Backstage at the Philippine Philharmonic Orchestra’s August 23 Palawan outreach concert, a violinist polishes a beautiful hundred year-old violin right beside where I’m seated. It was at that moment that I realized that this might be the coolest thing that has ever happened to me.
I’m interviewing Mrs. Berny Payte. She and the person polishing the instrument are both in the First Violin section of the orchestra. “It’s like in a choir; [we’re] the sopranos,” she explains. “[The first violin section] usually plays the melody and most of the time the higher sounds or the higher register in terms of notes.”
She patiently answers all my excited questions. How long has she been in the PPO? When did she first want to be a part of it? What’s the daily life of a world-class classical musician?
“I’ve been in the PPO since 2007,” she smiles. “12 years. I had really wanted to be part of this orchestra since I was in high school. My dream was to really perform. It’s a great opportunity to show my skills and perform in front of an audience.” She’s been living her dream performing not only for Filipino audiences, but in international exhibitions and concerts as well in Japan, Shanghai, Hong Kong, and New York, the PPO being the first Filipino orchestra to perform in New York’s prestigious Carnegie Hall.
As we talk, other musicians walk in and out of their dressing rooms. Some are holding string instruments like Mrs. Payte, others are carrying clarinets and flutes. The shrill sounds of what could be a piccolo plays the melody of Overdrive by the Eraserheads in the opposite corner of the room. Outside, violins and violas are being tuned and plucked for last minute practice. It’s hard to believe that these incredible musicians still need practice, but she insists that they do.
Outside of the practices, rehearsals and performances, the musicians of the PPO are freelancers, parents, students, and — as in the case of Mrs. Payte and her husband — teachers. “My husband is a professor in UST, so aside from the orchestra, we teach,” she says. Is he part of the orchestra, too? “Yes, he’s a contra bassist.” Again, she stresses the need to be truly passionate with and dedicated to your chosen instrument if you truly want to be a part of an orchestra like the PPO. “[For my husband], even just carrying the bass takes a lot of effort, much more playing the bass.”
I ask her if maybe she could introduce me to him for an interview, too. “Huwag na ‘yon!” she laughs fondly. Apparently, her husband is shy. I ask her to try anyway.
She leads me through the hall of dressing rooms of the City Coliseum, the venue of the PPO’s Outreach concert in Palawan. We pass by men buttoning up their Barong Tagalogs and women retouching their lipstick. Mrs. Payte finally stops beside a group of men already dressed up, just waiting for show time. She taps a tall man with glasses and a friendly smile. “Magpa-interview ka,” she tells him, tilting her head towards me. As I thank Mrs. Payte and wave goodbye, we go outside to the parking lot slash smoking area. A woman clutching a violin case ties her shoelaces and nods hello.
I start from the beginning and ask for the name of the man with me. He’s Mr. Rickson M. Poonin. I notice that he and his wife don’t share a surname, but I ignore that and move on.
“So you’re a contra bassist po?” I confirm.
“No, I play the trombone.”
I’m starting to get confused. “But your wife told me that you’re a contra bassist!”
“Wife?” Now Mr. Poonin is getting confused, too. “I’m not married!”
“Then who was that?” I ask, referring to Mrs. Payte.
“She’s my friend! Her husband is too!”
After a good laugh and clearing everything up, we begin to chat. I ask how his Palawan trip is going so far, and he says it has been very good. “Hindi ako naka gala masyado,” he says regretfully. “Actually, babalik ako ng Palawan this coming September with my girlfriend. She also plays in the orchestra.”
His girlfriend is the harpist, he says proudly. She wasn’t able to come along with him and the rest of the orchestra this time, though.
Mr. Poonin loves his job. “Being part of the PPO is great. All the benefits we have as government employees, tapos three hours a day every week lang! 9:30am to 1 pm [for rehearsals] lang kami! Isa sa pinakamadaling trabaho. So tulad ko, nakakaturo parin kami.”
“Pero,” he says seriously, “’yung time na hindi kami nagtratrabaho, kailangan nag pa-practice kami.” It still seems like a pretty sweet job to me.
Thanks to the support of the PPO and the CCP, he was also able to get a Master’s Degree in Trombone Performance at the John-Hopkins Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore, and was with the PPO when they performed in Carnegie Hall.
He says there are two differences between performing for audiences abroad versus audiences back home. One is that audiences abroad are more educated in terms of when and when not to clap during more heavy classical pieces (“Specific pieces kasi you can’t clap”) and the other is the choice of pieces they perform.
