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Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Conquering the Pearl River



Some pictures from China courtesy of Sandy and Kuya Ding.



Rarin' to go

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Friday, August 25, 2006

Another Day

My neighbor's dog Christine doesn't fail to keep on barking and yelping into the night for a full hour, between the wee hours of 2-3 a.m. everyday. I had half a mind to knock the sense out of the owner the following morning, you know, but I figured the dog must really have a daily visitor at that unholy hour. She doesn't sound like she's driving away some intruder.

Anyway, at breakfast early today at McDonald's, three guys were happily updating each other with all the news in local basketball. They were like in a zone, a world of their own. Apparently, they watch everything: PBL, PBA, even college basketball-- NCAA and UAAP. Not to mention NBA.

I like wrestling though, WWE mostly. It's hilarious watching Batista (I was told he's Filipino--really?) square it off with obnoxious JBL (he's so large, his fat seems to burst out, he's like a big whale). And poster boy hip-hopping John Cena beating the hell out of Randy Orton.

I'm still having problems with my scales. I need to practice more often. The cadenzas in Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata and Liszt's Liebestraum no. 3 still bothers me, along with the coda to Chopin's Fantaisie-Impromptu.

In the news today: still the controversy surrounding the Nursing board exams. If you ask me, the examinees should just retake the tests that were supposedly leaked out (3 and 5, I believe). I know, preparing for the nursing review is a taxing, expensive undertaking and legitimate passers who didn't benefit from the leakage are understandably upset.

But they should take a long-term view. You see, the PRC should take steps to restore credibility and requiring the examinees to retake the tests is just one way of removing the stain resulting from this lamentable episode. Keep in mind that prospective hospitals and medical facilities abroad are keeping close watch. If nothing is done to correct this, then they might just hire Indian and Chinese nurses who are fast catching up to Filipino nurses and medical professionals.

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Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Schumann on BBC Classical

Catch the five-part series on the life of Robert Schumann on BBC Radio3 with full performances of his major works by eminent musicians, starting today. I especially liked the Abegg Variations and his first Piano Sonata, Op. 11.

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Sunday, August 20, 2006

Verdi: MESSA DA REQUIEM

I originally planned to write about Mozart’s Requiem in D, K626. But the DVD copy bought in Zuhai featuring the Wiener Philharmoniker (Vienna Philharmonic) under Georg Solti and the Konzertvereinigung Wiener Staatsopernchor, along with four other soloists lead by Cecilia Bartoli was a disappointment. Solti interpreted Mozart’s final masterpiece as if it were a slow waltz, which I found highly inappropriate. I thoroughly enjoyed his Mendelssohn symphonies with the Chicago Symphony but this time, I think he missed it entirely. A Requiem is a Mass for the Dead. As such, it is supposed to be highly dramatic, filled with heaven-and-hell scenarios, appeals for deliverance, visions of the torments of hell and the sufferings in purgatory, as well as eternal life after death. You can’t do that in a valse-like manner.

And so I decided to watch Giuseppi Verdi’s Messa da Requiem instead. Claudio Abaddo conducts the London Symphony and the Edinburgh Festival Chorus during the 1982 Edinburgh International Festival. Featured soloists were Margaret Price and Jessye Norman, sopranos; Jose Carreras, tenor; and Ruggero Raimondi, bass.

I compared this performance with my Quiapo copy of Herbert von Karajan’s later (1984) Vienna performance featuring the Wiener Philharmoniker, Chor der Nationaloper Sofia (Bulgaria), Ana Tomowa-Sintow, soprano; Agnes Baltsa, mezzo-soprano; José Carreras, tenor; and José van Dam, bass-baritone.

Verdi wrote his only full-length concert piece in 1874 as a memorial to the great Italian poet, Alessandro Manzoni who died in 1873. Along with Mozart’s work, this Requiem has secured itself as probably the most popular of its kind in the standard repertory.

