Members of the Manila Symphony Junior Orchestra dominated the Junior Strings Category of the National Music Competitions for Young Artists (NAMCYA) held online on Dec. 8-13, with all six finalists coming from the internationally acclaimed youth group.
First prize winner Emanuel John Villarin (violin), second prize winner Lance Morrison Tulagan (viola), third prize winner Clarice Micaela Coronel (violin), and fellow finalists Gabriel Mari Domagas, Jared Ranz Enriquez, and Marjel Joshua Taclob had the extra challenge of preparing for the finals and conducting lessons with their respective teachers purely online because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Watching everyone perform all those big pieces with maturity and composure almost made me forget the fact that everyone was just 19 years old and below,” said Maestro Jeffrey Solares, associate conductor and executive director of the Manila Symphony Orchestra, after the competition.
Established in 2014 as the youth orchestra project of the MSO Foundation Inc., the MSJO brought honor to the Philippines by emerging as the grand prize winner at the 12th Summa Cum Laude International Music Festival in Vienna, Austria in 2018.
They bagged second prize the previous year.
The orchestra has also played in various venues in Florence and Rome, Italy; Prague, Czech Republic; Salzburg, Austria; Munich, Germany; as well as in Myanmar and South Korea.
Villarin, who turned 17 the day after his NAMCYA win, played Brahms’ Violin Concerto in D Major Op. 77. He prepared for the challenging piece first by learning the context in which it was composed.
“When I started learning Brahms Violin Concerto, my teacher asked me to research on it. In the process, I learned the importance of understanding the life of the composer as well as the historical background of the piece in order for me to be able to interpret and express the music clearly. I truly believe that art and history are inseparable.
“I am happy, honored, and blessed to receive the First Prize award in this year’s NAMCYA Junior Strings category. It was not an easy journey but through the unwavering support and dedication of my teacher, mentor, and family, I was able to give my best,” shares Villarin.
Villarin, a student of the Philippine High School for the Arts, has been studying the violin since age 4 under the guidance of Sara Maria Gonzales, MSO associate concertmaster and herself a NAMCYA winner in 2008.
Eighteen-year-old Tulagan cites how membership in the MSJO has helped him in many ways.
“Being a member of the MSJO has enabled me to become a more versatile musician. I enjoy playing with my fellow MSJO members while also learning from them; this has helped me to become a better ensemble player.”
He adds, “MSJO has also given me many opportunities to play and improve as a solo violist. I am thankful for my teachers who have guided and supported me throughout the competition.”
Tulagan, the lone violist among the finalists, played Casadesus’ Concerto in C Minor and trained under MSO Viola Principal Maurice Ivan Biraye Saraza, a 1999 NAMCYA winner.
Coronel, 19, played Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E minor op. 64 during the competition. She was mentored by MSO concertmaster and 2002 NAMCYA winner Diomedes Saraza Jr.
“I feel so privileged to play alongside some of the best musicians in my generation. With each rehearsal, I am inspired to be a better violinist, a better student, a better ‘ate,’ a better friend. I honestly didn’t expect to win a place in the NAMCYA 2020 competition because everybody was just so good. My mindset was just to do my best in everything and to play for the glory of God.”
Solares, conductor of the MSJO and the youngsters’ leader and mentor, believes that the children learn life lessons, not just music, through membership in the orchestra.
“I try to create an environment and a culture of excellence where everyone strives to do their best to keep up with the progress of their peers, and learn how to rejoice and be inspired by each other’s success, being a good sport when they don’t get the results they desire, and always dealing with respect for one another,” he says.
“The challenge is to also remain humble when they achieve success, to remain grounded and always open to further learning and growth. No matter how much they achieve, no matter if they are already studying with world-class mentors, there are still things to learn even from their peers and from simple teachers like me. I want them to strive for excellence not just to create a stellar profile or bio-data for themselves but so that they can use their learning and skills to be able to contribute to the group and to be able to contribute to others in the future.”
During the COVID-19 pandemic, rehearsals and performances of the group have been done through online platforms, with each student submitting videos and Solares painstakingly putting them together through an app to create the look and feel of the symphony.
Needless to say, they look forward to playing together again, physically together, and in front of a live audience during better times.
The MSJO is currently under the principal patronage of Standard Insurance Inc., as the company pursues its corporate campaign “in pursuit of excellence.” Ernesto “Judes” Echauz, group chairman of Standard Insurance, is an avid fan of classical music and has taken a personal interest in the musical development of the MSJO members.