It was the year the performing arts came back with a vengeance after the uncertain years of 2020, 2021, and 2022.
The year also saw the changing of the guard at the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP). Music educator Michelle Nikki Junia replaced interim president Margie Moran Floirendo in a CCP Board of Trustees elections held on August 16, 2023.
The year saw the revival of chamber opera by small opera groups, notably by the Viva Voce group of Camille Lopez Molina and Pablo Molina. Their La Boheme made well-received comebacks twice—at their Kalayaan venue and in a move-over engagement at the CCP’s Black Box Theater.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro was translated into Tagalog by Dennis Marasigan and at year-end made its debut at the new Intramuros venue of the Cultural Center of the Philippines.
The major disappointment of the year was the twin bill of the operas Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci. The innovative ideas of good directors didn’t succeed in saving a production weighed down by singers who had seen better years.
NATIONAL ARTISTS FOR DANCE
It was the year of the National Artists for Dance—Alice Reyes and Agnes Locsin, whose Rama Hari and Encantada made dramatic comebacks at the Metropolitan Theater and at the Samsung Theater for Performing Arts.
The Philippine Philharmonic Orchestra (PPO) observed its 50th year at the Metropolitan Theater and reprised its 1973 opening concert with alternating conductors Rodel Colmenar and Herminigildo Ranera.
As expected, tenor Arthur Espiritu shook the theater with selected arias from Faust and La Boheme, and Aidan Ezra Baracol, the young graduate from the Philippine High School for the Arts, shone in Lucrecia Roces Kasilag’s Divertissement for Piano and Orchestra. Raul Sunico, however, didn’t live up to his campus followers in the Gershwin concerto.
PIANIST OF THE YEAR
For his consistently superb pianistic output in recitals and as orchestra soloist, my pianist of the year is Aidan Ezra Baracol.
Sunico re-appeared in the PPO season concert as soloist in Franz Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 2. Maestro Nowak proved second to none, and the orchestra had such memorable resonance with contrasting colors and dynamics. It was a big letdown seeing the soloist not keeping up with the excellent orchestra ensemble.
The year saw another CCP anniversary concert called “Anywhere We Sing Is Home,” with father and son Ryan and Toma Cayabyab alternating as conductors.
Joanna Ampil was a fairly good PPO opener with Broadway favorites from Sunset Boulevard (“As If We Never Said Goodbye”) and Funny Girl (“Don’t Rain on My Parade”).
There was more belting than singing and virtual copying of the Barbra Streisand magic.
SINGING ACTOR OF THE YEAR
You knew Sheila Francisco was going to be special when she joined a duet with Ampil (“Happy Talk” from the musical South Pacific) and later in a Broadway favorite, “Bali Hai.”
This is a solo piece, but the arrangement of Orlando de la Cruz reduced the South Pacific favorite into a duet towards the end. Still, the presence of Francisco in this Broadway number was simply mesmerizing.
Her solo number (“Some People” from the Julie Styne musical, Gypsy) received a deafening roar of approval from the audience. No doubt about it, Francisco is my singing actor of the year.
NEW MUSIC DIRECTOR
For the first time in many years, both audiences and reviewers agree that the Philippine Philharmonic Orchestra (PPO) has finally gotten itself a star conductor in the person of its new music director, Grzegorz Nowak, who is from Poland.
Maestro Nowak’s initial appearances in four PPO season concerts left no doubt that he is the conductor of the year.
Last Dec. 8, he led the PPO in the stirring performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 (“Ode to Joy”) with excellent soloists Rachelle Gerodias, Arthur Espiritu, Krissan Manikan-Tan, and Byeong In Park with a 120-voice choir led by Jonathan Velasco.
CELLIST OF THE YEAR
Last Nov. 17, Swiss cellist Wen-Sinn Yang was the exciting soloist in Antonin Dvorak’s Cello Concerto, Op. 104. The audience was in a trance. The cellist rendered an equally stirring encore number, Caprice on a Theme from Pacini’s Niobe, Op. 22, by Alfredo Piatti. Samsung Theater shook with a rain of bravos and deafening applause.
No doubt about it, Wen-Sinn Yang is the cellist of the year.
In February, the superb violin treat was Diomedes Saraza, Jr., as soloist of the PPO playing the Sibelius violin concerto under conductor Haoran Li.
