This year, on the 39th concert season of the Philippine Philharmonic Orchestra (PPO), a new music director—in the person of seasoned Polish conductor Grzegorz Nowak—took over.
If one is to judge by Nowak’s two latest engagements with the PPO, one can say the national orchestra has finally found a star conductor.
Friday night at the Samsung Theater for Performing Arts in Circuit Makati was different. The Philippine Philharmonic under Maestro Grzegorz Nowak opened with an excellent reading of the pretty short Berlioz’s Roman Carnival Overture, Op. 9.
From the way the Polish conductor projected the essence of the music, one could see musical genius at work. It was enough to muster great anticipation for the rest of the program.
No doubt the night’s piece de resistance, Respighi’s Pini di Roma (Pines of Rome). showcased the PPO at its best under a superb conductor.
It was a miracle how the music projected sights of Rome with all its multi-faceted attractions.
The PPO observed its 50th year last May 2023 with a concert at the historic Manila Metropolitan Theater.
Under conductors Herminigildo Ranera and Rodel Colmenar, the anniversary concert reprised its 1973 program with soloists Raul Sunico (soloist in the Gershwin concerto) and Aidan Ezra Baracol (soloist in Kasilag’s Divertissement for Piano and Orchestra), and with the welcome presence of tenor Arthur Espiritu, who provided the musical excitement with well-sung arias and Filipino kundiman.
But before it was named the Philippine Philharmonic in 1982 under Oscar C. Yatco, the ensemble was known as the CCP Philharmonic and functioned mainly as an assisting orchestra for both local and international artists under its founder, Luis Valencia.
On the year the CCP was inaugurated in 1969, the same orchestra under Maestro Valencia assisted a visiting American diva, Beverly Sills, in the inauguration of the Meralco Theater.
In the early 1970s, it assisted Van Cliburn, Renata Tebaldi, and Franco Corelli for the fund-raising projects of the former First Lady, Mrs. Imelda R. Marcos. <? Mrs. Imelda R. Marcos, who was the Philippine First Lady at that time.>
One caught up with the CCP Philharmonic for the first time in 1975, when it assisted Cecile Licad in three concertos in one evening. I was so enchanted by her performance I decided to join the CCP media office in 1980 to have free access to live orchestral music.
Before I joined the CCP, I heard the orchestra in the San Francisco Opera production of Tosca <? Giacomo Puccini’s Tosca> mounted at the CCP, starring tenor Placido Domingo and soprano Eva Marton.
On my third year at the CCP in 1982, the CCP orchestra was renamed Philippine Philharmonic and was under various conductors—among them, Oscar C. Yatco, Basilio Manalo, and Francisco Feliciano.
In the Philippine Philharmonic’s four concert seasons, foreign music directors took over—from Ruggero Barbieri (Italian) to Olivier Ochanine (French-American) and Yoshikazu Fukumura (Japanese).
FIRST POLISH CONDUCTOR
Maestro Nowak, <is his first name Maestro? Or is this Mestro Grzegorz Nowak> the first Polish conductor to lead the Philippine Philharmonic, was principal associate conductor of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in London and was music director of the Polish National Opera in Warsaw from 2017 to 2020.
He said he relates very well to Polish artists all over the world, including novelist Joseph Conrad, author of the celebrated 1899 novella Heart of Darkness.
The first substantial Filipino-Polish connection was through Filipina pianist Cecile Licad’s recording with Andre Previn of Polish composer Frederic Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 2, which was awarded the Grand Prix Du Disc Frederic Chopin in 1985 by the Fryderyk Chopin Society in Warsaw, the capital of Poland. Licad used a Paderewski piano when she performed in Poland.
Nowak studied conducting, composition, and violin at the Ignacy Jan Paderewski Academy of Music in Poznan, Poland, before receiving his doctorate degree at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York.
He obtained a Serge Koussevitsky Fellowship at Tanglewood, <a music venue in Massachusetts?> where he later became Kurt Masur’s assistant.
He won the prestigious Ernest Ansermet Conducting Competition in Geneva and bagged all the special awards, including the Grand Prix Patek Philippe, the Rolex Prize, the Swiss Prize, and the American Patronage Prize.
Maestro Nowak worked with Rostropovich for an entire month conducting several concerts during the “Festival Musique en Mer”—a tour on board the ship Mermoz, with concerts in Mediterranean ports.
He was pleased with his opening concert with PPO. “The orchestra lived up to my expectations with that very good concert. Filipino audience is warm, friendly and supportive. But with such a large venue, we need a larger audience. This orchestra deserves a much larger audience.”
A top winner of the Ernest Ansermet International Conducting Competition, Maestro Nowak recalls the maestros who inspired him when he was just starting. “When I saw on TV the concerts with Leonard Bernstein and Seiji Ozawa, I decided that I absolutely had to study with these masters. I made it happen, thanks to my winning the Koussevitzky fellowship at Tanglewood [summer season of Boston Symphony Orchestra and music students’ master classes with the world’s most famous artists]. Among conductors I also worked with were such super stars as Eric Leinsdorf, Kurt Masur, and Maurice Abravanel. But Bernstein and Ozawa were my heroes and both had the biggest influence. When a few years later I assisted Kurt Masur at the New York Philharmonic and showed him our photo from Tanglewood, he commented with a smile, ‘We were both much younger than.’”
Maestro Nowak’s advice to aspiring conductors: “Practice, practice, practice.”
Never has the PPO sounded magical, robust, and commanding as it wrapped up the night with total aural enchantment.
Maestro Nowak was again it his best in the second PPO season concert last October 13 highlighted by Antonin Dvorák’s Cello Concerto with Swiss-born cellist Wen-Sinn Yang as soloist.
When Yang performed in Frankfurt some years back, the German newspaper Frankfurter Rundschau wrote of his performance in Shostakovich Cello Concerto No. 1 thus: “Cellist Wen-Sinn Yang proved himself in terms of technique and expression as a worthy successor to [Russian cellist and conductor] Mstislav Rostropovich!”
The Swiss cellist (of Taiwanese parents) was so good that his Dvorak concerto and his equally stunning encore number—Capriccio sopra un tema della Niobe di Pacini (Caprice on a Theme from Pacini’s Niobe), Op. 22, by Alfredo Piatti—practically eclipsed the other program highlights from Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 4, Op. 90, and the charming opener, Sarung Bangui Serenade by Potenciano Gregorio as arranged by Angel Pena.
Says the new PPO conductor on the Dvorak cello concerto: “It is a fabulous work, very dramatic. It displays virtuosity of the cellist, but at the same time it is a symphonic work, full of drama and wonderful musical themes and phrases. It is very close to my heart, especially that I performed it with some of the best cellists of our times.”
The PPO music director met cellist Wen-Sinn Yang when the Swiss cellist won the top prize in the Geneva International Music Competition. At that time, Nowak was music director of a Swiss orchestra in Biel.
“I invited the winner to play with us. We immediately bonded musically and collaborated often ever since. He is a versatile cellist with masterful technique, wonderful rich sound, and his interpretations are mature and deeply moving. No wonder he’s often hailed as Rostropovich’s successor,” Nowak said.
Image credits: Orly Daquipil