“Kailangan ng may [para sa] masa, pero sa second set namin, mas classical.” In their performance here in Palawan, they perform contemporary songs in their first set like Mundo by IV of Spades and Buwan by Juan Carlos, as well as a medley of Eraserheads songs in the Eraserheads Suite. Then, they go back to their roots for their second set, with classical pieces like MacArthur Park and compositions by Johann Strauss.
“Pinipili namin ang [pieces] na enjoy ng audience at enjoy rin namin i-perform. I enjoy naman lahat. Kahit contemporary, na e-enjoy ko yan. Of course, hindi lahat sa amin ganoon, pero ganoon talaga.”
“Parang family,” he says of his fellow players in the brass section. “Trombone, kailangan niya ng kasama. Mahirap kung magisa ka lang. Pero,” he adds, “dream ko maging recording artist ng mga trombone solos. Classical, contemporary, lahat.” We haven’t really had something like that in the Philippines yet. I tell him that it’s a pretty cool dream.
He asks me if I’m a musician. I say I know a bit of ukulele and piano, but lately I’ve wanted to learn how to play the bass.
“Ah! Bass? Kausapin mo siya,” he says, pointing to the other side of the parking lot. A group of musicians are taking a smoke break, one of them sitting on a plastic bench. “Bass player yan, kaibigan ko from UST.”
We make our way over, and Mr. Poonin introduces me. “’To o, gusto niya daw mag bass.”
Mr. Poonin’s friend is Vincent Dela Cruz, and he’s played the double bass or the contra bass for the PPO for almost four years.
“It’s great,” he says. “Not many people can join the orchestra, and feeling ko sobrang right ang timing and suwerte talaga na nakuha ko.”
Music as a career, he says, is very difficult, especially for a classical musician. And even more so here in the Philippines. “Dito sa atin we lack orientation sa classical music. Kulang siya sa education sa schools.”
“Sa ibang bansa, sa Europe o sa Japan, mas maraming subjects related sa arts at sa creativity. Kulang dito sa atin. Minsan we forget na saan ba ‘to lahat unang nanggaling?” he says, referring to the buildings, the cars, the structures, the roads, and the music playing around us. “Creativity.”
Committing to making a living out of playing music needs an incredible amount of passion and talent. “Jazz has no money, classical has no money, music has no money. If you want to earn, music is not the way. Unless you’re part of a band, pero marami na ring talented na banda ngayon. You know Ben&Ben?”
Of course, I know Ben&Ben. “I’m more of a IV of Spades girl though,” I admit.
He shrugs, “Eh, pareho lang naman sila.”
They are most certainly not, so I protest.
“O sige,” he relents. “More like pareho silang era.”
Despite everything, Mr. Dela Cruz can’t see himself doing anything else. “I still do it because I love it. I can’t imagine my life doing something else. Feeling ko ito talaga ang path ko.” So apart from the PPO, he also teaches, and is in a band himself.
“What’s the difference being in a band and being in an orchestra?” I ask.
“Being in a band, relatively ka-edad ko. Dito sa PPO, super diverse. Yun, kita mo sila?”
He points to a few middle aged men behind me, also on a smoke break. One of them has a rock-star ponytail. “Prof ko yan dati sa clarinet.”
He explains that being in the PPO means you work with some of the best in the business, and in this case, those best are his old teachers. Being coworkers with the people that taught him and mentored him is one of the things that motivates him to always be at the top of his game. He needs to measure up to his mentors who are now his peers.
As we wrap up our interview, people start snuffing out their cigarettes and stretching their muscles. They start calling to their friends, gesturing towards the door of the coliseum.
“Ay, tara na,” Mr. Dela Cruz says. “It’s time.”
Musicians from different areas of the back stage halls start to assemble. Instruments are clutched in their hands as the announcer outside calls the attention of the audience to please take their seats. I observe that no one seems to be nervous.
They’re all patiently waiting and making conversation with each other, double checking their instruments and fixing their hair. And why should they be nervous? They’re the Philippine Philharmonic Orchestra. They’ve travelled the world making all Filipino people proud with every performance. They’ve practiced day and night, a group of ordinary yet extremely talented, passionate and hardworking individuals brought together to play music, together.
The announcer introduces them to the audience. “And now, ladies and gentlemen, the Philippine Philharmonic Orchestra!” And as they climb up the stage to the sounds of excited applause, I think to myself that this IS the coolest thing that has ever happened to me.