not your ordinary choir
To compare the University of Santo Tomas (UST) Singers to a typical glee club of the American high school variety is to do them injustice. Sure, they do have the staples of glee clubs: the glitz of costumes and fanfare of choreography—what with their gleaming pink ponchos, sequined Filipiniana dresses, and cheesy hand movements—but they’ve got something that most show choirs lack: vocal versatility.
This was amply showcased during their recent concert at the UNESCO Headquarters in Paris. From smoothly sliding contemporary motets to rousing Broadway anthems, they easily breezed through their repertoire, which prompted the audience to give them three standing ovations. Listen to one of their songs and you’ll know that this is definitely not an odd group of high school losers hoping for a slushy-free day on the school corridors. First, they are no longer in high school; they’re composed of University students, faculty, and alumni who are passionate about singing. Second, well, there’s just no point in comparing them to a run-of-the-mill show choir. Period.
Organized in celebration of the 400th founding anniversary of the UST, the concert was an auditory feast of fine choral music. As what Father Rolando de la Rosa, UST Rector, aptly said in his opening remarks, this group is the Philippine’s “gift to [a] world” which defines the word Filipina as househelp and Filipino as a brown biscuit. This clearly shows that Filipinos can do more than scrub toilets and satisfy snack urges.
Repertoire. The show was opened by Albert Hay Malotte’s iconic version of The Lord’s Prayer. Three other sacred songs (Manuel’s Alleluia, Calalang’s Jubilate Deo, and White’s O Magnum Mysterium) followed, each of which showing the range of the choir’s vocal prowess.
With Alleluia, they accentuated the piece’s lyrical quality with long, fluid lines. With Jubilate Deo, they jumped with crisp staccatos as if they were on pogo-sticks, and then finished it off with the ostinato of the male voices towards the end.
Prof. Fidel Gener Calalang Jr., the choir’s conductor, wrote this piece himself. Five other songs performed that night were arranged by him, too. There is, of course, a great advantage if the conductor himself arranges or writes the pieces that his own choir performs. Having prior knowledge of the strength of his group, he can tailor the piece to highlight what they can do best and mask what they can’t. Or, he can write a vocally demanding oeuvre and whip his choir into attaining a certain level of excellence in order to perform it.
But with a group like the UST Singers, there might be little need to bring out the whip, if at all (except perhaps if they intend to come up with S&M inspired costumes).
Their selections of international songs included a poignant rendition of Aznavour’s Une Vie d’Amour. The mispronounced French words notwithstanding, the song still resounded with romantic yearning.
Federizon’s eerie Gabaq-an ushered in the Filipino suite. This Visayan masterpiece started with creepy ululations of the women accompanied by little bells attached to their fingers, reminiscent of tribal fertility trinkets. The singing was as raw and throaty as the choreography was surreal and calculated. The song spoke about humanity’s cruelty towards nature.
Artist Lucio San Pedro’s lively arrangement of Sa Libis ng Nayon quickly followed. The choir members dispersed across the stage to recreate the atmosphere of a town fiesta.
This section was capped with Cayabyab’s Tuwing Umuulan at Kapiling Ka, a song that has had so many incarnations. Calalang’s arrangement for mixed voices was direct, clean, and true to the song’s original form.
The Broadway suite featured three songs from Stephen Flaherty’s musical Ragtime, one of which was the uplifting Wheels of a Dream sung by a tenor and a soprano and joined in by the choir in the chorus while Prof. Calalang pounded at the baby grand.
Since the audience wouldn’t stop applauding, three encores were performed including One Day More from Les Misérables which showed that many of the choir members can do solos.
Serious choral group. The UST Singers is not new to the international stage. They have won several awards all over the world since their creation in 1992. They also hold the distinction of being the only group to have won the Choir of the World Grand Prize-Luciano Pavarotti Trophy twice.
As with most experienced Philippine choirs, their repertoire spans the whole gamut of musical styles and genres. From the musical tapestries of renaissance pieces to the exuberance of Broadway choruses, they seem to be at ease with every style. Whatever the genre is, they sing with great vocal control reminiscent of the Philippine Madrigal Singers when it was still under the baton of National Artist Andrea Veneracion.
They also do not shy away from fully choreographing their livelier songs, something that may be met with raised eyebrows by the more serious and traditional choral groups that prefer very minimal movements and that deliberately avoid going down the route of show choirs (like New Directions, the group of losers from the Fox series Glee). The UST Singers, however, does not overdo it. Albeit some of the hand movements in the concert were predictable, their overall choreography was innovative.
With or without choreography, they remain to be a serious choral group that knows its stuff well. A little bit of showmanship will not do them harm. And it certainly does not mar their performance. A choir with that caliber is something a trumpety Rachel Berry can only dream of becoming a part of.