The first movement slowly opens with delicate melancholy and child-like faith, imploring God to “grant eternal rest” (Requiem aeternam) upon the departed. The bass takes on a serious and understated tone, as the chorus whispers the words in pianissimo. The orchestra shimmers with the delicate “et lux perpetua luceat eis” (and let perpetual light shine upon them) as this slow, soft and timid movement builds up to the quartet of soloists’ entries, one by one, singing the solemn melodies, Christie Elieson (Christ have mercy).

The huge movement comprising Dies Irae (Day of Wrath and impending doom…) rushes out like a mighty flood: the vision of horror at the Last Judgment unleashes a violent storm of despair and fear; all orchestral and vocal forces combine to howl their chromatic passages with startling effect.

The mezzo solo “liber scriptus profeteur” (it is recorded in the books..) has an uncanny grandeur, a realization that God knows everything that we have ever done, while the chorus fearfully interjects the horrors of the Dies Irae, intensifying the general atmosphere of gloom.

The plea “Quid sum miser” sung by a trio (soprano, alto and tenor) humbly asks for salvation, some sort of a quiet interlude while the mood of gloom descends once again with the frightening “Rex tremendae maiestatis (King of tremendous majesty), which reminds one of God’s awesome powers, in no uncertain terms.

The following sections are quite, quite operatic in style: the expressive duet between soprano and mezzo in “recordare”, gains immensity through the tenor solo “ingemisco”, an acknowledgement of guilt of past sins, leading to the powerful bass aria “confutatis maledictus” (the wicked are confounded..) while the chorus reintroduces the cruel images of the Dies Irae. This long movement concludes with the great prayer by the quartet of voices, “Lacrymosa dies illa” (day of tears and mourning) where one is confronted with the inevitable: the Last Judgment.

The next movements are part of the standard sequences of the Catholic mass: the Offertorio, Sanctus and Agnus Dei.

The soloists take on the offertory with melancholic and solemn melodies that seem to obliterate the terrifying images of the Last Judgement, offering prayers as sacrifice to bring the faithful departed “into the light”. When the soprano’s voice floats above the rich harmonies of the orchestra, the chorus and the soloists, it really feels like a ray of light descended on the stage.

The Sanctus (Holy, Holy..Hosanna in the highest) is an impressive big double fugue for the chorus and ends in a majestic tone, as if it were a symphonic finale. It is after all, intended to glorify God’s name.

Agnus Dei (Lamb of God) is sung by soprano and mezzo in octaves, impressively unaccompanied, and repeated by the chorus pianissimo.

The trio of soloists (except the soprano) once again repeats the “Lux aeterna luceat eis” but in the most delicate colors: it fades gradually into the shimmering twilight.

Which leads to the grand finale, as the soprano and chorus intone “Libera me, Domine…” (Deliver me, O Lord from everlasting death, when the earth and the heavens are moved…when you shall judge the earth by fire…). The chorus recreates the horrors of the Dies Irae, as the peace of salvation appears in a magical a capella with the soprano voice floating above the chorus, leading to a powerful double fugue by the chorus. The soprano sings a confident Libera me once again in a psalmodic whisper kind of way, which dissolves into a barely audible pianissimo, as the pleading remains, and dies away to nothing.

Both performances by Edinburgh and Vienna are impressive, although I liked Vienna’s better. All acoustic considerations were given attention: a trumpet section is placed above in the balcony, to convey a sound that originates from far away, like the heavens, which is also the case for the soloists.

As for the soloists, Carreras is magnificent in both productions, his beautiful legato line and phrasing remains crystal clear, and he enunciates quite clearly. As for the sopranos, Margaret Price has a delicate, light and airy voice, very bel cantoish, she manages the trill in the Offertorio section very clearly, while Anna Tomowa-Sintow’s is heavier, rounder and highly dramatic, which makes her rendition very moving. The basses are equally impressive, although I thought Raimondi’s was a bit lighter and lacked volume. The crucial part of the mezzo voices were performed by Jessyne Norman and Agnes Baltsa. Norman is among the best sopranos in the world, with a rich, warm and heavy voice. She also has a wide vocal range, which is probably the reason why she undertook a role meant for the mezzo. In this case, however, Baltsa is the better voice, hands down. She is after all, a trained mezzo soprano, and in the duet in octaves, Balsta’s voice remained rich and round, confident and assured even in the very low notes, while Norman’s lost some of the roundness and the textures while navigating the lower register.

