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November 24, 2003

REINERIO A. ALBA

Twenty–five years is a long time when one considers it in terms of relationships formed. And perhaps, this is exactly what it feels for Prof. Emmanuel Laureola, musical conductor of the Philippine Male Chorale (PMC), and musical director of PMC’s recently-held 25th Anniversary Concert titled “Brothers in Song, Sing on!” last November at the Philamlife Auditorium.

Laureola, the man who arranged the now familiar version of “Ay, Ay, Ay, O Pag-ibig!” (no, not that sex siren’s version) often included by the Philippine Madrigal Singers in their repertoire, was specially happy with the group having done two shows: a matinee at 4pm and a gala performance at 8pm to a largely appreciative crowd.

The concert’s venue was a homecoming of sorts for this group of young professionals who share a passion for choir singing. PMC’s roots are tied to a group of young men then in Baguio City who called themselves the Apaches and began singing together as a regular artistic expression. The group had ample help from future National Artist for Music Andrea Veneracion when they decided to establish themselves into a formal singing group, with Veneracion auditioning members, harnessing the members’ voices. The group thereafter came to be known as The Sound of the Apaches and had their very first performance alongside the Scottish Rites Chorale in 1978 at the Philamlife Auditorium.

Prof. Laureola or “Kuya Noli” to his group recalls the day he took over the reins of the all-male choral group. The year was 1979 and he had been “plucked” from the comforts of academic life (as a piano teacher at the University of the Philippines in Diliman) by Veneracion herself. Veneracion knew Laureola through U.P. Madrigal Singers, Laureola being a pioneering member in 1963.

“It was very new to me, although I already had some experience (as assistant conductor for U.P. Madrigal Singer’s two performances in Europe). It’s an adventure and it was a challenge. The biggest problem then was that there were no available Filipino songs to sing (for an all-male choir). I had to write them.”

Under Laureola, the group had its major performance in 1981 during the Philippine International Choral Festival where the group took the name Aweng Philippine Male Chorale (“aweng” is an Iluko term meaning “the sound of songs”).

Soon, the group found itself singing in concert halls in Manila and in few key cities in the country: Cultural Center of the Philippines, the Philam theater, PCIBank’s Francisco Santiago Hall, UP Club, UP Baguio, St. Gregory Cathedral, Legaspi City. With “bloodlines” traced to Veneracion, the group, for a few years, also participated in the Madrigal et al series of the Philippine Madrigal Singers.

In 1991, the group dropped “Aweng” from its name, officially becoming the Philippine Male Chorale. Determined to further improve their music and talents, the members went up to Antipolo one evening in September 1995 where they drew up plans including the group’s vision and mission statements.

PMC, which by then already had a secure background in sacred music, madrigal classics and international folk songs, had taken as its main mission the singing of the “kundiman” or the Tagalog love songs. The group had since then performed the following “kundiman” and Filipino songs: “Sa Ugoy ng Duyan,” “Ang Kapalaran ng Taong Matuwid,” “Sa Mahal Kong Bayan” (L. San Pedro); “Minamahal Kita,” “Habang Buhay” (M. Velarde, Jr.); “Ang Tangi Kong Pag-ibig” (C. de Guzman); “Di Ba’t Ako’y Tao Ring May Damdamin” (F. Nieto); “Umiiwas sa Pag-ibig” (J. Silos, Jr.); “Sarung Banggi” (P. Gregorio); “Pobreng Alindahaw” (T. Villaflor), among others.

A big break for the PMC came in 1981 when they participated in the 2nd International Chorale Festival held in Manila and gave the group the opportunity to sing alongside some of the world’s renowned choirs.

Eventually, the group found a “home” for their regular rehearsals at the Philippine Heart Center in Quezon City in 1995. This “partnership” was formed out of a mutual appreciation when the group held a fundraising project that same year for the charity unit of the Center (this year’s concert benefits the Center anew).

In June 1996, PMC experienced its first international travel when the group participated in the 14th Festival Internacional de Musica de Cantonigros in Catalunya, Spain. The members recall that most of them were filled with excitement at that time as all of them were first-time participants in an international choir contest, and specially because most of them were first-time travelers, too.

Tenor Gil Benusa who has been with the choir for 13 years now, points out that the only other highlight of the said Cantonigros performance was that they were all wearing the traditional Ifugao dress for men, and that it was so cold that they all thought they would not be able to manage a single note. But sing they did! Competing in the folk song category of the festival, they sang two Kalinga carols: “Intako-od Belen-O” and “Mandawa ot Manggikbot” by Fr. Rafael Desmedt, and “Chua-ay” as arranged by Fabian Obispo. The all-men chorale was jubilant when they emerged as among the four (4) choirs that made it to the winners circle (choirs garnering 100 points) out of the 28 choirs worldwide that participated.

“That experience abroad gave the group the chance to be with other choirs in a foreign land, learn about their culture, interact with them and pit talents with them in a friendly competition. We went home with the award and a rich directory of new friends. It also gave the members a totally new outlook of an international competition,” says Laureola.

During their farewell and thanksgiving concert at PCIBank’s Francisco Santiago hall for the said festival, music critic Antonio C. Hila had these words for the choir: “The 24-strong all-male chorus showcased its ability and confidence in a neatly marked program consisting of Philippine songs, international folk songs, madrigals and spirituals. The choir displayed a virile, resonant and supple choral sound. Its being a male chorale did not preclude the ability to blend soft tender passages. Its singing had that classy touch that made listening so pleasurable.”

That 1996 international exposure also opened the doors to more invitations for participation in international choral events. In July 2000 alone, the choir participated and showcased its repertoire in the First Choir Olympics in Linz, Austria—a gathering of more than 300 choirs from around the world. Laureaola recalls an interesting incident which happened at the Embassy of Austria when the group applied for their visas. The interviewer somewhat doubted the group’s visit at Linz, the group being quite not popular. At which point, Laureaola asked the members to form themselves into an encore line and conducted the choir. They sang in German. The head consul was said to have stepped out of his office to hear them. After their last song, all their passports were collected—they were granted their visas.

With all such accomplishments, how does one keep a group of working men singing together all those 25 years? “There’s Music for one. It is the bond that holds us together. It was the same bond that kept us intact despite the problems that threatened the group’s existence. ‘Barkadahan’ is also essential to the group to a greater degree than usual because we have an underlying sentiment called ‘brotherhood’ and ‘samahan,’ especially when considering “operational matters,” explains Laureola.

The members, who have become friends over the years, spend their after work hours learning the pieces, with Mondays and Thursdays fully devoted to it. Laureola points out that the members, now numbering to 30, like any other “barkadahan”, go out together for beer, food or for plain coffee.

Having just finished their 25th anniversary concert, the group now busies itself with preparations for its next dream project—to compete anew, this time at the 2004 choir competition in Bremen, Germany.

“The challenge is of course to continue to sound in a certain way following the standards of excellence of the Philippine Madrigal Singers, and yes, to sing more and more difficult pieces and to continue doing these things,” ends Laureola.

Hearing those words from a man who has practically lived his life in music, it definitely looks like these “brothers in song” will continue to sing, the Philippine Male Chorale way, for another twenty-five years and more.