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Triumphant Nilo Alcala on world-acclaimed Walt Disney Hall

Posted By Prosy Abarquez Delacruz, J.D. On November 21, 2015 @ 12:10 PM In Rhizomes | No Comments

“Last night we experienced Filipino musical creativity at the highest level. But Nilo’s work goes beyond merely evoking Filipino Pride. He reveals not just a refreshing sensitivity to a larger cultural environment, but a willingness to embrace it without losing his Filipino “carabao” (or soul). This is reaffirming and inspiring to me, as a Filipino American in Los Angeles. Both performers and audience seemed to claim Nilo’s music as their own. Under Grant Gershon’s direction, the Master Chorale (LAMC) sang with such enthusiasm and energy that was both palpable and infectious, even hair-raising, in perfect complement to the spirited performances of Guru Danny Kalanduyan and the Subla Kulintang ensemble, Filipino tenor Sal Malaki (a 19-year Master Chorale tenor) and two other fine soloists [Ayana Haviv-soprano and Abdiel Gonzalez-baritone]. What a triumphant appearance on the world stage by Nilo Alcala!” – Nonoy Alsaybar, Ph.D. Nov. 16, 2015

Nilo Alcala’s “Mangá Pakalagián” — a suite of three parts: “Fellowship”, “Thanksgiving”, and “Pre-Battle Ceremony” –became a historic first, when the Grammy-nominated 64-member vocal ensemble, Los Angeles Master Chorale (LAMC), sang his composition in Maguindanaon dialect, accompanied by the Subla Kulintang ensemble, made up of Danongan Kalanduyan [kulintang, kaluntang]; Bo Razon [gandingan]; Chris Trinidad [dabakan, babandil]; Frank Holder [dabakan, kaluntang]; Roberto Rios [agung], before an almost 2000 strong – audience, which appreciated the complexity of these musical harmonies.

That Sunday night audience responded with robust enthusiasm and an enduring standing ovation, to which the musicians came back onstage, to acknowledge. That evening, as described by percussionist Chris Trinidad, was “trying to create art in a wounded world. Praying for Paris and counting our blessings. Kyrie Eleison.”

Paris, two days before, had lost 129 people in four separate attacks, the largest of which, occurred at the Bataclan Theater. Grant Gershon, Musical Director of LAMC, thoughtfully encouraged the audience to respond with more tolerance, compassion, justice and humor.

From the margins to center stage reflections

Amongst the audience was a seasoned, master violinist with over three decades of musical experience: Nonoy Alsaybar, Ph.D., whose musical knowledge has been passed onto many students, and who has a doctorate in philosophy from UCLA. His musical genius has been passed onto his daughter Jenny, a flutist. Nonoy was part of the Philippine Philharmonic Orchestra (PPO), handpicked by then First Lady Imelda Marcos, and traveled with the orchestral group, to Morocco and Saudi Arabia to play for the kings and princes, while representing the Philippines.

When Nonoy raved to me: “Nilo made music history,” it was coming from his innate musicality and decades-strong authority, as a masterful musician and performer.

Fittingly, this is what Annie Nepomuceno (a brilliant music arranger, also concert producer, singer, vocal coach and music publisher) had to say: “Nilo’s piece is indeed an impressive one, and not an easy one to pull off. LAMC experienced the depth, sophistication and ethnic flavor of Filipino choral music. From my perspective as a music publisher, I laud the fact that Nilo is capable of writing his composition in a manuscript, conducive to learning a complicated work. The readability of the score is key for it to be performed well. It also got Filipino-Americans to experience the caliber of work that is up to international standards: stemming from a choral musician whose training and exposure was borne from Philippine music education at [the] University of the Philippines, nurtured by the Philippine Madrigal Singers and the Cultural Center of the Philippines, then exposed to American higher education studies. We should all work towards getting those who are talented and passionate about perfecting their craft to get on prestigious stages. They do, after all, represent us Filipinos in the best light.”

But for Brian Louis Ferrer, a 32-year-old nurse, it was his first to listen to LAMC: “Growing up Filipino-American here in Los Angeles, it was a real delight to witness the works of a Filipino composer be performed by the esteemed Los Angeles Master Chorale. Since very few Filipinos find success in this industry, it was a heart-warming occasion to experience Nilo Alcala’s hard work successfully come to life.”

His mother, Sion Ferrer, another virgin-listener of LAMC, equally got excited, though a fan of Sal Malaki: “The Kulintang music played by the Master Chorale was historic, considering [it was done] at a beautiful venue, Disney Hall. Nilo Alcala is a genius whose ethnic music Filipinos young and old can appreciate.”

Nilo Mendez Alcala and Regina Belarmino Alcala, who traveled 8,200 miles away from the Philippines, witnessed the US-debut of their son’s work. They said, “As Nilo’s parents, although we have always known his integrity and dedication to his chosen vocation as a composer/singer/arranger, still we were deeply awed and amazed by his incredible musical creation that has been put to life by the LA Master Chorale. We really prayed hard that his work will be able to give glory to God and will also lift up our country, the Philippines. And indeed God heard us. Which parents in the world wouldn’t be proud and ecstatic by this great blessing?”

Why the rave?

Made in LA — an LA Master Chorale’s performance of original works by eight composers: Nilo Alcala, Jeff Beal, Matthew Brown, Paul Chihara, Shawn Kirchner, Morten Lauridsen, Moira Smiley and Dale Trumbore, created a stirring excitement, originating from when these composers shared their compositional insights and inspirations last October at the AT&T Theater.