Both choruses were impressive although I felt Edinburgh’s was less reverential and solemn and more performance hall-inclined. The orchestras were both good, although I felt Vienna’s was more expressive and solemn.

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Friday, August 18, 2006

Quiapo

Why do I love Quiapo? Despite the heat, the filth and the crowded alleys that would turn you into an instant claustrophobe, Quiapo has its charms found nowhere else in the country. Filipinos from all walks of life gravitate towards Quiapo. Here you'll find Philippine Culture in vivid color: folk religiousity centred around the Nazarene Jesus--you still find some devotees kneeling their way towards the altar inside the Quiapo Church; Muslims staking their place in the sun--mainly around the Golden Mosque area-- you can find them everywhere, Maranao and Tausug are familiarly spoken like Tagalog. And then the ubiquitous peddlers and hawkers of religious items-- life-size statues of the Virgin and the Saints, crucifixes and medallions-- alongside herbal abortifacients in liqour bottles (if you look closely enough, guys are the main customers), exotic fruits from China (dragon fruit, anyone?), sex gadgets-- plastic phalluses, some with batteries--don't you get electrocuted using these?--as well as "rings" and other USOs (unidentified sex objects) made from horse hair; tiaras for would-be beauty queens; voodoo paraphernalia-- hideous looking dolls and pins, for crying out loud; pirated DVDs including full season episodes of popular US and Korean hits as well as Wagner's and Puccini's operas; and of course, the hard-to-find, uhm, porno DVD copies all the way from Japan, the US or even Germany!

And get this, there is even a music shop that specializes in classical music! Yup. Beethoven and Mozart piano sonatas and complete Chopin waltzes and impromptus, although the albums and the pieces were published way back in the 40's and 50s'-- you can tell from the yellowish color of the pages--it doesn't matter, it's classical anyway. It's like a time warp. You just have to navigate through the maze of back alleys and rows and rows of shops that keep Edu Manzano and his anti-piracy team busy conducting blitzkrieg raids.

Also, you can always bump into that funny Celdran guy conducting his walking tours around Manila, who, If you ask me, is single-handedly doing a valiant job raising awareness of our historical heritage, and which would put the people at the Tourism Department to shame.

You can also find faith healers and psychics ready to predict your fortune and future, the Jesus wannabes or the Second Messiahs preaching their brand of religion and curiously, even fire eaters (that's right) which makes the place a sort of an everday feria.

It's all crazy. It's chaotic. But a wonderful mess. It's Quiapo.

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Thursday, August 17, 2006

Kodak Moment

I'm posting this while Franz Schubert's Valses Nobles et Sentimentales plays in the background. Really nice. It's not sentimental at all, but the melodies are all delicate, not bombastic, like a soft breeze--a whiff of fresh air.

Taken during Che's wedding. She sent this. And no, I'm not the guy wearing a barong.

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Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Barrio Life


After my father opted for an early retirement from his work, the family moved back to Bohol in the mid nineties. My mom owns a few hectares of farm land and my parents decided to give farming a shot. And besides, the children have grown up and moved out. In fact, life on the farm won’t be so bad and would be ideal for retiring.

Accustomed to a more leisurely life in cool, hilly and pine-crested Bukidnon, adjusting to life in, get this—Buyog Ilaud, Getafe Bohol—took some time. My former office colleague Chelo, laughed her guts out when she heard this. I found out later she hails from a town in Agusan del Norte with a name no better than mine: Bayugan.

