One of the perks of teaching, or studying, at UP Diliman is the broad cultural fare that we have, especially in music. These events are always occasions for me to take a break from a long day of work.
I didn’t quite realize that one day I would be taking a break with a UP group… while overseas. For most of last week, I was caught in a heavy schedule of academic events at the University of Amsterdam (while worrying about typhoons, natural and not so natural, back home) that left me exhausted. Fortunately, like the many electric cars you see now in European countries, the week ended with a recharge: a concert of the UP Singing Ambassadors (Upsa) in Visé, Belgium.
A Dutch colleague, professor Anita Hardon, generously offered to drive me over, because she had heard the group in the Philippines and wanted to catch them again.
The Upsa has been on a European tour since July, and has bagged first prizes and Grand Prix in several competitions in Germany, Spain and Italy, including the most difficult one, the 66th Concorso Polifonico Internazionale Guido d’Arezzo.
But the Upsa tour has not just been for competitions. The group has performed for Filipino expats, in more intimate sessions with local chorale groups to exchange experiences and musical techniques, and has even visited elderly CICM priests and ICM nuns, many of whom had served in the Philippines, especially in the Cordilleras.
The members have been ambassadors then, not just for UP but for the country, projecting not just the University of the Philippines but also the country in terms of our musical prowess. Certainly, we’re already well-known for our music, usually as individual singers, but the Upsa shows how we can perform as a large chorale group in a wide range of genres.
This was reflected in the playlist that Upsa had for its two-hour concert in Visé: heavy sacred music to start with, then moving to lighter popular musical fare from several countries (a habanera from Spain, Lithuanian folk songs, movie themes), and then, of course, Filipino music.
It has not been an easy achievement for the musical director, Edgardo Manguiat, handling musical arrangements, directing the chorale and managing the everyday lives of the ambassadors. It did help that Upsa has alumni who are now living in Europe, particularly Emmanuel Yap, who was one of the founding members. He handled logistics from his end, including arranging for homestays for members, in effect transforming the tour into a people-to-people educational experience.
It’s not surprising then that, over the years, Upsa has developed a following, including communities who ask them back, as was the case with Visé. The concert venue was a church that was packed with 250 people, nearly all of them Belgians who would jump to their feet for a standing ovation in several numbers.
Proudly listening to the group, I could see why they were so popular. Their performance was powerful, blending baritones and tenors and sopranos, yet gentle in its own way. I told them that maybe it was their voices in their concerts that calmed down Typhoon “Ompong” thousands of miles away.
The UP president, and UP Diliman, supported the tour, but Upsa also had to do its own fund-raising. I was relieved when the members finally got their visas and flew off, but then had to worry about how they were doing. One of their staunch supporters, Rafael Isberto, had signed up to accompany the group and help out, but fell ill during the trip and passed away. The grief was overwhelming, especially for Ed Manguiat. But, troopers all, our ambassadors carried on.
So, what distinguishes Upsa from other groups? I’d say it’s the way they perform their songs. Note that I didn’t say “singing,” because there is more to the rendition of songs that they do. I’m referring to the “kembot” — the way our songs are always choreographed, using all parts of our bodies down to facial expressions. Upsa’s powerful, but playful, singing bursts out from the heart, animated by bodies in motion.
The closing numbers were sung by Upsa together with Visé’s Ensemble Vocal Amalgam; there was a French song, then “Rosas Pandan,” and, finally, “La Vie en Rose” (popularized by Edith
Piaf), where the chorale groups asked the audience to participate. I thought of how mixed the group was—students and alumni from the sciences, engineering, the arts—and how they transcended disciplines and, even more importantly, transcended geographical and cultural borders with their music.
They will be home by next week, and I will announce their homecoming concerts.
Subscribe to INQUIRER PLUS to get access to The Philippine Daily Inquirer & other 70+ titles, share up to 5 gadgets, listen to the news, download as early as 4am & share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.