Thursday, 13 August 2015

The Magical Sound of the UST Singers

 MANILA, Philippines – The two recent concerts of the University of Santo Tomas (UST) Singers under Profesor Fidel Calalang Jr. showcased a choir with a unique sound all its own.

At the LRI Design Plaza in Makati City, the choir was a sensation—from the spiritual (“Down by the Riverside”) to the New Music of Stephen Flaherty. They opened a program which palpably lessened the impact of the solo program of Rachelle Gerodias, who held her own especially when she performed Menotti’s “The Telephone” and the “Don Pasquale” aria of Donizetti.

But in terms of overall sound impact, the UST Singers were sheer show-stealers, as they revealed a gradation and galaxy of sounds that were simply magical.

This was again evident in the recent concert of the UST Singers in the residence of San Juan City Mayor JV Ejercito and his mother Guia Gomez. From Malotte’s The Lord’s Prayer to Graystone Ives’ “Name That Tune” and on to our own “Waray-Waray,” the choir was sheer vocal enchantment.

US tour

It is on its 17th concert tour in the United States. Barring the Mexican flu scare, it will highlight the 10th anniversary celebration of the World Choral Festival in Puebla, Mexico, where the group had been recognized twice as the Best Choir of the festival—in 2001 and 2004.

Another highlight of this tour is the choir’s participation in the California Choral Festival and Competition.

Since its founding in 1992, the UST Singers has completed 15 concert tours around Europe, the USA, Canada, Mexico and Asia, and has earned over 45 top prizes in various international choral competitions.

Calalang says of the choir’s 17 years: “Those years could be described as arduously inspiring but, in sum, very colorful and fulfilling. The first few steps were difficult. Just like any other organization or institution, the first few years are always tough, but, as we went along, the fruits of our labor and hard work paid off.”

From the start, Calalang made sure the choir’s repertoire was varied and not focusing on just one genre or period. He also considered the different types of audience that they performed for, and made extra effort to make their repertoire appealing to them.

“I stayed away from the common notion that choral music is confined to Church repertoire and, therefore, perceived as boring,” said Calalang, who heads the Voice Department of the UST Conservatory of Music. “For this reason, I have to keep myself updated on the changing trends, innovations and developments of choral music around the world.

“I believe that most of the choirs, particularly the Filipino choirs, would opt to present a repertoire representing different kinds of music. Aside from this, the UST Singers is also a show choir highlighted by soloists and piano accompaniment that I have been usually doing. Needless to say, we sing my own arrangements and experiment a lot.

“I am blessed to have been given talented singers and members with varied but positive personalities. Perhaps the mix of singers that I always get sets us apart from other choirs. The sundry personalities, different voice qualities and assortment of talents create a distinctive kind of choir that is always a big challenge to a choir conductor.”

The big plus is that the choir conductor is also a composer and even dazzles as a piano accompanist in the Filipino medley.

Calalang is one of the prize winners in the choral writing contest Mga Awiting Bayan para sa Korong Pilipino of the National Commission for Culture and the Arts and the tCultural Center of the Philippines, where his choral arrangement was included in a newly published choral anthology book.

Calalang was also a member of the international jury in the International Competition for Academic Choirs in Pardubice, Czech Republic, in 2006 and last year. He was also a member of the international panel of judges at the First National Choral Competition for Welsh Choirs COR CYMRU in Wales, Unites Kingdom, in 2003, which was televised by S4C television UK.

Birth pains

Calalang recalls the birth pains of the UST choir: “A year after the choir’s inception, we courageously took on a big move of touring Europe. We braved the international competition arena without enough exposure and experience even on Philippine stage. Naturally, the difficulties of planning for a tour and most especially financing it tested our endurance as a choir.

“We only relied on our faith in God and our instincts and sense of unity to make us strong and surpass all the trials. It was very difficult aiming for international recognition as a beginner. Nevertheless, we ended up winning 2nd and 3rd prizes in Harmonie International Competition in Lindenholzhausen, Germany and Llangollen Musical Eisteddfod in Wales, UK.

“Our vision brought us to greater heights as we won the Choir of the World grand prize together with four first prizes when we came back to Llangollen in 1995 and years after, was followed by a long line of awards and recognitions from international choral competitions up to the present.

“Directing the choir is not simply directing the music but making its participants appreciate and love what they are doing. To see a chorister develop into a fine and dedicated soloist and ending up fulfilled as a professional instill a certain pride in the conductor.

“The job of a conductor extends far and wide in the periphery of music. He must also be a father-and-brother figure who must inspire commitment to music and music-making. That aspect is more fulfilling.”