“Asian Americans are considered a minority group in the United States. [Yet], the diversity of traditional Asian culture and unique music have enriched our country as a beautiful melting pot. This is a historic event that, for the first time, several Asian choirs are performing together under the same roof. We are so fortunate to have five very outstanding choirs join this event.” – Dr. Simon Lin, Chairman of Taiwan Center Foundation of Greater Los Angeles, 2017
I witnessed Philippine Chamber Singers-LA (PCS-LA) make history in 2014 for their 10th-anniversary concert, “I will Sing Forever” at the Walt Disney Concert Hall attended by over 2,000 folks. In 2012, PCS-LA joined a thousand musicians to perform The Mahler Project’s Symphony of a Thousand, which involved nine symphonies, two orchestras of the LA Philharmonic and the Simon Bolivar, under the baton of Maestro Gustavo Dudamel.
PCS-LA, conducted by Maestro Gelo Francisco, dares boldly to do more historic firsts, now performing with other choral groups led by Conductors Im Sang Yoon, Gayane Baghdasaryan, Mikayel Avetisyan, Keiko Takeshita and Cliff Yang. I now refer to Gelo Francisco as maestro, as he has become a distinguished conductor of all genres of music as well as the music director of PCS-LA, along with Emmanuel Miranda, their resident conductor.
PCS-LA first debuted at the 6th International Choral Music Festival in 2004 and since then, they have progressed to be known as “one of the best vocal groups in Los Angeles,” as CBS Los Angeles said. They have performed in major stages in New York and California: Carnegie Hall, Walt Disney Concert Hall, Hollywood Bowl, Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Ford Amphitheater, Shrine Auditorium, Segerstrom Center and select churches in Southern California.
In this choral festival, they took a risk of growing from 12 to 25 members and practiced for two months. Their risk paid off handsomely in a great performance.
Great as two out of 20 are professional musicians, while 90 percent have full-time day jobs as accountants, graphic designers, homemakers, and more.
Rosa Liu, a retired professional and a Taiwanese church choir member, observed that the Filipino performers are natural, while others referred to them as great performers with vibrant stage presence, whose voices and movements mimicked the sounds of bamboo traps clapping, crab clacking to the rhythmic song, “Pasigin.” Its clever use of voices sounding like nature, birds tweeting and animal sounds stood out.
Two singers, Alec Bao and Ana Burog chanted together and achieved a non-traditional way of singing, punctuating their versatility and command of their vocal chords. They sang as if the sounds of community elders doing the Holy Week’s Pasyon, which is often chanted antiphonally in the pabasa (reading) held during Ash Wednesday, the Sundays of Lent, and Holy Week.
Sopranos Marivic Francisco and Kit Buhion were equally impressive and achieved their sound summits.
The indigenous repertoire consisted of “Chua-Ay” (Rice Pounding Song), “Kayo Mungay Daun” (Weaving of Leaves), “Awit sa Panginoon” (Song for the Lord), “Pasigin” (Visayan Fish Song) and “Rosas Pandan” (Visayan Folk Song).
These choices endeared them to the audience who were mostly Armenian, Taiwanese, Korean, Japanese and Filipinos. At the lobby, about to exit post-festival, the Filipinos in the audience requested an encore, to which PCS-LA enthusiastically sang “Dahil Sa Iyo,” to our delights.
Another plus for me is the English translations of these native songs, which emphasized longing for our birth nation, “The Balitaw song is my only offering/The only legacy from my forefathers/A song that is ancient/The pride of the mountains/Tikading, tikading, tikading/Here is my song! As I dance beautifully to it.” There was an effort by PCS-LA to communicate the meanings of these beautiful Pilipino native songs to a multiculturally diverse audience, as well as their arrangers.
PCS-LA sang superbly, and their choreography and their vocal projections were unmatched, as they sang acapella!
PCS-LA members are:
A) Soprano: Marivic Francisco, Kit Buhion, Charmaine Normandia, Anne Jeanette De Guzman, Teng Cayetano, Christine Verzosa and Melissa Stenger.
B) Alto: Ana Burog, Apple Nazareno, Lisa Ulanday, Jennifer Morelos, Kim Bautista, Judith Guererro, Vilma Lince.
C) Tenor: Alec Bao, Noel Anzures, Dino Padallan, Louie Ulanday, Ace Caguioa, Christian Cayetano
D) Bass: Gelo Francisco, Emmanuel Miranda, Rainer Villanueva, Dennis Capili, NJ Flores
Armenia, Korea, Japan and Taiwan choral groups
Armenia is in West Asia. Before their group sang, as other choral groups, they showed a video clip showing how their country, one of the oldest civilizations in the world dating back 3 million B.C., has now evolved from the past of genocide of 2 million Armenians by Turkey and prior occupations of Persians, Arabs, Turks and Byzantines, to a country that can support modern tourism and industries.
The video showed not only their spirituality but also their resilience as a people whose population is now at 3,000,000 in Armenia, while 11,000,000 are in a diaspora, living in 120 countries.
