Penman No. 73: A New Home in Erehwon

IMG_2568Penman for Monday, November 18, 2013

I HAD a good chat with Metro Manila Concert Orchestra founding music director Josefino “Chino” Toledo recently at the inauguration of the MMCO’s new rehearsal space at the Erehwon Center for the Arts in Quezon City. Also a gifted composer and conductor, Chino is a fellow professor of mine at the University of the Philippines, and a batchmate under UP’s Arts Productivity System. We’ve run into each other during UPAPS ceremonies, but never really got to talk until the Erehwon event.

But let me digress a bit and say something about Erehwon itself first. Founded a couple of years ago by businessman Rafael Rivera Benitez, Erehwon is actually a big white building nestled in a corner of Old Balara in Quezon City (you can find the map and more details on www.erehwonartworld.com) that Raffy converted and devoted to serving as Metro Manila’s newest arts mecca—a studio cum gallery cum performance space cum residency and meeting venue.

Raffy himself is an old friend and compadre of mine, someone I spent one of life’s most privileged experiences with—prison time and space in Fort Bonifacio under martial law, when both of us were in our late teens. He made his mark in the baking and printing businesses, but late in life (he very recently turned 60), Raffy decided to pursue another passion—patronage of the arts, giving rise to Erehwon. (People our age will remember the late, lamented Erehwon Bookshop in Ermita—which was right next to my old NEDA office on Padre Faura, providing me with a perennial excuse for an extended lunch break. That Erehwon, however, has nothing to do with the new one.)

And now, thanks to Raffy Benitez and Erehwon, the Metro Manila Concert Orchestra will have a new home through a venue grant offered by Erehwon to the MMCO, which until lately was lodged with Miriam College, where Chino Toledo also held certain responsibilities. Its arrangement with Miriam having ended, the MMCO needed a white knight to come to its rescue, and that turned out to be Erehwon, which has also been seeking partners to work with in arts promotion.

Erehwon couldn’t have found a better partner than the MMCO, which was established in June 2000 and has since become one of the country’s leading semiprofessional orchestras. I asked Chino what set the MMCO apart from the others, and he told me that they were especially receptive to new and young Filipino composers and musicians. I noticed, during the inauguration, that the orchestra’s musicians were predominantly young, most of them clearly in their 20s and 30s. That’s exactly the kind of push our young musical talents need, particularly as orchestral music, like theater, involves the effort of a community working as one, and an individual really succeeds only insofar as he or she can find membership and nurturance within that community.

The MMCO now counts about 50 musicians in its ranks, coming from various schools in the metropolis. (“The number of people in an orchestra will vary depending on the piece,” Chino told me, “but at full complement, an orchestra like the New York Philharmonic could have as many as a hundred members.”) They hold an average of one concert a month, and practice at least twice a week. The conductor, Chino explained, functions as the team coach, and the concert master acts as the captain ball, leading the execution of the coach’s plan.

Funding is always a problem, Chino added; as a semi-professional orchestra, the MMCO does its best to pay its members what they deserve, but as with most other artistic endeavors, it’s love of music that really drives the group and Chino himself forward, and sustains the commitment of a faithful corps of supporters that include Executive Director Chinggay Lagdameo and MMCO Foundation President Corazon Alma de Leon.

Here’s hoping that the MMCO’s move to Erehwon will result in a new season of growth and prosperity for the orchestra and for Philippine music as a whole.

SPEAKING OF cultural initiatives, last week marked the staging of the fourth Philippine International Literary Festival (formerly known as the Manila International Literary Festival), spearheaded by the National Book Development Board in cooperation with four universities in Manila—the University of the Philippines, Ateneo de Manila University, the University of Sto. Tomas, and De La Salle University—and the Ayala Museum. The urban setting was deliberate, because this year’s festival theme was “Text and the City,” focused on how centrally the city figures in Philippine and regional literature.

I joined a panel at UST with colleagues Jing Hidalgo and Charlson Ong in a discussion of how the city informs our writing. In broad terms, I noted that the city, not surprisingly, has figured in a major way in Philippine fiction, particularly in English, because most of the fiction published in the Philippines has been written by city-based middle-class writers. It has often been presented as the site of violence, poverty, and corruption, in contrast to the romantic conception of the countryside as a place of peace, plenitude, and spiritual regeneration. In more politically aware writings, however, that line has become blurred, as the feudal roots of urban wealth and power become more clearly exposed.

Our focus on the familiar city, however, comes at a great price—the near-absence of new writing that deals with the Philippine countryside in anything but a romantic mode. (By “romantic” here I mean I mean not only the highly idealized representations of rural maidens by the likes of Fernando Amorsolo, but also my politicized generation’s expectation of ascending into the mountains—joining the armed struggle—as a kind of revolutionary apotheosis.) As it happened, I was in Baler, Aurora that weekend, and rushed back to Manila at dawn to make it in time for the UST event. On the six-hour ride, over mountain roads with a view of the great ocean, I remarked how conspicuously absent the sea and the mountains were in our contemporary literature, despite the fact that we pride ourselves in being a vast archipelago. Our stories today take place in Starbucks Katipunan, or in some cozy corner of Bonifacio High Street that may as well be another country.

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In UP, I was happy to introduce an old friend, the Singaporean fictionist Suchen Christine Lim, a guest and featured speaker of the festival along with other international writers including the Hong Kong-based fictionist Xu Xi and cultural critic Peter Swirski. Suchen is a delightfully gifted writer whose title story in the collection The Lies That Build a Marriage (available at National Book Store) blew me away; her prose is crisp and to the point, but her command of character displays the depth and sophistication of her perception.

I noted how the Philippines and Singapore have had a long and special literary relationship, probably nurtured by the fact that we share the same colonial language, English. Among writers, Frankie Sionil Jose was a contemporary and good friend of Edwin Thumboo; Krip Yuson, Charlson Ong and I have had fruitful contact with Kirpal Singh, Robert Yeo, and Chris Mooney-Singh; our younger writers like poet Joel Toledo (who’s doing a PhD in Singapore) have their counterparts in Alvin Pang and Joshua Ip. Some years ago, Filipino and Singaporean poets got together to produce a joint anthology titled Love Gathers All. You’ll note that all of these pairings are between men, so it’s refreshing and important to remember that women writers have also figured prominently in Singaporean literature, aside from Suchen Lim—the fictionist Catherine Lim and the playwright Stella Kon among them.

Next year, Singapore will host the Asia-Pacific Writers and Translators conference, followed by us in 2015. It’s events like these that will help put the Philippines where it deserves to be, squarely on the global literary and cultural map.

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