Sunday, May 15, 2011


Photo by EVHuang

I first had the pleasure of listening to the UP Madrigal Singers when they were still under the active direction of their founder, Andrea Veneracion back in the 1970's in Manila, Philippines.
As a young university student from the provinces, I found Manila under the Marcoses to be whirlwind of a city: exciting, filled with fabulous activity in the arts, a veritable boomtown where deluxe hotels and soaring skyscrapers were being built a mile a minute.
Also, we were under a dictatorship, and like all dictatorships, the government brooked no dissent or protest. Martial Law ruled the land, and what peace and prosperity occurred were all a veneer that hid the ugly truths of corruption, torture, arbitrary detentions (sometimes on the laughably flimsy pretext of " rumor-mongering"), and all the goodies that absolute power confers on a self-chosen few, in this case, the Marcoses and their cabal. Engrossed in my studies, I knew nothing, or paid little heed to these matters.
Paradoxically, the arts flourished under the Marcoses. This was true of any dictatorship through the ages: witness the Medici in Florence, the Czars in Russia, the Popes in Rome. The Marcoses came at a time in the arts when the Filipinos were so beholden to the West that anything that smacked of the indigenous was considered low-class. The Marcoses, and especially Imelda, for all their extravagance and eventual despoliation of the Philippine treasury, were good for the Filipino arts and artists, and I, as a lover of the arts myself, indirectly benefited from all their munificence, despite my misgivings.
The UP Madrigal Singers was one of the artist's groups that was a direct beneficiary of the Marcoses' largesse. I usually heard them perform at the Philippine Cultural Center, especially at the Little Theater, whose acoustics were superb. In this theater I first heard pitch perfect interpretations of the a capella works of Palestrina, Monteverdi, various Filipino composers and arrangers, and the modernistic works of Ligeti and Penderecki.
Even at that time, the Madrigal Singers had already achieved a high level of artistry and precision in the art of unaccompanied singing. The government sent them abroad to participate and perform in various choral competitions where they were always top-ranked or took first prizes. They were also constantly called upon by the Marcoses to perform at their various soirees and official functions.
When the Marcoses were deposed by People's Power, the arts in the Philippines lost their prime sponsors. Sic transit tyrannis might also be spelled as sic transeunt artes.
Under the late President Cory Aquino, most of the art establishment which was seen to be allied with the Marcoses lost its government funding. Everybody in the arts had to scramble for their own funds, I suppose the Madrigal Singers were no exception to this. Fortunately, they had always operated under the aegis of the University of the Philippines. They were able to survive as a choral group. As for the Marcoses, they’ve gone the way of all dictators, out of power, though not, given the quirky nature of Philippine politics, out of sight.
So when it was announced that the University of the Philippines Madrigal Singers were going to give an unscheduled concert in our parish church of St. Francis Xavier with barely a week’s notice, I was quite dumbfounded. El Paso has never been on any Filipino artist’s itinerary, mainly because there were not that many Filipinos in it. However, there had been an influx of Filipino medical professionals in the area, and a lot of them knew what the Madrigal Singers meant, so at concert time on the evening of May 8, 2011, the church of St. Francis Xavier was filled with expectant concertgoers.
The current crop of UP Madrigal Singers had a new monicker: The Madz, and they were so much younger than the members I saw more than thirty years ago back in Manila. They still wore Philippine costumes: barong-tagalog for the men and the Maria Clara for the women. They still sat in a semi-circle, without a conductor, although they had a musical director, Mark Anthony Carpio. They were no longer strictly immobile. For some up-tempo numbers, they stood up, clicked their fingers, danced in sync and made theatrical gestures. This was new. But they sang with the same clarity, precision and expressiveness as the Madrigals I knew. In this, nothing had changed. They sang without microphones as well, letting the power of their lungs and the acoustics of the church carry their songs to the audience. Their programme encompassed a group of songs that went no further than 1928 (no Palestrina here), but varied enough to sustain the interest of the crowd. Of interest was the composition " De Profundis" by the Filipino contemporary composer John Pamintuan, an interesting mix of basso ostinato and eliding sopranos in the upper registers. I didn't quite see the point of their inclusion of a quirky arrangement of " In the Mood" for solo voices, except perhaps to show that the Madz can be wacky. The songs by the Philippine composers, foremost among them the Broadway-sounding Ryan Cayabyab, were welcomed by a Filipino crowd that may conceivably be tired of hearing nothing but Norteno music in this part of the world.
Whatever minor distractions were in the venue (the air-conditioning malfunctioned, the church was too echoey, the mostly Filipino crowd brought a baby and kids who played with their PSP’s the whole time), the artistry of the choir shone through. Although they had conceded somewhat to the changed times, incorporating crowd-pleasing songs and jazzy movements, they gave up nothing in the way of properly interpreting a pianissimo or letting out a full-voiced fortissimo.
The UP Madrigal Singers, it turned out, were on a six-month world tour. The members were all students of the university who were giving up a semester of studies to pursue this tour.
I wish them well.
There is no truer, more dedicated group of artists than the UP Madrigal Singers who represent the best that the Filipino can achieve in the field of choral singing.
Here's a video of an informal after-concert performance of the current crop of UP Madrigal Singers at the Cahiling residence in El Paso, during the night of the Pacquiao-Mosley (non) fight. The song is " Man in the Mirror". I never imagined Michael Jackson would figure in the UP Madrigal Singers' repertoire, but it's a sign of the times!

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