Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Eating My Way Through September

Dedicated to all September borns

This month is where "the days dwindle down to a precious few." But rather than engage myself in meaningful activities, I sometimes feel I'm eating my way to, god forbid, an early grave.

This month I've been rushing from one "meeting" (a.k.a. reunion) to another in different cities (Pasig, San Pablo in Laguna, Baguio, La Vista in Quezon City). These meetings are the kind that transforms your waistline to ek-ek-ek (the way Thai salesladies pronounce my size or the third to the last letter in the alphabet).

Cousin Beng Valdellon flew in from Virginia laden with traditional pasalubong, Bath and Body Works products being the most popular. She had some birthday celebrating to do so off we went to Alba on Polaris street, Bel-Air in Makati, for its Spanish buffet. Before the head waiter could announce, "The buffet is open," there I was scrutinizing the appetizers and picking out the excellent cheese and chorizo pates to go with thin round slices of toasted bread. The secret of attacking a buffet is pacing, many times I had to remind myself as I loaded my plate with paella, followed by callos madrileña, lengua estofada, cochinillo. I skipped the fish and chicken dishes. Same with the salad.

The dessert table had limited fare but everything had the just-right sweetness from the marshmallow dome with chocolate mousse inside, jello with lychees and the classic canonigo with custard sauce. Over lunch, Beng and cousin Eileen Lolarga planned a trip to the former's San Pablo home which she hadn't visited in three years.

Isang kalabit lang ako, and I was with them two days later, aghast at how urbanized that part of Southern Luzon has become, with rosaries of tricycles making navigating through the highway a pain. Thank heavens for restive, rumbling tummies (hallmark of Lolarga cousins) and Beng commanded the driver to stop immediately in front of El Mare, a simple countryside restaurant that advertised bulalo. So we had hot comforting soup, fatty meat and leafy veggies and a modest cup of rice each. El Mare also served a nice kakanin in dual colors of violet and white, shaped like a filled-up tube and eaten with roasted coconut sprinkles.

Let's hurry on to Baguio (or fast forward within the same week). There, conversing meaningfully with one's life partner constantly involves scheduling and rescheduling, even if we share the same roof. Sometimes, his corny side takes over and he adamantly refuses to go anywhere but home. He becomes accommodating though when I say the magic phrase "Hill Station" which is located at the renovated, revived, beautifully restored Casa Vallejo on upper Session Road (take that, SM!). I noticed last Thursday he couldn't wait to get his office duties done in as quick a time as humanly possible when I uttered the other magical sentence: "I'm treating."

And that was how I ended up paying for two consecutive dinners at Hill Station and having my fill of its flan sevillana (hurray for our Spanish heritage!), diabetes type 2 be damned.

Consider this note just the appetizer.

Photo shows my favorite dining companion, especially when he's picking up the tab.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Pablo Tariman on Life and Death in the Arts