Five hundred thousand Armenians live in the Southern California region, primarily in Glendale, a 1/5 of their native population in Armenia. Comparatively, the Philippines has a native population of 100 million, while 12 million are also in a diaspora, living in over 190 countries.
LA Belfry Singers, formed only in Nov. 2016, conducted by Gayane Baghdasaryan and Mikayel Avetisyan (founding Artistic and Music Director of Glendale Philharmonic Orchestra and Director of Belfry Singers) sang folk songs from different regions of Moush (Armenian Highlands), Aparan (known for its flowing, frigid spring waters and lush meadows and alpine climate), Taron (dates back to medieval periods) with the festival song of “Vardavar” which were all well received.
Osanna song sounded like a lullaby, while the Aparan folk song had distinct, well modulated, fast to slow rhythmic sounds, that this performance garnered three rounds of applause.
The star instrument was the flute. When the folk song from Taron was sung, we could all feel the melancholy that was punctuated with sacredness, and the prolonged sounds of sadness reminiscent perhaps of the spirits of 3 million Armenians massacred by the Turks from 1915 to 1923.
Ensemble Echo (est. in Aug. 2000) and Yuukari Chorus (est. in 1985) composed of elderly Japanese Americans with young spirits still, sang a Japanese song medley of Soshunfu, Akatombo, Yashi No Mi (their best song), Sakura Sakura (well harmonized) and Hotaru Koi (which mimicked little children’s voices and footsteps with abbreviated, soft, slow and fast pacing) and Mura Matsuri (with Taiko drums and a nice contrast with the piano). They were conducted by Keiko Takeshita with Bachelor and Master of Music degrees from Aichi Prefecture University of Arts in Japan, along with Yuujoi Daiko.
Cliff Yang, chairman of the Elite Music Foundation, conducted Elite Chamber Singers, made up of 30 singers from several Taiwanese choirs in the community with only two months of rehearsals. While the festival was originally conceived to get one good choir from Taiwan, no choir could get ready in time to come to America. But, with a good pianist in Ms. Lynn Huang, the chamber performed well.
Their repertoire consisted of “The Sorrow Under the Moon,” “Diu Diu Dang Ah (Train),” “Oh My God!” and “Four Seasons.”
For this writer, “Oh My God!” was done well as it attempted to combine instruments that sounded like fighting in conflict. The piano played the busy bumble bee creating the tension, with the chorus singing and the violin and clarinet like a sweet old couple, as the program aptly described. It was a bold display of harmony and disharmony “skillfully integrated,” sometimes reminding this writer of Bartok.
I save the best for last.
The video overview of South Korea was compelling and one scene stays seared within me, where the inked letters of the calligraphy magically rise up and travel to become Korean characters in balance and to form the vignettes of a modern country replete with winds, colors, well-designed cars to a visual palette of colors in a bibimbap to Asian beauty. It was fluid, it was visually appealing to the senses, it was well done!
I had a chance for a short talk with Im Sang Yoon, the masterful conductor of the Los Angeles Korean-American Musicians’ Association, dubbed the Korean Dudamel by Benito Miranda (an independent licensee of Blue Shield), who came with his wife, Becca Godinez, a singer, actress and producer whose solo concert at the Catalina Bar will be this May 20. Mr. Yoon is best known as Dr. Yoon, as he has a Doctor of Musical Arts degree in Instrumental Conducting at American Conservatory of Music in Chicago.
Fans waited as Mr. Yoon shared with me that 80 percent of the group are professional musicians who practiced for three months. Their repertoire consisted of four movements of “Oh! Korea” by Hyo Won Woo, which took us to highs and lows of pounding of the taiko drums, along with the piano and the chorus.
As to their repertoire, their sounds had compelling resonance mimicking the earth’s rich breaths of nature, as well as the soft slow bass with vocal sounds that felt like coming from the bottom of the earth. Their rendition of “Heartbeat of History” was superb and elicited rounds of applause and bravos. Why? Their robust voices were matched by slow beats of the drums first, then, cascading loud sounds to match ascending voices and the fast beating of drums. It made for such an excitement to watch robust drumming, matched by beautiful sounds of voices and the accompaniment of the piano.
Drums were robust and voices had to rise to meet up the sounds and they did!
“This is Asia’s time and it is time to come together. A union of Asian countries through culture and arts to make this world a little better.
We are just starting to realize that unity, despite cultural differences, is strength,” Gelo Francisco added.
Truly, the heartbeat of history was animated by th is group and we could not help ourselves in shouting bravos! Come to think of it, all of these groups together made for a powerful choral festival!
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Prosy Abarquez-Delacruz, J.D. writes a weekly column for Asian Journal, called “Rhizomes.” She has been writing for AJ Press for 9 years now. She contributes to Balikbayan Magazine. Her training and experiences are in science, food technology, law and community volunteerism for 4 decades. She holds a B.S. degree from the University of the Philippines, a law degree from Whittier College School of Law in California and a certificate on 21st Century Leadership from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. She has been a participant in NVM Writing Workshops taught by Prof. Peter Bacho for 4 years and Prof. Russell Leong. She has travelled to France, Holland, Belgium, Japan, Mexico and 22 national parks in the US, in pursuit of her love for arts.