THE RONDALLA AT A CROSSROADS
The First National Rondalla Music Camp
By Ramon Pagayon Santos
National Artist for Music
The Filipino rondalla has reached a crossroads. It is perhaps time to lift this often marginalized body of musicians to a new level of artistic prominence.
This after more than a decade of participation and association in five international rondalla festivals, including one in Taiwan, and almost two decades of involvement in the national rondalla competitions managed by the National Music Competitions for Young Artists (NAMCYA).
In 2017 the Musicological Society of the Philippines, supported by the National Commission for Culture and the Arts, launched the First National Rondalla Music Camp to help the rondalla secure its own artistic personality among the different artistic groups in the country. Held in Baguio, the camp was an intensive training program that offered superior instruction on performance skills as well as music theory and other forms of musical knowledge to a select group of rondalla musicians and conductors from different parts of the country.
The training consisted of theoretical and practical lessons on the mechanics of music, orientation on music history (with emphasis on the evolution of the plucked string instrument), drills and advanced instruction on playing technique, analytical methods in musical perception, and discussions on new possibilities with reference to other types of musical expressions.
The music camp sought to develop the capacity of the rondalla practitioners in terms of skills and theories; to deepen and expand their understanding of rondalla and its context, including its sources of influences; and to instill in them the significance of the relentless pursuit of excellence in rondalla music. They were also encouraged to create new works/compositions and arrangements for rondalla.
Drawing attention to the importance of rondalla and its role in strengthening our Filipino identity, the camp encouraged the rondalla practitioners to commit themselves to the overall effort to develop rondalla as an important musical tradition. Toward this goal, the camp goaded the participants to share their knowledge and skills on rondalla with a larger public, especially the youth.
The camp was to last for two weeks, after which a concert featuring a repertoire of classical, contemporary and popular music was to be presented to the public to be conducted by select conducting participants. The classes consisted of exercises in note reading and dictation, music history and music analysis, musical sharing on composition and other types of music for conductors, as well as instrument making for conductors and select musicians. The actual performance techniques in both playing and conducting were given the most attention, including the study of the pieces to be played in the final concert.
It was not smooth sailing for the organizers who had to face different challenges from the start. There was, first of all, the matter of schedule. The first opted dates of May could not work for most teachers because of conflicts with their university obligations. The July compromise, on the other hand, presented difficulties to the student participants who had to be away from school for two weeks.
The slow process of disseminating information through the Commission on Higher Education and the Department of Education also hampered the flow of communication to prospective applicants. Eventually, more audition dates had to be scheduled before the desired number of 100 musicians and some 26 conductors was reached. Moreover, the participants had to shoulder their transportation expenses to and from Baguio City, causing delays in confirmation of their attendance. The camp was finally scheduled on July 9-22, 2017.
The participating musicians and conductors came from more than 25 rondallas based in different parts of the country: Benguet, Ilocos Norte, Ilocos Sur, Isabela, Pangasinan, Bulacan, Cavite, Bataan, Laguna, Rizal, Metro Manila, Quezon, Naga City, Negros Occidental, Bohol, Cebu, Davao del Norte, Cotabato, , Oriental Mindoro, Cagayan de Oro City, and Olongapo City. There was also a participating conductor from Canberra, Australia.
A topnotch faculty
The staff, teachers and participants were billeted at Camp John Hay in Baguio City. The training itself took place in the classrooms of the University of the Philippines Baguio. All participants were given a whole day of rest and recreation in the middle of the entire two-week period. They were able to explore the city and get away from the camp’s strict regimen.
Some of the best teachers were recruited and engaged in the undertaking to implement the entire instructional blueprint of the event. Most of the teaching staff came from the UP College of Music. There were some outstanding artists and rondalla practitioners as well. The staff was made up of professional cultural workers from Metro Manila and Baguio. The teachers taught solfege, dictation, music history, and music analysis in addition to the technical aspects of the craft of performance both as instrumental players and conductors. A professional management team lent logistic and technical support to various aspects of the project.
Different media outlets helped in disseminating information on the entire project. During the first dinner held at Casa Vallejo, one of Baguio’s oldest landmarks, various radio stations and newspapers were invited. Some interviewed the camp director and the project coordinator. Throughout the entire camp, live interviews on radio and television were organized not only with the camp director but also with some of the principal instructors and key personnel. This was done to drum up information on the camp and the concert that was held on the last day at Camp John Hay itself.
On the first day of the camp, the instrumentalists were divided according to their instrumental category. Some sections like the bandurrias and octavinas further split into two classes to facilitate the instruction on technique and instrumental playing. The guitar section was handled by two instructors since the members needed individual as well as group attention. Thus, the participants’ courses of study were carefully thought through to achieve the best results, even as they were handled by highly experienced experts. The training emphasized not only playing techniques but also the refinement and understanding of the different stylistic demands of the pieces.
Unusual concert repertoire
The culminating concert was a huge success. Baguio’s wonderful audience filled the entire auditorium of Camp John Hay. The repertoire consisted of a variety of pieces covering the major stylistic periods of western music and new Filipino compositions.
The music came from the Baroque (Bach, Handel, Vivaldi), Classical (Mozart), and Romantic (Mendelssohn, Rossini, Delibes) periods. Popular music was represented by a Beatles Medley. Completing the program were works by Nicanor Abelardo (“Mutya ng Pasig”) and Alfredo Buenaventura (“Philippine Medley No. 2”) as well as contemporary compositions by Katheryn Trangco (“Hagikhikan”) and Ramon Santos (“Kuriri”).
For the pieces “Mutya ng Pasig” and Leo Delibes’ “Les Filles de Cadiz,” soprano Stefanie Quintin, who is from Baguio, rendered the solo part with great finesse and aplomb. All the pieces were each conducted by one of the chosen conductor-students. Although they showed different temperaments and technical abilities, all the music came out very well, especially with the incredible skills of the young musician-players. To ensure the maximum appreciation of the musical output of the entire rondalla ensemble, technical support was provided by the Cultural Center of the Philippines, using the professional expertise of its veteran staff.
The music camp proved that rondalla is capable of high-caliber artistic performances, that it can go beyond its traditional role as provider of entertainment in town fiestas, as accompaniment to folk dances, or as contributor of musical numbers to programs and school convocations. Its growing repertoire of classical music arrangements and serious contemporary compositions by prominent Filipino composers shows a new beginning in the history of rondalla music in the Philippines.
It is high time that a full-blown professional rondalla orchestra is conceived and realized not only to give more latitude to the careers of our young talented rondalla artists, but also to expand and strengthen an important facet of the Filipino artistic heritage.
Ramon Pagayon Santos was awarded the Order of the National Artist for music in 2014.