the dining hall and function room of Hill Station Restaurant, UP’s Teatro Amianan, University of the Cordilleras Auditorium, University of Baguio Centennial Hall, CAP–John Hay Trade and Cultural Center, Gourmet Gypsy by Chef Waya, among others.

Sometimes, I feel like my soul is in hock out of deep gratitude to many of the owners and administrators who lent their venues gratis, apart from the sponsors we manage to get, particularly the National Commission for Culture and the Arts for the artists’ honoraria, and Genesis Transport Services, Inc. for lending their buses or giving the performers and production staff a luxurious ride to and from Baguio in their JoyBus.

But the feeling dissipates once the electric connection between artists and audience is established. Arthur opened with that Mario Lanza favorite Be My Love. Eppie Blanco, mother of the owners of Canto and Bulalo Joint, felt her heart quicken at Stefanie’s rendition of Kern’s All the Things You Are, complete with opening verse. It was the same ballad Eppie’s ballerina daughter danced to when her sons got married.

Arthur and Stefanie’s duet of Strangers in Paradise also stirred up early memories of my Kinder classmates, dressed as mushrooms and flowers, dancing to that in a field demonstration at St. Paul Quezon City in the early ’60s.

Then there was Stefanie’s Ave Maria by Caccini and Exultate Jubilate by Mozart wherein, as Joseph put it, you could almost hear a pin drop. It was her and Arthur’s voices that shushed the stray, distant noise coming from the Christmas exposition at Burnham Park.

Of singing in duets with her coach Arthur, Stefanie said she always sought him out for lessons whenever he came home from stints abroad. “Singing with one of my mentors is an immense pleasure and a great privilege. I cannot help but be inspired by his artistry and mastery of our craft. The energy that he has during a performance is infectious. I become more confident and at ease on stage when I sing duets with him. I am very grateful to have the opportunity to perform with such an exceptional artist.”

The morning after, after I texted thank you messages to the audience members whom I knew, Stella Cudaihl replied: “Thanks for a lovely evening. It was heavenly! Please let me know when you have these events. I grew up in Dumaguete but went to college at St. Louis University. Even then I noted that there was a lack of appreciation for the classics. May this change.”

To use a Filipino expression, nahimasmasan ako nang husto.

For tickets to the Dec. 9 repeat performance of “Christmas Solstice” at Manila Pianos Showroom, 4th floor, Ronac Lifestyle Center, Paseo de Magallanes, Makati, text or call tel. nos. (0920) 954-0053, (0918) 347-3027, or (0906) 510-4270.

Read more:

An afternoon in Baguio: Balsam for the soul

Yayoi Kusama: The trauma, the turbulence behind those dots

About author


She is a freelance journalist. The pandemic has turned her into a homebody.

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