At the Doreen Black Box
How timely that, two days after what would have been Doreen Gamboa Fernandez’s 84th birthday and 16 years after we lost her, Ateneo would honor her. It was at Ateneo where she spent many happy and productive years, first as a graduate student fascinated with Christopher Fry, and then discovering the richness of Philippine studies as a doctoral student, and then on to teaching and administrative posts.
I was privileged to have known Doreen and her only sister, Della, who was also remembered that day in a special way. Our mothers were sisters; their mother, Dr. Alicia Lucero Gamboa, was the eldest sister of my mother, Selina Lucero Sta. Romana. They were my “big” cousins, much older than me and, in my growing years, I did not realize they were also big in legendary terms.
It was a most unexpected surprise for the Lucero-Gamboa clan to be invited to an evening of piano duets that concert pianist Della promoted and excelled in, and sarswela songs that Doreen loved. Their only brother, Nil, lives in Silay and could not be there.
What a rare musical treat on that rainy Tuesday evening from pianists Mary Anne Espina and Grace Garcia, both of whom had worked with Della, and soprano Nenen Espina, who sang the favorites of the Gamboa sisters. Among these was their sentimental favorite, “Ang Larawan” by Francisco Buencamino, which they played at their 1955 joint junior recital. (Yes, among her many talents, Doreen also played the piano.) Their teacher, Pilar Buencamino Larracas, was the composer’s daughter.
But the true highlight was that the event introduced us to The Doreen Black Box, the intimate theater venue at the Areté (Greek for excellence), the state-of-the-art building at the Loyola campus. One could not help choking up at this lovely gesture by her former students, led by Bien Tan. So appropriate to name the space after Doreen, who knew theater and loved it. Given her self-effacing ways, she would have been embarrassed at the attention. Be that as it may, let us her first cousins who were present that night—the Monzons, Edmundo Luceros, Mayugas and Sta. Romanas—bask in reflected glory.
Ateneo has always been special to Doreen, who called it a community that made her so happy, as it allowed her to serve and to learn. “This is where I learned to teach. I was privileged to teach the honors class,” she said. A cousin Nelin had to remind her, hey, you also had a reputation as a researcher by then. Among the many exemplary students she was proudest of were Bien Tan, Luigi Bernas, Ruel de Vera, Clinton Palanca, Apa Ongpin, Kris Aquino, Mark Escaler, Marianne Villanueva, Noelle de Jesus Chua and Fr. Johnny Go, SJ.
Della Gamboa Besa was never professionally associated with Ateneo, but was part of the evening of remembering because, at Doreen’s 10th anniversary in Escaler Hall, she had played a duet with Annie Gregorio de Guzman and Ateneo wanted to return the favor. No, it was not only because of the memorable Stella Kalaw photo of the sisters taken in San Francisco a few weeks before we lost Doreen, and which was used for the concert invite. Longtime duet partners Mary Ann Rivas Armovit and Annie also shared their memories of Della.
Della embarked on her career as concert pianist and administrator after her seven children were all grown up. She was dean of the St. Scholastica’s College of Music and served at the Cultural Center of the Philippines for 11 years as coordinator for music, then assistant and associate director, before retiring as artistic director. She is well remembered for curating the annual Las Piñas Bamboo Organ festivals and her extensive collection of piano duet pieces. And, of course, the legendary Sunday breakfasts at her home, a tradition Doreen also kept alive. Della left us in 2015.
Ambeth Ocampo, another one of Doreen’s students, enjoyed meals with her. Just three days ago, he fondly remembered, and disputed, Doreen’s well-known claim that the fish head, the best part of the fish, has 13 flavors. “I don’t believe that. It all tastes like fish to me,” said Ambeth.
Della and Doreen will continue to live on as long as we continue to eat well, read well, write well, teach well and listen to piano duet masterpieces.
We are grateful beyond words, Dean Jonathan O. Chua of the School of Humanities, Marita Concepcion Guevara of the Department of Interdisciplinary Studies and Yael Buencamino of Areté.
Neni Sta. Romana Cruz (nenisrcruz@ gmail.com) is chair of the National Book Development Board and a member of the Eggie Apostol Foundation.
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