A Night at the Concert Hall

So there’s the underground music scene. But then, there’s something more underground than that, so much that it borders on being clandestine and untouched:

the classical music scene.

A few weeks ago, I decided to spend some of my online time doing something actually worthwhile. I usually read articles reviewing books, movies and music, but all that online and on-screen consumption could leave one incomplete and unfulfilled. I recently finished reading a book, The Rest is Noise by Alex Ross, which sparked my interest in the music of the earlier 20th century. (Look up Mahler, [Richard] Strauss, Shostakovich, Profokiev, Sibelius.) Consequently, I became curious about orchestral concerts being held in the country, so I googled the Manila Philharmonic Orchestra. However, because their site has been “under development”, I searched on and stumbled upon the Manila Symphony Orchestra.

The Manila Symphony Orchestra

The Manila Symphony Orchestra

My November 20, 2010 will forever be remembered as a superb first. The last time I heard an orchestra live was when I was a restless and ignorant grade schooler. It doesn’t count. Now better armed with musical knowledge and an openness to artistic experience, I welcomed Saturday’s evening repertoire like a treasured friend I hadn’t met in ages—with wide-eyed enthusiasm and anxious anticipation for the quaint.

To say that the local classical music scene belongs to a secret society is hardly an exaggeration—formalwear, ceremonial trifles, a sparse audience count and conspiratorial silences embellished the evening’s proceedings. Also, hearing pure applause—untainted by reckless hoots and screams—was virtually alien to me. The ubiquitous muddle of distorted guitar riffs, slamming drum patterns and raucous cheers at gigs were worlds and eons away from where I sat. Unsurprisingly however, the entirety was to my liking.


Peer Gynt Suite; Grieg, Edvard

Flute Concerto; Nielsen, Carl

Symphony No. 2; Sibelius, Jean

The programme honored three Scandinavian composers—Norwegian, Danish and Finnish, respectively—hence the concert title. I admit to listening to only Grieg until that night. Nielsen was foreign, and I’d only “heard” Sibelius from book text. Nevertheless, I paid attention until I grew broke. I ended up a rich man.

Morning from Peer Gynt, the piece that opens the Peer Gynt Suite, is nothing new to me. I think Disney’s used it in one of its older animated films and it’s on some of the albums in my classical collection. It’s on loop as I’m typing out this entry: take it as a soundtrack to one’s waking in the morning. The flute solo gently trickles in as the first rays of sun cast over the valleys cloaked by a mountain. After which, the swells and flurries of the strings shift the tone from a lazy awakening to the full blown grandeur of a glorious new day. The recording I’m currently listening to pales in contrast to the MSO’s brilliant execution. In my experience as a choral singer, I’ve learned that a sign of great skill lies in the ability to sing clearly and expressively at special segments calling for extremely low volumes–a mastery of dynamics. The same goes for classical musicians. The orchestra’s tender moments of pianissimo made me hold my breath. It was too gripping to be true, yet it was happening. There’s definitely a lot more to learn about this orchestra, but from this I can tell that dynamics is a strong point. Surely, Arturo Molina, the MSO’s conductor and musical director, deserves due credit.

Another well-known piece in the evening’s repertoire was the Hall of the Mountain King, as played in a number of films and cartoons. The recurrent melody has always come off  as naughty and scheming to me, although the composer most likely had something else in mind. I’ve always supposed that the idea of the unison emits an arbitrary forward-forging aggression, as if it were a snowball increasing in size and speed as it rolls down a mountain. In a unison, the arrangement lessens in density, technically, as the voices play the same notes, molding a bold single event, so to speak. The orchestra did the unison parts with flare, effectively evoking the power commanded by the piece. It’s the ending parts I’m rather iffy about, though. The piece ends in bursts, punctuated by crescendos involving the recurrent melody in variations, and vice-versa. I’m having a bit of difficulty pointing out the source, exactly, but the closest I can get would be the synchronization of the orchestra and percussions. Could it be the cymbals and the strings? I can’t exactly tell, but the slightest bit was amiss. It was nevertheless a rich performance, displaying an immense feat in performance and artistry.

I’d love to discuss the Nielsen and Sibelius segments, but my lack of experience covering both composers warn me to do so after I’ve taken the time to listen and appreciate their works. I’ll take this as a chance for further learning and growth.

"Scandinavia!" Ticket and programme

These are for keeps.

Microphone Arrangement and Acoustics

Two peculiarities I took note of were the microphone arrangement and acoustic setting of the Philamlife Auditorium. Two of what appeared to be condenser microphones were placed at the mid points of the center and both extremes of the orchestra’s fore. At the center was an XY microphone. All of these were mounted on vertical stands. I saw at least two other microphones within the stage, at the heart of the orchestra. These were attached such that the heads were facing away from each other. I read up on microphone techniques for orchestra, and here are some points from AKG.

As for the acoustic setting of the auditorium, the ceiling over the stage is irregular in shape—it’s jagged, with a remarkable gap between the crest and trough, as in a wave. Exploding from the stage are a plethora of wooden tiles strewn on the auditorium’s walls seemingly attempting to wrap around the audience, but falls short after exceeding a few rows of the orchestra front seats. Where the tiles end, the elongated panels begin. Overhead were a series of wooden panels, angled down from the orchestra but appears to be parallel to the ground as it stretches towards the back seats.

One must marvel at the measures to be taken in accordance to the principles of effectively carrying sound.

Looking Forward

During breakfast the next day, I was wondering when I could catch the Manila Symphony Orchestra perform next. The back cover of their programme has the next season’s (next year’s) concerts outlined (which includes Mahler, Brahms, Mozart, to name a few). But next year still seems ages away. By some stroke of luck, I chanced upon a huge ad on a newspaper, advertising the musical, KAOS–with the MSO. How the universe conspires with me, I thought. It opens December 1st and shows from Wednesday to Sunday, all month. Surely, I won’t miss this chance. Also, on a side note, Hiromi Uehara, a fantastic jazz musician, will be coming to the Philippines on December 17. I’m hoping to catch her performance, too.

Life is short and there’s an entire multiverse of music to explore and appreciate. I’m not missing my chances.

Who’s with me?


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