Buyog Ilaud is a barrio nestled among the hills that dot Getafe’s landscape. From the main highway going to Getafe town from Tagbilaran, you take a dirt road upon reaching a main curve right after passing a huge bridge in Buenavista. Further off, a winding gravel-and-clayish road leads you right to the barrio.

A typical village, the generally simple folks, poor, hardy but genial, live by subsistence farming, mostly dependent on rice and coconuts, as the soil, clayish and limey, does not lend itself suitable for other farm crops, with the exception of cassava.

I had a difficult time adjusting to this place. You see, the hills block the sea breeze coming in through the coastal areas, turning the area into a virtual oven during summer months—dry air, high humidity, soaring temperatures. It’s better now that some of the breadfruit trees my mom planted have developed canopies that provide the all-important shade and cover during searing hot periods, and the verdant Bermuda grass that carpets the front yard provides a welcome sight from the reddish earth that turns to a sticky mud when it rains.

Our house used to be the only one in the barrio that has indoor plumbing, as our neighbors contented themselves with fetching water everyday and taking communal baths near the barrio well. During the house construction, however, we found it extremely difficult to adjust. Going to and fro the communal well requires skills meant for a tight-rope walker: You had to pass through steep, perilous and slippery foot paths while carrying huge water containers on your shoulders. I slipped a couple of times. So did my brother, to the villagers’ utter amusement. Oh yes, we were like celebrities, mind you.

Electric supply is erratic. Intermittent black outs are a normal occurrence, although to be fair, it does not last long. You learn to cope. Of course there’s no cable. What did you expect? We had no choice but watch inane shows by ABS-CBN.

And since there are only about ten or so houses in the barrio, it could be eerily quiet in the daytime when most of the villagers are in the fields and the children are in school. It is perfect for settling yourself in a divan in the front lawn leafing through that thick Dickens novel you have so long wanted to finish, or pound your way through Rachmaninoff’s bombastic preludes, for all you care. Like most Filipinos, videoke singing is the favorite past time in the village. You’d be up in the hill maybe 10kms away and you could still hear Nang Salome belting her lungs out, “And I did it…Myyyy…Wi! By six in the evening everybody is inside; by nine the lights are already out! Imagine that.

I am not familiar with the place at all. I get lost in the woods. I couldn’t find my way through the thicket of coconut groves, wild berry trees, rows of cacao and terraced rice fields. I love the sight of greening rice though, lush and verdant and as the first grains appear, the scarecrows and bells made of tin cans suspended by a string and tied from both ends of the field drive the birds away.

I do not have many acquaintances in the barrio, nearby villages and in town. Although some of them are relatives, I honestly do not know them. When I’m home, I usually stay inside, resting. I rarely venture out, unless my parents require me to make pakisama. It doesn’t help that these people tend to be shy, obsequious and deferential. I do not particularly go out of my way to mix myself with their company, or go the extra mile just so I get a good impression among them.

Ok, ok. I’m a baaad person. Snap out of it! I can live with it.

This is home, all right. But sometimes, it doesn’t feel like one. My childhood memories, school, my acquaintances and friends, other than my family of course—the things that make you feel “at home” are conspicuously absent.

But I visit once in a while, twice or thrice a year. My parents occupy the small three-bedroom house by themselves. I’m sure it gets pretty lonely there at times, although my nephews and nieces visit occasionally from the city.

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Tuesday, August 8, 2006

Modus Operandi

I witnessed a new modus operandi practiced by petty thieves in Quiapo early today. This scraggly looking guy, supposedly busy with SMS, got himself bumped by a clueless, older man who was in a hurry, throwing his cell phone into the pavement where it broke into pieces. He promptly chased and intimidated the clueless man into paying for the damage. He play acted alright. I saw him eyeing the poor guy as the latter approached.

These people are getting clever. Remember the all-too-familiar bus episodes along EDSA, when the MRT wasn’t constructed yet and all had to suffer and take buses to and from Makati?

You know, when self-righteous born-again preachers inside air-con buses would foist their bible passages up your nostrils and down your throats, and promptly hand over envelopes for donations?