In August 2023, there were two violinists playing Wieniawski’s Violin Concerto No. 2 in D Minor. One was Japanese violinist Hina Maeda (winner of Wieniawski competition) with the Manila Symphony under Marlon Chen and Jeanne Marquez with pianist GJ Frias at the Manila Pianos Concert Series.
Maeda with the Manila Symphony Orchestra under Marlon Chen sizzled.
Marquez with Frias was equally riveting, earning three standing ovations and yielding three encore numbers.
Writer Jose Dalisay wrote of the concert thus: “Beng and I were very honored and happy to have been invited by the country’s foremost music fan and impresario, Pablo Tariman, to attend last night’s concert at Manila Pianos, featuring the brilliant violinist Jeanne Marquez and her accompanist GJ Frias. It was a stirring performance with many encores that brought everyone to their feet. Most moving for Beng and me was knowing that the concert was Pablo’s offering to his late daughter Kerima, who—with her husband Ericson Acosta, another gifted writer—died fighting for justice and freedom two years ago. As a father myself, I cannot imagine how Pablo bore the pain of his daughter’s loss, and yet he was graciously smiling that night with his grandchildren Keya and Emmanuel. Truly, music hath charms to soothe the savage breast, turning grief and anger into a celebration of a life lived with purpose and honor.”
TENOR OF THE YEAR
Tenor Arthur Espiritu was an instant sensation in singing the title role of Don Carlo in Vienna and Rodolfo (Boheme) in Theater Lubeck in Germany.
In between his European engagements, Espiritu won more Filipino fans with Philippine engagements in Science City of Munoz, Nueva Ecija, Baguio City and Manila Pianos. He was also the sensational tenor soloist in Beethoven’s Choral Symphony with the PPO last December 8.
Last Dec. 9, he got three standing ovations at the Manila Pianos Concert Series, along with soprano Stefanie Quintin and pianist Mariel Ilusorio.
Hands down, Arthur Espiritu is the tenor of the year.
DANCE SENSATION OF THE YEAR
Japanese danseur Takumi Miyake—who performed with the American Ballet Theater Studio Company on Apr. 20, 22, and 23 in Makati City, Cebu, and Davao—is no doubt the dance sensation of the year.
While other choreographic numbers dazzled, Vainonen’s Flames of Paris (restaged by Sascha Radetsky) drew the best of Takumi Miyake and Madison Brown.
Brown’s solo variations were smooth and well-executed, but Miyake’s startling elevation and dazzling turns provided the night’s pure magic.
COLLABORATING ARTIST OF THE YEAR
Another reason for celebration was pianist Cecile Licad, who performed three ravishing Chopin Etudes and provided the live accompaniment to a few dance pieces.
It took a while before Cecile Licad fans could see her solo numbers, which was why they came in droves in the first place. (To these hardcore Licad fans, the dancing was just an added attraction.)
Three Chopin etudes from the Op. 25 treasure trove produced Licad’s dazzling moment. Number 10 in B Minor (“Octave”) was a showcase of control and virtuosity; No. 11 in A Minor (“Winter Wind”) unleashed a torrent of emotion; and No. 12 in C Minor (“Ocean”) was simply Debussy’s La Mer distilled in a piano etude. One felt how Licad was in perfect harmony with the dancers leaping and floating onstage with grace and precision.
Licad is my collaborating artist of the year.
CLARINETIST OF THE YEAR
In June, clarinetist Jason Marquez surprised local music aficionados with a rarely played program for clarinet so varied and wide-ranging it left an audience asking for more.
A highly revealing opener was Bela Kovacs’ Sholem-Alekhem, rov Feidman, a Philippine premiere of Kenji Bunch’s Cookbook (2004), and with cellist Job Polvoriza doing a sensitive part in Robert Muczynski’s Fantasy Trio, Op. 26.
By the time Marquez reached Copland’s “Concerto” and George Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm”), the audience was by then convinced that he is the new exciting clarinetist to watch.
Jason Marquez is my clarinetist of the year.
PLAY OF THE YEAR
The Reconciliation Dinner by Floy Quintos is my Play of the Year.
It is well-written, and the acting ensemble is superb, and the direction by Dexter Santos left nothing to be desired. It was a timely theater treat for those who won and lost in the last presidential elections.
Here’s hoping we get an equally fruitful year in the arts in 2024.