#01: FASO at the Walt Disney Concert Hall / Aug. 3, 2019


Filipino American Symphony Orchestra at The Music Center’s Walt Disney Concert Hall / Aug. 3, 2019, Los Angeles

by Joel Quizon / Notes and Notions #01 (8/7/2019)

A Summer Symphony with FASO on August 3, 2019 marked the first performance for the Filipino American Symphony Orchestra at The Music Center’s Walt Disney Concert Hall.  FASO began in 2008 and its aim is to cultivate and foster Filipino music artistry. Their mission statement asserts that as the first and only Filipino symphony outside of the Philippines, their goal is to establish and develop Filipino-American orchestra musicians and to promote and advance Filipino music.  FASO is led by founding musical director and conductor Robert Shroder, raised in the Philippines and studied at the University of Philippines Conservatory of Music, “Bob” Schroder was later the principal flutist of the Manila Symphony Orchestra and, after immigrating to the United States, eventually became the founding conductor of the Boyle Heights Youth Symphony.  FASO has garnered a good deal of recognition and awards since its inception and has performed for enthusiastic and supportive audiences while also providing programs and workshops for aspiring musicians.  

This performance at the prestigious Walt Disney Concert Hall promised to be an eclectic mix of beloved Filipino music staples, familiar Western classical works, pop and Broadway favorites, music from movies, and other surprises.  This mix of styles is what FASO is known for in their previous performances. Although Filipino music was prevalent in the program, through four medleys and two stand alone pieces, the remaining thirteen pieces ranged from often performed standards by Strauss, Vivaldi, and Verdi, a performance of “La Vie en Rose” and Annie’s “It’s the Hard Knock Life,” a rendition of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody,” and an oddly placed performance of Hans Zimmer’s theme from The Gladiator.  Many of the works were presented to showcase FASO’s youth programs, with promising young performers taking the stage. On occasion, the music was supplemented by choreographed theatrical renderings.

If all this diversity in the program seems somewhat unfocused or incongruent, it is a bit, but there is a sense of exuberance and showmanship throughout the evening that at times proved moving and entertaining.  The musicianship was impressive and commendable, but the variety itself lead to a fragmented experience. I had questions. Most pressing to me was why wasn’t it all just Filipino music? I hesitated to ask this, but really, why not?   To many, Filipino music, in particular music that is orchestral or lends itself of orchestral adaptations is so much more than medleys of all too familiar folk songs and lullabies (which are always welcome and certain crowd pleasers). There is a rich tradition of Filipino and Filipino-American composers.  There are countless classical works, pop songs, and contemporary scores that one can comprise a rich and enlightening program. But I suppose, this is not that show. Which is totally fine. There was still a great deal to enjoy, but for some, perhaps a more direct deep dive into the canon of Filipino music would have also been just as entertaining and illuminating while the musical variety would still be in abundance.  