Or when someone you thought was the bus conductor would suddenly hand you some over priced Zesto mango juice, with the straw firmly inside the foil pack, just because you told him you were bound for Manggahan?

Which me reminds me of those “Batang Yagit” kids along España, who’d wipe passengers feet with a rug in a split-second, for a fee...

Tsk tsk tsk.

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Monday, August 7, 2006

Procastination

Procastination-- it is an ugly habit I am yet unable to shake off. You see, I didn't actually get some sleep last night as I nursed a light fever. I spent the whole day Sunday writing the final draft of the report for my client, which I submitted a few minutes ago. I had one whole week to write the damn report. The stress and the intense concentration in writing non-stop must have caused the fever.

Gina, a colleague of mine has the same problem. She waits until the very last minute to write her reports, you know, when the client is literally breathing behind her back waiting to break her neck off unless the report is completed. We collaborated on one project and I'm telling you, she comes up with clever ideas just before submission!

She says nothing beats pressure when you need to come up with sound ideas to discuss. Curiously, I agree with her. Not because I want to, but I found out reports I did way ahead of time were substandard compared to the ones under "duress".

Procastination is bad for your health.

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Wednesday, August 2, 2006

Juste Pour Rire

Ever since my friend Fætus (no he doesn’t resemble the creature inside the womb—it’s short for Fetuccini—and yes, he resembles the pasta—how? Use your imagination) got himself an unlimited subscription service from Globe, I get a barrage of jokes via text messages-- on a daily basis! I get corny, tasteless, disgusting, even offensive jokes morning ‘til midnight. It’s annoying, but some are really hilarious.

Which got me thinking: perhaps the only way to deal with, well, touchy issues, is by making fun of them.

Take this for example. By the way, prudes and Maria Claras are advised to stay away.

DYING MAN: I wsh I cud kis d AFGHAN Flag b4 I die.

NURSE: I hav a tattoo of it n my butt.

MAN KISSES IT & SAYS: Lady, pls turn around so I cn also kis Bin Laden.

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Tuesday, August 1, 2006

POULENC: Dialogues des Carmelites

Francis POULENC: Opéra en trois actes et douze tableaux
Livret d'Emmet Lavery, d'après un drame de Georges Bernanos
Lui-même inspiré d'un roman de Gertrude von Le Fort
et d'un scénario de R. P Bruckberger et de Ph. Agostini
Créé en Italien à la Scala de Milan, le 26 Janvier 1957

Among the piles of music DVDs in Quiapo, sandwiched between Sarah Geronimo and Dixie Chicks was an opera about 18th century Carmelite nuns: Francis Poulenc’s operatic masterpiece Dialogues des Carmelites.

Context: During the French Revolution of the late 1700s, when the Bastille was taken over and controlled by the revolutionaries, members of the aristocracy, the political elite and the Church were persecuted because they were all considered part of the old order which oppressed and exploited the peasants and the masses. As such, all religious orders were disbanded and declared illegal by the tribunal, nuns and priests were ordered out of their cloisters. It was under this political turmoil in France that Poulenc set his opera.

The story takes place during the waning days of the French revolution and revolves around Blanche de la Force, a high-strung girl from a rich family who can't cope with the world, and so decides to become a Carmelite nun.

The first act sees Blanche persuading her father, the Marquis and her brother the Chevalier to join a Carmelite monastery. Living under troubled times and plagued with paranoia since her mother’s accidental death, Blanche appears tortured and unsettled by existential fears. She wants to seek shelter in the walls of the cloister. But in the following interview with the Prioress Madame de Croissy, Blanche has to persuade the Prioress who is suspicious of her motives, but she eventually got admitted.

A brief dialogue between Blanche and the other cheerful young novice sister, Constance with whom she shares work ensue. Constance reveals she is willing to sacrifice her life if it would save the dying Prioress. But Blanche's fear of death makes her shrink from such a thought.

