Thursday, April 26, 2007

Quach and the power of music

Most everyone has an extreme fantasy. I have mine. By extreme I mean something that is beyond my present circumstances to fulfill or work at. It is not a dark frustration, but rather a thing to happily indulge in once in a while. Something magical brings it on. It is music.

My sweet indulgence is imagining myself conducting a symphony orchestra or playing as a concert pianist. I never imagine myself a car racer or ramp model. The concert or movie in my mind rolls when I hear great symphonic music swell and every inch of space around me is awash in it.

I raise my hand and do a Stokowski, pretend to stoke the music and make it come to life, make it rise and swell and ebb and flow. No, I don’t do this in public. Grand finales could make for good arm exercise and the sound of a lonely oboe rising above the whispers of violins could get me to the ceiling.

It is not the fame or the fortune attached to this occupation that makes my imagination and juices go wild. It is imagining the power, yes, the power, to have awesome music flowing from one’s hand or finger tips. Like, oh, my, God.

I can read and play music. And having been exposed to the classics during my Benedictine-German-style schooling at St. Scholastica’s College, I am not alien to Bach, Brahms and Beethoven. And I also know great music does not simply flow from the hand. It entails practice, practice, practice. And undeserved God-given musical talent.

A rich imagination is what I have. So what brought on my wild imaginings?

You have a few hours till tonight to grab a ticket to a musical treat at the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) featuring the world-renowned Helen Quach conducting the Manila Symphony Orchestra, and with Cristine Coyiuto on the piano.

Three great immortal pieces await you. Beethoven’s Leonore Overture, Grieg’s Concerto in A minor for piano and orchestra, and Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 in E minor. We had this triple treat last Sunday at St. Scholastica’s St. Cecilia’s Hall. Last Sunday’s concert and tonight’s at the CCP are part of the centennial offerings of St. Scholastica’s Music Department which is celebrating its 100th year this year. It was founded in 1907 (a year after the founding of the college) by Sr. Baptista Battig, OSB, a talented German pianist who shared her musical genius with Filipinos.

Quach’s nth coming to the Philippines was partly through the efforts of Sr. Mary Placid Abejo, OSB, dean of music. This was a dream she nurtured for many years and she’d have to sit down with me, she said, to tell me the whole story.

Mesmerized is an understatement. I was mesmerized at last Sunday’s treat. Go tonight and listen with your soul.

I am not a music critic, by the way -- but I can say that Coyiuto tackled Grieg with power and grace. Her chords were grand and clear but not domineering or overwhelming and when she needed to make those notes dance, the MSO sprung to indulge her whimsy. What a joy. (Norway and the world are celebrating Grieg’s 100th death anniversary this year.)

My eyes and ears were not on the soloist and conductor only. From where I was (balcony for P500, so my friends and I could have a post-concert “halo-halo”), I could see that the Manila Symphony Orchestra players were mostly very young. The youngest is 17. But their intensity was palpable, and Quach surely drew out the best in them. She made them leap with Grieg’s stunning opening and bang heaven’s gates with Tchaikovsky’s fervid finale. A good number of them, I was told, had trained in Sr. Placid’s Predis program for orchestra players. I caught up with a cello player after the concert and he said he trained with Predis. And that Quach was unforgettable.

Quach was pure energy and poetry. I could sense the spiritual force that was making her draw the music not just from the orchestra or soloist but from the universe. I couldn’t help asking, where was this music coming from? It was not from one instrument or 60 instruments and a piano. Or from so many individuals playing individually. They were one music, moving, alive. Quach was waving the wand and, with the music players, drawing out the beauty and the magic from the cosmos.

Come to think of it, I’ve always wondered how symphonies or concertos are composed, how they are born in the mind of the composers. Before he or she writes down the symphony on paper, does the composer first hear the sound of it as a whole, or by instrument?

I watched Quach the first time more than 30 years ago. I remember her in a white suit and a short skirt, her Beatles bob bouncing. I was enthralled, not only by the music, but by her youth and daring. I don’t remember what was played (so young I was then) but the image remains. But now I know my classics better (thanks partly to the radio station dzFE) and I will indulge in my extreme fantasy for some time.

Well, my ancient Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 played by the USSR State Orchestra and Grieg’s piano concerto (I have two versions) have been on my player since this morning and until a while ago when I began this column piece. Then I got a message from Sr. Placid saying that Quach agreed to be interviewed Wednesday (yesterday) morning for a feature article on her experience of healing.

Quach had gone through life-threatening experiences, an electrocution accident and breast cancer that she has survived, not through surgery and chemotherapy, but through spiritual reawakening. I went to Quach’s website and found the beginnings of her autobiography which is intricate and spiced with a tinge of mystery, about her Chinese childhood in Vietnam, growing up in Australia. And then… I thought, now, what, is, this.

Yesterday she shared with the Inquirer the symphony that is her life and her journey toward healing. Will share these with you soon.