First, “The Whole Sea in Motion” by Dale Trumbore, inspired by Anne Brontë, sounded like the rolling and splashing waves of the sea, as the LAMC’s crescendoing voices sang “craggy cliffs, smooth, wide sands, low rocks at sea, brilliant, sparkling waves.” When I heard “dimpled pools, running streams,” the piano, played by Lisa Edwards, sounded very much like the receding waves of the ocean.

In “the Desert with You”, by Moira Smiley, took on extra meaning when LAMC sang “May we stay in the desert with you, water?” as this writer had just been to Utah, Arizona and Nevada, where water was precious and scarce that when the female sopranos sang “Bubbles, bubbles, bubbles burst! We are dry,” this writer could imagine parts of the Virgin River that have gone dry marked by plenty of rocks and weeds, but also the gray granite hills in the horizon, with unusual cracks from the small growth cottonwoods with yellow leaves. The best sounds for me: when LAMC sang bubble bubble bubble bubble/Rainwater, groundwater, greywater/Clearwater, backwater, Stillwater/deepwater, trickle water, gather water, their voices built up to a full forte mimicking the flow of all kinds of water. I imagined the splendor of seeing the Watchman Tower and on its foreground, the Virgin River, surrounded by fully mature cottonwoods with splashing yellow leaves.

“Another Lullaby for Insomniacs” by Matthew Brown, with metaphorical lines of “she throws off the cover and lays the darkness bare”, made me recall the grandeur of the fully starred-presence of the Milky Way when the desert skies are not “moon-polluted,” as my husband, Enrique would describe it. “She has another lover/Her heart is otherwhere, sounded like an upliftment for me.”

“Ave Maria/Scarborough Fair” by Paul Chihara had a unique heartprint for me, as I recalled the beautiful sounds of both Ave Maria and the canticle developed by Simon and Garfunkel, both of which were mainstays of our growing up. When “Hail Mary” was sung, it gave us such a solemnity, appropriate to do on a Lord’s day, Sunday.

Composers who “scaled peaks of genius”

Much like Antonio Stradivari, known as the “Laurence Olivier of luthiers for his technical skill, disciplined workman, who labored nobly through a long life, whose professionalism of normal working level is higher than most, who regularly scaled peaks of genius,” as noted by John Marchese in his book, The Violin Maker, three composers matched that level of genius: Shawn Kirchner’s Memorare, conducted by Lesley Leighton; Jeff Beal’s US Premiere of The Salvage Men, conducted by Grant Gershon and of course, our very own Nilo Alcala’s Mangá Pakalagián’s Suite of three pieces, conducted by Grant Gershon, the finalé for that evening’s program.

I congratulated Jeff Beal as I was quite touched by “The Salvage Men”, consisting of five pieces: “A Very Long Moment”, “Spiderweb”, “Virga”, “Age” and “Salvage”. It first premiered in London, and now made its US debut.

When LAMC sang “Suffering is one very long moment/We cannot divide it by seasons,” their recurring notes suggested the malingering nature of pain. But also, it expressed the divinity of facing one’s suffering, as in “Where there is sorrow there is holy ground,” as it made one much closer to the Lord’s suffering to give us eternal life.

With Virga’s “There are bands/in the sky where/what happens/matches prayers, “ Paris came to mind. Even with the  darkness of the grey clouds from the 129 who wantonly were murdered, the sunlit mountain tops with the white clouds in the blue skies reminded us of the candles, the flowers and the resilience of the Parisians during these challenging times, as much as Age’s “But other people are/mussels or clams, frightened. Steam of knife blades mean open/They hear heaven, they think boiled or broken.” How many times have we failed to appreciate our blessings, even as we are amidst them?

“Memorare” by Shawn Kirchner’s merited the enduring applauses for Lesley Leighton and the LAMC, as the latter’s crescendos were quite compelling. As in choral music, the sacred was called in, not the scared voices; at the end of the piece, it felt more like a sacred offering, a glorious powerful plea manifested in the strength of their chorale voices. Bravo!

But when “Mangá Pakalagián” was sung by the LAMC, I felt goosebumps and tears of pride that a fellow kababayan, Nilo Alcala,  made it to a world stage with his creative pieces. Not just him, but also to hear the LAMC sing the piece in a different language other than English, signaled that diversity is part of the group’s DNA. A highlight was seeing musical director Grant Gershon pay such high levels of respect to the kulintang masters by stopping to notice every nuance of how the woodsticks were placed on the brass gongs. I also have a set of kulintang in my library, but I had no idea how beautiful the music that comes out of these instruments could be when combined with ‘contemporary choral harmonies’ —  the musical genius of Nilo Alcala.

And when the suite piece of Thanksgiving was sung after the traditional piece kaluntang as a prelude, I was in awe not just of the masterful performances of Subla Ensemble, but also how the LAMC was so into its singing. Flipping the musical sheets reinforced the feet pounding of the singers which made for such celebratory, fiesta-like energy that made its seamless move to the Pre-War Ceremony. It was a beautiful night of inclusiveness, of bounce, of rhythm, of innovative synergies fit for royalties of the Maguindanao region, and those around the world.

May we make more music, worthy of any royalty, as we treat each other with such royal brand of respect and support, much like what Grant Gershon gratuitously showed by his examples! It was a night to remember, indeed, music history was made but also, diversity and inclusiveness on Walt Disney Hall!

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Prosy Abarquez-Delacruz, J.D. writes a weekly column for Asian Journal, called “Rhizomes.” She has been writing for Asian Journal Press for 8 years now. She contributes to Balikbayan Magazine. Her training and experiences are in the field of 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 and Mexico and 22 national parks in the US, in pursuit of her love for arts.

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