Fresh from their debut performance at the Carnegie Hall in New York, the Philippine Philharmonic Orchestra [PPO], under the baton of Dr Herminigildo Ranera, gave a show-stopping rendition of some of the most beloved Christmas anthems in the outdoor concert ‘Pamaskong Handog ng UP’. The musical event featured selections from The Nutcracker and George Frideric Handel’s Messiah, in which ‘sublime music is wedded to sublime literature’ according to Professor Ramon Acoymo of the UP College of Music. The entire experience was intimate as much as it was communal since the concert took place at the Quezon Hall Amphitheater in UP Diliman. PPO was accompanied by other distinguished choral groups including the UP Cherubim and Seraphim, the UP Concert Chorus, the UP Singing Ambassadors, the UP Staff Chorale, and UP College of Music Chorus Classes.
It was my first time to watch an orchestral performance in an outdoor venue where velvet theatre seats were replaced by misty grass. The concert was free and open to the public, turning it into a great opportunity for everyone to immerse in classical Western music this festive season. There were limited seats available and more than half of the audience members sat on the ground just like what they would do in a weekend picnic. I am surprised by the impressive acoustic quality of the concert considering the open air setting; but I am more floored by the reception of the public when the orchestra played its first piece, Joy to the World. The appreciation for classical music was very much in the air and people were highly generous in giving a round of applause for every worthy segment of the show.
My favourite part of the concert has to be the performance of mezzo-soprano Janet Sabas-Aracama. She sang highlights from Handel’s Messiah and managed to silence the massive crowd. Her rendition of the 1741 English-language oratorio has a strong element of elegance that made me feel like I paid for a VIP seat in a high-end European theatre. I also obsess over the idea of how she shared the story of the birth of Jesus Christ using her musical gift, highlighting the true essence of Yuletide.
Professor Acoymo hosted the show and his rather witty rapport with the audience deserves a mention. I love his annotations every time he would introduce a piece. For instance, he gave a mini-lecture about the difference between The Nutcracker and The Nutcracker Suite before letting the conductor raised his baton. Often mistaken for the complete ballet, The Nutcracker Suite is a selection of eight of the numbers from the ballet culled by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. Acoymo’s didactic approach to hosting reminded me that I was indeed in UP.
I think the most important aspect of the show is the engagement of the audience. Unlike in an exclusive theatre concert where people are asked not to sing along with the performers, UP’s concert encouraged the public to belt out with the singers and fill the starry night sky with voices singing immortal Christmas carols. The whole amphitheatre was transformed into a massive karaoke party when the orchestra performed classic favourites like Silent Night, Hallelujah Chorus, Payapang Daigdig, and Ang Pasko Ay Sumapit. To the delight of all millennials, pop songs by international artists like Bruno Mars, Ed Sheeran, Justin Bieber, and Beyoncé were also performed and received a symphonic treatment. I will never be good at singing and moments like that are my only chance to sing without minding what other people would say about the quality of voice. The concert was less about rigid sophistication and more about sheer love for music.
I have been wanting to watch a Christmas symphony concert for the longest time. But every time I fail to see one, I would settle for the videos available on Youtube. This year, I am glad that I have checked off something from my holiday activity list (without breaking the bank). The ‘Pamaskong Handog ng UP’ concert is not the symphony event I imagined, but it is definitely something even better.