Given that observation, the show started with “:Overture to Die Fledermaus” by Johann Strauss Jr.  Not a surprising first piece at the Concert Hall, but an unexpected one to start the Filipino American Symphony Orchestra concert.  It was definitely a notice of what lies ahead. The second piece was the lone stand alone Filipino song, a modern arrangement of the children’s folk song “Leron Leron Sinta” arranged by Saunder Choi.  A simple folk song about the dangers of picking fruit from a tree, in this version of “Leron” Choi creates a cinematic arrangement with dramatic progressions and whimsical flourishes. A refreshing take that harkens a bit to works by recent Disney film scores.  It was an adventurous turn on a Filipino staple for the program. It was the first of many occasions when you felt a palpable breath being taken by the audience as a familiar melody arose from the orchestra. A restrained acknowledging “Ahh!” filled the hall. A less restrained acknowledgment occured when the audience began discreetly singing to a Pampangan folk song featured on a medley in the second half of the performance.  These moments almost exclusively occured with the performance of Filipino music. The Medley of Filipino Lullabies arranged by Louie Ramos and performed with the FASO Kids was another memorable piece. Stirring and at times eerie, this medley highlighted some excellent solos from the FASO Kids. Another highlight and perhaps my personal favorite was the medley of George Canseco songs accompanied by the impressive University of Santo Tomas Alumni Singers and the Los Angeles Vocal Artists.  The medley displayed the great artistry of George Canseco, one of Philippines greatest and most prolific film and pop composers of the 1970’s through the 90’s. The string section really soared on this medley and the vocal groups reached the climactic high point of the entire program. Curious that they then followed this medley with a performance of Hans Zimmer’s “The Gladiator Theme”. The orchestra’s attempt at Zimmer’s grandiosity fell a bit flat after the emotional intensity of the Canseco medley.  This emotional intensity was matched one more time with the performance of “Gaano Ko Ikaw Kamahal”, the cherished classic by National Artists Ernani Cuenco and Levi Celerio, as the encore. The University of Santo Tomas Alumni Singers returned to accompany the orchestra for the encore and their performance gave added weight and substance to the arrangement. Hearing the sublime melody of “Gaano” drift through the Walt Disney Concert Hall, it was easy to feel pride for the mastery and brilliance found in the catalog of Filipino music and also to the performers of the evening.  I really did just wanted more of that. 

It comes as a bit of a letdown that the majority of the night was dedicated to non-Filipino music, although the music was performed with aplomb and adroitness.  Some highlights: Surprisingly, the Suite from Video Games arranged by Ralph Ford provided a playful yet dramatic moment for the string section certainly captivating some of the younger audience members.  Young vocalist Sam Morelos’s vocals on “La Vie En Rose” was charming and expressive as she veered towards a more jazz interpretation. Eleven year old Nichole Aye was game and energetic on her solo turn for Vivaldi’s “Concerto No. 2 in G Minor, Op. 8 RV 315”, “L’Estate” from Le Quatro Stagioni.  The orchestras take on Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody,” joined by the Los Angeles Vocal Artists and the University of Santo Tomas Alumni Singers, was eagerly anticipated, with an arrangement, including a more subdued drum kit and electric guitar, that kept the treatment closer to the song’s 70’s rock source.  There were two songs from the film The Greatest Showman. A testament towards the score’s popularity in the musical theatre and vocal performance world than significance to the Filipino community. At least that I know of. There was also an Ennio Morricone segment performed with the choirs and showed the groups dexterity.  It was a haunting rendition of “Vocalise” that fulfilled a promise of music from movies. Although beautiful, I wondered how it would have been if they performed music from the Ryan Cayabyab/Bong Penera/Quito Colayco/Onofre Pagsangjan penned soundtrack from the obscure 70’s Filipino film Sinta!. There are vocal pieces in the soundtrack that are similar in tone and beauty as the Morricone piece from Once Upon A Time In the West, but with an opportunity to recognize lesser known Filipino works.

That leaves me again to lament a bit on what could have been, but not to take away from the lively and entertaining show and the much deserved recognition FASO has received over the years.  We are truly lucky to have FASO. My questions is that is it more important to put on a populist show that casts a wide net, or do opportunities like this a time to truly highlight and celebrate the artistry and virtuosity of Filipino musicians while also giving light to the great musical output of Filipinos and Filipino-Americans.  I feel edifying and entertaining need not be mutually exclusive. If we are to cultivate and foster Filipino artistry then why not use the art created by Filipinos to do so while at the same time putting the spotlight on someone like Felipe de Leon or Lucrecia Roces Kasilag on the same stage where Ives and Stravinsky has been celebrated.  I get goosebumps thinking of a program at the Walt Disney Concert Hall of José Maceda works. Imagine an evening of contemporary works by Fil-Am composers such as Nilo Alcala (already featured at the Hall on a commissioned work for LA Master Chorale in 2016) or composer and virtuoso percussionist and experimentalist Susie Ibarra. Someday.