And then the highly anticipated mad scene: Prioress Madame de Croissy dies in one of the greatest dramatic moments in modern opera. The terror and the last minute crisis of faith become apparent as the Prioress become delirious. Witnessed by Blanche and Mother Marie, one of the senior nuns, she predicts a desecration of their convent and serious trouble in the near future, before breathing her last.

In the following scene, Blanche is unable to contain her acute fear of death during the death watch, so much that she deserts her duty and incurs the ire of Mother Marie.
A new Prioress is selected, Madame Lidoine, instead of Mother Marie.

Blanche's brother the Chevalier (Laurence Dale, who looks every inch like an 18th century French nobleman who's worried sick about his sister) visits her and pleads for her in vain to return to her father where she would be safe from the revolutionaries. Not long after, the revolutionary commissioners dissolve the cloister and throw the nuns out into the streets.

In the final Act, the sisters, stripped of their habits, take an oath of martyrdom. Blanche seeks refuge in her father's house only to find he has been guillotined. The Act culminates in one of the most chilling finales in all opera: the mass execution of the nuns. As Constance, the last nun to be beheaded, walks to the scaffold, Blanche finds the courage to face her fear of death and walks out of the crowd to join her.

This 1999 production at the Opéra National du Rhin in Strasbourg, France succeeded in evoking the feeling of restlessness and unease during the French revolution, especially the atmosphere of fear that seems to permeate the air. Taking a minimalist approach, the production manages to convey the austere atmosphere of a convent.

Poulenc’s music lies between Debussy’s Pelleas et Melisande in its depictions of an almost mythical far-removed setting of the world of the cloistered nuns -- and Wagner’s leitmotif style and brilliant strokes of orchestration that seem to comment on every psychological detail.

The Latin prayers were astoundingly surreal and out-of-this-world: Ave Maria, Ave Verum Corpus and the chilling and unforgettable final prayer, Salve Regina as the nuns walk to the scaffold to be executed.

But what astonishes me is the first-rate acting. Mezzo soprano Anne Sophie Schmidt brilliantly portrays Poulenc’s unlikely heroine, Blanche de la Force. She completely owned the part, convincing in showing Blanche’s tortured but innocent soul. She communicated the character’s vulnerability as well as the nagging torment very well. Blanche joined the convent mainly to look for solace and shelter from the outside world, only to find out that the walls of the cloister cannot shield her from all her fears, especially of death.

Patricia Petibon delivered a tour de force performance as Constance. She radiates a serene spiritual beauty and her singing is purely angelic, the complete anti-thesis to Blanche’s personality.

Nadine Denize as the Prioress mesmerizes in her crisis of faith, communicating her hysteria and terror with great emotional force. I believe the immense dramatic possibilities attracted the great Joan Sutherland to undertake this role in an earlier well-acclaimed production, although the role was written for a contralto.

Hedwig Fassbender as Mother Marie shows intense emotional control, a no mean feat. Her character demands firmness, level-headedness and strength during the turbulent times and she beautifully communicates warmth and compassion at the same time. She held her ground in her exchanges with the leader of the mob who came to drive them out of the cloister. That scene is precious. In addition, the tension between her and the new Prioress is so subdued, nothing much is said, but you can feel it burning in the air.

Simplicity and austerity are important elements in the whole production. Take the execution scene. No scaffold, no block; the nuns stand in line across the stage to come forward either singly or in pairs to fall to the ground at the sound of a falling guillotine.

The music makes it all eerie: it is clearly a slow, death march, as the drums and bells make it all too obvious. The nuns sing the final unforgettable prayer in an all-out chorus in full fortissimo, the Salve Regina, a last appeal for deliverance, with defiance and quiet fortitude. The music is repeatedly interrupted by the sound of a falling guillotine -- zing!-- as the nuns take their turns to be executed at the scaffold, decimating the chorus one-by-one, to the very last voice.

Watching this is a rewarding, unforgettable experience. Highly recommended.

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