"Contemplating my life"--that is music writer Pablo Tariman's and my private code for assessing our individual lives just to check if our finances will last us through another month. I believe that Pablo is one of our underrated essayists. He's too much identified with music reviews so his personal essays are not so widely circulated. Most of the time, he just emails them to his friends. Which is why he'll never be near a bullion because like me, he is too happy to grab any chance to write. We'll even do it for free. Which leads us to contemplative moments like this one.
During the wake for filmmaker Ishmael Bernal at the UP Film Center many years back, I asked Rolando Tinio why death claimed people who still had a lot to contribute to the industry.
Snapped Tinio, who a few years after that encounter would also pass away, ”Pablo, if you cannot accept death for what it is, that says a lot about your intelligence.”
I didn’t know what to say, except to tell myself that intelligence is not one of my visible and endearing qualities. It was actually the start of my denial phase every time a friend in the arts passed away.
I have the same reaction when Pavarotti died four years ago. I told myself: how can the opera world exist without Pavarotti? I was in the airport on our way to Bacolod with some artists when I heard the news. Even on that Bacolod-bound plane, I relived the moment I met and interviewed him for the last time.
The tenor made a mark on me when I asked him how he felt singing in Manila after Filipinos had already heard Ferrucio Tagliavini and Franco Corelli – all equally great Italian tenors. He said with his head vowed,”I am actually nervous but you know what, if I acquire at least a small part of their great talents, I would already be happy. That --coming from one considered the King of Opera -- said a lot about his humility.
When I got wind of his funeral flashed on CNN thirteen years later in his native Modena in Italy, that was the time I accepted he would be gone forever.
The long and grand funeral was grand opera by itself and it reminded me of the solemn funeral for the great Filipino composer, Nicanor Abelardo, in the mid-’30s.
I rued then that opera fanatics must have felt the same way when the great Maria Callas died 33 years ago.
Callas’s life and death was the subject of my conversation with actress Cherie Gil as she prepared for the role of Callas in the play, “Master Class.” When Gil accepted the part, she was still coping with the end of a real-life marriage to a violinist-conductor. As Gil recalled how she braced for the part, I couldn’t help recalling that Callas’s own tragic love life started when she met Aristotle Onassis and her art took the back seat.
I write this as I observe the first death anniversary of the great environmentalist and arts patron Odette Alcantara. As in the case of Bernal, Tinio and Pavarotti, I couldn’t easily accept Odette’s death and refused to attend the wake and the countless tributes in her behalf. I tend to relive the countless laughters we shared, the nuggets of wisdom I got from her and her grand determination to get things done to save the earth and to make it habitable for future generation.
Odette passed away last year on the same month the great Spanish pianist Alicia de La Rocha made her last curtain call. When Cecile Licad heard of her death, she was instantly sad and dedicated an encore piece to her – at the height of Typhoon Ondoy in Manila – during her performance in the birth place of Elvis Presley in Mississippi last year. Licad who played Schumann in the upright piano of Odette said the environmentalist was a great lady and a great cook. She was in tears as she read Babeth Lolarga’s account of the life and times of Odette in the Inquirer.
Knowing how classical artists live their famous but sometimes, tragic existence, you’d be surprised to know their lives often imitate the libretto of the opera, ballet and symphonic suites they were interpreting.
In the late ’40s, a coloratura soprano who made Lucia di Lammermoor her signature opera also had her real life “mad scene” when she fell in love with a tenor (her Edgardo in the Donizetti opera) who, like her, was very much married.
Recalling the gallery of music luminaries who made a name for the Philippines, I realized that their collective private lives would make for a thousand and one librettos for more unwritten operatic scores and unwritten film masterpieces.
One of the most poignant scenes I have ever witnessed was in the wake of an international Filipino conductor. His only daughter came for the burial minus his son who just sent a letter. In the letter, the son said he loved his father so much but couldn’t make it to his last day on earth. The letter said he would remember their happy times and never mind that his marriage didn’t work.
Here you see an artist who did everything in the name of music and was suddenly alone when his time came.
Another backstage scenarios I have witnessed was of a tenor begging a concert organizer to let him go right after a performance because his wife was expecting their first child. From Puerta Real, he rushed to another engagement at the Las Piñas Bamboo Organ Festival but quickly disappeared after the last aria because he was dying to see his baby. That excitement of impending fatherhood didn’t do his singing any good (his notes were unfocused with unnecessary vibratos in the wrong places. But I checked my (reviewer’s) killer instinct as I reminded myself that a magazine editor forgave my own bad copy while I was all agog rounding up my contributor’s fees to be able to pay the nurse for my second baby.
Not all singers enjoy the benefit of parenthood while at the peak, and more so in the twilight, of their careers.
The first and last Filipino soprano to sing at the New York Metropolitan Opera yearned for a baby when she became weary of her operatic triumphs and found herself wishing she had a life outside of her singing. But she turned to communing with nature and in the process got rid of some bitterness in relation to herself and to other people. She became a better person and a superb interpreter of art songs and then left opera acrobatics to the beginners. Her life is now devoid of the excitement of high notes but she has rediscovered music where it should reside – in her heart and mind.
Some singers have paid a price for building a career that did not even sustain them in the end. A tenor too preoccupied with his singing ended up neglecting his wife while he pursued scholarships abroad. He did win an international voice competition but lost his wife, got himself another one – not another singer this time, but a flutist who is also a mezzo. This is another variation of the Traviata libretto where Alfredo deserts his Violetta to marry a real-life Flora (the mezzo character in this opera).
As with other humans, opera singers do have senseless bouts with sickness and death even after a colorful and fulfilling career.
Pavarotti was planning one concert after another even as he was coping with early signs of cancer.
The career of world-acclaimed Filipina mezzo Conchita Gaston was cut short by breast cancer. She died the way Violetta did in Traviata – by the verandah of her Amsterdam home – brave and resigned to death to the very end. Ishmael Bernal said he was inspired by the same Traviata death scene that he mounted a variation of the same death scene in another film starring Vilma Santos, “Walang Katapusang Magdamag”?
The death of dramatic soprano Remedios Bosch Jimenez was also very operatic. The initial stroke caught her in a church. She recovered but had another stroke, this time fatal, which found her fainting in another house of prayer. This was a scene straight from Tosca where the aria “Vissi d’arte, visit d’amore” (I have lived for art and love) clearly reflected her ideals as an artist. (This signature aria is probably lived to the hilt by her equally celebrated daughter, Rosemarie “Baby” Arenas.)
Until now I cannot get over the senseless death of tenor Don David who was murdered along with his wife in an isolated house by a hill in Binangonan, Rizal. This is a mindless Carmen in reverse, with the Don Jose being murdered in the presence of his loved one.
Speaking of celebrated illness among opera singers, it was Jose Carreras’s bout with leukemia that wags say propelled him to operatic (media) fame even before his celebrated concert tie-up with Placido Domingo and Luciano Pavarotti in Rome and Los Angeles.
Carreras, who sang in Manila 1994, fought his illness like Calaf surviving the fatal riddle in Turandot whose signature aria, “Nessum Dorma,” is all about surviving life’s toughest challenges as reflected in that last phrase “Vincero” (I shall conquer). Carreras survived his fatal illness; La Gaston, La Jimenez and Pavarotti didn’t.
In this part of the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) building where I used to work, there is a backdoor passage leading to an elevator where another secret door, when opened, gives you a complete view of the backstage area of the main theater.
During office hours, I would often become restless when I heard music emanating from that door. Out of curiosity, I would open it and, lo and behold, I would see artists doing their backstage rituals without knowing there was a pair of eyes monitoring them from the third-floor level of the stage.
From that point, I would see Cecile Licad touch the Steinway full grand as though it were a human being who could make or unmake her performance. The only time I saw her cry during a performance was when she was played Chopin in the wake of her father, Dr. Jesus Licad.
In that same secret hallway, I saw the late American premier danseur Patrick Bissell warm up before his first Don Quixote in Manila in the early ’80s. Years later, the American newspapers reported he was found dead in his bathroom.
It was from this vantage point that I saw the late Conching Rosal rehearse one of her last Carmen in Pilipino. The last time I saw her, she was singing in the funeral of opera lover, Atty. Honorio Poblador Sr. When she passed away, it was the turn of Irma Potenciano to sing for La Rosal. It was probably the image of singers singing in funerals that I turned down the invitation of Ateneo de Manila’s Jonathan Chua to attend the school recital of La Potenciano who is one of the country’s memorable Turandots.
This offstage area of the theater on both sides is called the wing and it is where the artists pray, concentrate, tremble or worry, as the case may be, before a performance.
Those few seconds before they go onstage is the time artists reckon if they will have a good performance or a bad one, the time when they wonder if there is an audience and whether it will be kind, indifferent or loving. How they handle that nervous moment before a performance often determines how a particular engagement will turn out.
In the last 30 years, I’ve seen artists go through that backstage ritual. Some aspiring young ones have made it, but others have not. Major talents have usually made more headway than the minor ones.
In the future, any film that will be done about classical artists and their equally colorful private lives should begin with a lingering camera shot in that part of the theater called the wing, with the performing artists recalling past and future triumphs and perhaps dwelling, without regret, on the stiff price they had to pay for heeding the call of their art.
When they pass away, you recall their great moments on stage while gently blurring the images of marriages that didn’t work, friendships that didn’t last, the fortune they didn’t make and the family ties that disintegrated as they braced for opening nights.
Come to think of it, death is still the great leveler and the great source of understanding and forgiveness even in the arts.
Photo shows the great tenor Pavarotti

