"Music is another language altogether."
It’s not really the best time to be making sweet music in China these days.
But the Manila Symphony Orchestra just came from there, anyway, as they played alongside their Chinese counterparts for the Hunhe River Symphony Art Festival in Shenyang, Liaoning Province. The festival, part of the Belt and Road Initiative, sought to promote cultural exchange and understanding among Asian countries. Arrangements for the tour had been made since January.
The 64-member MSO, which includes the senior members of the Manila Symphony Junior Orchestra, played an outdoor concert at a forest park on June 19 and another in the Shenjing Grand Hall on June 22.
Violinist Sara Maria Gonzales had her doubts whether her fellow Filipinos would be happy about and supportive of the MSO’s China trip given current tensions between the two countries over the sinking of a Filipino fishing boat in the West Philippine Sea.
She was pleasantly surprised when she got a lot of good wishes and happy messages from family and friends, nonetheless.
MSJO concertmaster Micah Pecson had been seeing social media posts on the spat even before she left the Philippines with her fellow musicians. When it was time to go onstage, she had mixed feelings while playing Chinese pieces before a Chinese audience, especially when she saw the Chinese flag flashing on the giant screen.
She dared ask herself if she weren’t betraying something by playing in this foreign land, in a country that many people say barely respects her own.
“But we were professionals, and I reminded myself that these were just people who came to see a show,” said Pecson, who just graduated from the Philippine High School for the Arts a few weeks before. “And they seemed to enjoy our music a lot!”
This was the MSO’s first international performance, and Diomedes Saraza Jr., MSO’s Juilliard-educated concertmaster, said he was excited. “The MSO brought honor to our country by topnotch playing.”
The MSO’s repertoire included music by Kasilag, Cayabyab, Sibelius, Rossini, Marquez, Moncado and some Chinese classics, under the baton of MSO Principal Guest Conductor Professor Marlon Chen.
For Gonzales, who was tasked to lead the Violin 2 section, the most challenging part of preparing for the concert was to have each section not just know the piece together, but to play as one. “The section must sound like one instrument. We must all breathe together and have a strong connection from the first stand up to the last stand.”
“We were there to bring pride and honor to our country by showcasing what Filipinos can do in an international stage,” she said.
Saraza also noted the great hospitality shown them by their host orchestra.
Pecson said she hopes Filipino music can be performed more abroad. “We have a lot to offer when it comes to good composers and good music, but since these are not marketed well, our music is not as well known as those from other countries.”
Needless to say, she enjoyed performing the Filipino pieces the most. “They gave the Chinese a glimpse of our identity as a nation.”
The same language
On the first day of the combined rehearsal with the Chinese orchestra, Gonzales found herself with a stand partner who did not understand, much less speak, a word of English.
“But we were able to communicate with each other nonetheless—through pointing at the music sheet, nodding, smiling. We just let the music speak.”
Given this experience, and the furor back home over what happened in Recto Bank, Gonzales concluded: “Music can knock down the walls of conflict and connect different cultures and people no matter what the political climate is between countries.”
“Indeed, music brings out the best in humanity.”
In the same manner, “none of the MSO musicians can understand or speak Chinese,” said Jeffrey Solares, MSO executive director.
“I know there is high political tension in the Philippines regarding our relationship with China. But music is about harmony, not about domination or power struggle of who is stronger or bigger or richer. If we use art and music, we have an opportunity to explore human ways to relate to one another as nations, as peoples.”
“With our common humanity we can build a harmonious relationship—and make something beautiful together.”