In August this year, UP received amazing news. During their three-month tour in Europe, the UP Singing Ambassadors had won the Grand Prize and 17 other awards in the 66th Concorso Polifonico Internazionale “Guido d’Arrezzo,” including top prizes in four categories. The group also reaped awards in various other choir competitions in Berlin, Torrevieja, Spain, and Florence, Italy.
Not bad for a choir that started out in 1980 as a freshman dormitory choir created by its conductor Prof. Edgardo Manguiat and which evolved into one of the country’s best choirs recognized by the Consumers’ Choice Awards and the ALIW Awards Foundation. This year, the UPSA became the only Asian choir to win the Grand Prize at Arezzo twice, the first time being in 2001. With this win, UPSA is qualified to compete in the prestigious European Grand Prix for Choral Singing in 2019.
Media described UPSA’s triumph as a “grand slam.” Yet on another level, it was also par for the course for UP’s choral groups in light of how UP has influenced the growth of Philippine choral music since the mid-20th century.
Watch “Kilometro” (Choral Cover) by the UP Singing Ambassadors
Philippine choral singing is a product of three forces: colonization, Christianization, and Westernization. In churches, singing was part of the liturgy, while schools, which were run by religious orders, also included group singing in the curriculum. The American period saw the development of secular choral music, and before and after World War II, choral groups of Protestant churches dominated Philippine choral singing. In the early 20th century, nationalistic compositions also emerged in the form of hymns.
Nevertheless, most choral pieces were pieces brought here from Europe and the US, as well as Catholic church music, with arrangements by some Filipino composers including UP College of Music alumni such as Nicanor Abelardo, Rodolfo Cornejo, Lucio San Pedro, and Ramon Tapales. According to Prof. Andrea Veneracion, National Artist for Music, there were only about a dozen or so original Filipino choral works around the time she founded the Madrigal Singers.
From the UP Mixed Chorus to the Korus
The 1960s was a turning point for Philippine choral music. In 1962, the UP Mixed Chorus was named the UP System’s official choir by then UP President Carlos P. Romulo. The UP Mixed Chorus participated in the musical extravaganza that marked President Romulo’s inauguration in 1963. During the gala concert, Eliseo M. Pajaro conducted his Prelude and Testament with Aurelio Estanislao as baritone soloist and the UP Mixed Chorus singing in the choral fugue.
The UP Mixed Chorus was originally conducted by UP College of Music Dean Ramon Tapales. Dean Rey T. Paguio succeeded him in 1969 while Prof. Janet “Jai” Sabas-Aracama took over in 1999. It became the UP Concert Chorus or simply the “Korus”. The UPCC is famous for pioneering Choreo Capella or choreographed a capella singing in the Philippines.
The Korus has been named one of the world’s best choirs, has performed in full-length ballets, operatic works, popular films, TV specials and pop concerts. It has won international competitions in Spain, Hungary and Finland, and was given the Lifetime Achievement Award by the Aliw Awards Foundation in 2012, and the National Commission on Culture and the Arts’ Ani ng Dangal award in 2013.
The Philippine Madrigal Singers
In 1963, another choir made its debut at the Abelardo Hall Auditorium under Veneracion’s leadership. It was a small group consisting of UP College of Music faculty and students that she had organized to sing madrigals during lunch breaks. The group introduced a new concept in performance—sitting in a semi-circle, with Veneracion, their conductor, seated with them instead of standing in front.
The group, known as the UP Madrigal Singers or simply “the Madz”, soon became one of the world’s most awarded choirs, attaining near legendary status for its virtuosity, versatility and vast repertoire. In 1980, the Cultural Center of the Philippines appointed the Madz as its resident artist in choral music, prompting the UP Madz to change its name to the Philippine Madrigal Singers in light of its national recognition.
The Madz holds the distinction of being the first choir in the world to win the European Grand Prix for Choral Singing, the first time in 1997 under Veneracion’s leadership and again in 2007 under Mark Carpio, who succeeded Veneracion. The Madz has been recognized by the UNESCO as Artists for Peace. Its alumni have since gone on to establish choirs of their own.
A haven for choral singing
Choral music in UP continued to blossom as more choirs were created, many of which went on to carve their own niches in the field of choral singing. UP’s official children’s choir, the UP Cherubim and Seraphim, was founded by the UP College of Music’s Flora Zarco-Rivera in 1971. The UP Staff Choral Society, whose members are from the ranks of UP’s faculty, administrative staff and REPS, was founded shortly later, in 1973. A relatively young choir, the UP Dawani Women’s Choir, was created in 2013 as the first all-female resident choir of the UP College of Music.
The flowering of choral singing is not limited to one UP campus. The UP Manila Chorale, composed of UP Manila students from different disciplines, has performed in major concerts, benefit concerts, six European tours and performances for heads of state, and has garnered awards locally and internationally. The UP Medicine Choir, the official choir of the UP College of Medicine founded in the 1980s, has also gone on local and international tours and won prizes in choral competitions, the most recent being the 7th Bali International Choir Festival. The UP Los Baños Choral Ensemble, founded in 1991, has had numerous concert tours around Europe and Asia, competing in international competitions in Switzerland and Germany. A young choir from UPLB, the Makiling Chamber Singers, which is composed of UPLB students and faculty members, won the top prize in the first UP Gawad Pangulo Choral Competition in 2016.
UP Cebu’s UP Serenata, established in 2000, counts UP Cebu students and alumni as its members and has a repertoire that predominantly features Cebuano music. The group has performed in major and benefit concerts, and has been a three-time champion of JCentre Mall’s Melodies of Christmas Choral Competition, grand champion of the 2015 Sinulog Choral Competition, and winner of the best interpretation of the contest piece in the 2017 UP Gaward Pangulo Choral Competition.
UP Mindanao’s Koro Kantahanay has for the past 17 years sought to promote Mindanaoan culture, heritage and arts through choral singing. The group has performed all over the Philippines and participated in the 2nd Gawad Pangulo Competition and the Madz Et Al Concert Festival at the CCP.
The other UP campuses, too, have their own choirs—the UPOU Chorale, the UP Visayas Tacloban Chorale and the UP High School Iloilo Harana Choir, and Tinig Amianan, one of the first student organizations in UP Baguio.
Filipinos singing together
“Choral music in the Philippines is at its apex today,” Alfred John De Veyra wrote in Madz: Almost Everything About the Philippine Madrigal Singers (2013). “Philippine choirs…are actively touring the world and winning accolades at international competitions. Filipino conductors sit as international jurors and are actively invited to deliver workshops and master classes the world over. Commissioning of new choral works is gaining popularity today.”
This is in contrast to the days when Veneracion had to scrape together Filipino choral materials and encourage members of the Madz to arrange and compose their own pieces. Many composers and arrangers have since gone on to produce their own material, and many of the names in composition and choral arrangement either taught or studied at UP, among them Lucrecia Kasilag, Ramon Santos, Ruben Federizon, Eudenice Palaruan, Ryan Cayabyab, Ily Matthew Maniano, Christopher Borela, and Nilo Alcala II.
In short, the Philippine choral music scene today is Veneracion’s proudest achievement—“a nation singing together in harmony.”