By Gideon Isidro
and Marybelle “Belle” Garcia
Manila Symphony Orchestra
The Theatre at Solaire on July 29
ROCKESTRA 2018, performed at The Theatre at Solaire was a historic moment for the Manila Symphony Orchestra (MSO) as it was their first attempt to play a full concert dedicated to rock-classical fusion music.
The concert featured two artists: Noli Aurillo, considered by many critics as the Philippines’ premier acoustic guitar sessionist; and Silent Sanctuary, a five member OPM band whose cellist and violinist used to be members of the MSO. They also invited Aia De Leon, a founding member of the OPM band Imago, to sing a few songs. For the night of the performance, the orchestra was lead by the graceful hand of Professor Arturo Molina.
A RISING START
The MSO started off with The Planets Op. 32, I. Mars by Gustav Holst, which could be mistaken as a track from Star Wars. Being a work of rising volume, the atmosphere started off as weak. This may have been disappointment to some fans of rock who might like a bombastic entrance. Then the volume finally rose. The cellists executed a spine-tingling col legno (hitting the string with the wooden part of the bow) suggesting the sense of threat that the god of war brings. Once the highest point of the work was reached, the orchestra shifted gears and played AC/DC’s “Back in Black.” “Now this is where the power is!” I thought to myself.
This was when Aurillo entered stage to cheers from the audience. His upright posture made him look like an army captain, determined to lead his soldiers to victory. The anticipation was building…, he lifted his right hand. This is it! He’s going to do some rock riffs!
And Aurillo finally… uhm, he finally strummed the guitar and no sound was coming out. My companion, Belle, and I asked each other, “Do you hear anything? Is it just me?” Aurillo tried adjusting his guitar’s dial many times, but it didn’t seem to do anything.
It was disappointing to see that a very powerful rock song wasn’t brought to its full potential, but we decided to keep listening. We did find the experience enjoyable; the orchestra was able to bring the strings part to a good finish.
After the announcer formally introduced Aurillo, the orchestra started playing the Beatles’ “Strawberry Fields,” and finally there was actual sound coming from Aurillo’s guitar.
It was this song that made me realize the true potential of MSO’s Rockestra concept. Aurillo was able to bring out that rock flavor with his focused and meditative playing, while the orchestra was the power house that backed him up. The sound was overwhelmingly good; any emotions that the song wanted to convey were magnified. You could feel it with every percussion hit, every wind instrument blown, and every string instrument bowed.
Aurillo and the orchestra continued to play a few more songs. “Eleanor Rigby,” also by the Beatles, was performed with a jazzy style and a Middle-Eastern feel due to the minor scales used. The men of the orchestra sang a section of “Material Girl” by Madonna, their deep voices adding an element of surprise and variety to the concert. “Little Drummer Boy” was successfully pulled off, melding Christmas, rock, and classical music.
Finally, Aurillo and the MSO performed “We are the Champions,” which Belle and I agreed did not sound powerful enough, or “champion-ish” enough. It could even be described as ballad-like. But then again, some people might find the MSO’s interpretation beautiful in its own way.
A BEAUTIFUL BRIDGE
Aia De Leon came onstage in the middle of the two main sets and began singing “Sundo,” a song hailing back to her days in Imago. The orchestra sounded perfect with her smooth, clean voice. She seemed hesitant initially — perhaps she was trying to get a feel of the song or trying to manage her nervousness. She gained traction as she kept on singing, and she was able to pull off the fortes (the dramatic loud part of the song) which garnered her applause.
While Aurillo was tasked to play the heavier rock, Silent Sanctuary played their softer love songs. It is important to note that unlike the previous pieces in the concert, the band’s songs were originally intended to be performed with the backing of a cello and a violin, so the songs felt a little more organic.
They started with “Hiling,” whose intro is reminiscent of a Walt Disney movie. Sarkie Sarangay’s mellow, light voice entered gently, dreamy and romantic. The lyrics, the arrangement, and Sarangay’s voice fully complemented one another. A downside was that the orchestra sometime drowned out Sarangay’s voice. Other than that, the MSO supported Silent Sanctuary very well and provided a power and thickness to the strings which is not found in the band’s studio recordings.
Their third, “Sa’yo,” started with just vocals and the keyboards, and then one by one, the other instruments joined in, escalating fantastically. It’s a perfect song for any romantic fairy-tale movie.
Aurillo returned for the final set while Silent Sanctuary’s violinist and cellist joined the orchestra.
The MSO played Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 crossed with Metallica’s “Enter Sandman.” It was a great concept, however technical difficulties struck again and Aurillo’s guitar was silent. You could see that Aurillo’s virtuoso hand moving swiftly across the fretboard and could only wish you could will the guitar to start working.
Heavy metal fans might disagree with MSO’s arrangement as there was no distortion for the guitar. You can’t have metal without distortion, right? But they did get the strong bass lines and excellent timing for the drums; my foot was stomping at every beat.
The final piece was Carmina Burana by Carl Orff crossed with AC/DC’s “Thunderstruck.” Personally, I felt both songs were inappropriate for a finale: they both start off weak then rise in volume as they continue. I feel that pieces like these are better placed in the middle of the concert when you want to build up excitement again. These preferences aside, the orchestra finished these works strongly.
A GOOD END
Despite its faults, Rockestra 2018 was enjoyable. In the moments when everything went right, I felt the excitement of a rock concert and the glorious power of an orchestra.
As a metal and heavy rock lover, I would give the show 3.5 out of 5 stars. There were too many technical issues that prevented the rock side of the show from being expressed, and, I found the show wasn’t “hard” rock enough. However, my classical music listener side appreciated the orchestra’s effort and would give it 4 out of 5 stars.
My companion, Belle, thought that her overall Rockestra 2018 experience was satisfactory. She appreciated that the MSO showed the contrast between rock and classical and attempted several times to mix the two genres. She said, “I give the MSO and all the artists a thumbs up for giving this experiment a chance.” She gave the show a 3.5 out 5 stars.
So, would it be worth it to watch the next Rockestra? As long as the MSO learns the lessons from this attempt, they would do great. Each musician did not lack in individual skill. The root of their problems was purely logistical; once they solve that, they will be able to give a truly world-shaking performance.
By Gideon Isidro