Saturday, September 25, 2010

The Travelling Notebook

Around the time Noynoy Aquino was sworn in as the new Philippine President, a couple of Baguio friends talked about organizing another visual arts and poetry project timed to celebrate our city's 101st charter day. We decided on an open-media exhibit at the Cafe by the Ruins (now that the cafe is under renovation, we hope the exhibit "Explorations" remains when it reopens for the selfish reason that I haven't seen it yet).

Martin Masadao thought of a travelling notebook of handwritten poetry passed from one Baguio poet to another. The plan was to have a slide show of some sort, with projector and all on opening eve so that the poets' calligraphy would be visible to guests instead of passing the notebook from one person to the next. According to Martin, there was some technical snafu so our brave friends ended up reading our poems. The notebook, whose leaves were just a bunch of modest manila paper Martin lovingly bound together with a picture of a Moorish-looking character and setting on the front and back covers, did get passed around and stayed beyond due date with me (over two weeks) while I struggled with the usual mental block. The prospect of sitting down and allowing melancholia to take over me is not attractive, but when Baboo Mondonedo texted that someone was waiting for her turn to write, my adrenaline shot up (always a deadline beater).

Here's one of my three poems that form part of the "collection" whose whereabout is unknown:

Drawing Lesson

this boxed landscape is presented

to you on an eigth of a page of

your yasaka sketchpad.

today marks your sixth lesson.

the instruction: enlarge the landscape

on the rest of the page.

your grip on the chunk of oil pastel

is unsure.

you stare at a representation of the sun,

feel its rays, violent in yellow orange,

singe your lashes,

you hear the rattle of bones beneath

the grass, you watch a spectral

mist coil like a cobra around

the trunks of hapless trees.

in the heaving distance, blackbirds caw

a dirge of warning: stop

romancing the mountain,

reduce the drippy sentiment that

has chained you to summers past

of cousinly camaraderie.

those companions true have scattered

far. what's left is this rectangle.

inside: sunny orb, horizon of hills, grass

fading like your infrequent dreams of mountains.

watercolor shows part of my lola's home in Baguio

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Wandering Daughter Writes Home

Our eldest daughter Kimi has been away for over a week, backpacking through parts of Southeast Asia with her friends after availing of huge airline fare discounts as early as last year. This is her first letter to us after repeated emails requesting updates. I have to hand it to Kimi's generation--they're more fearless in exploring new places. I was just so damn happy to get out of my parents' house now and then for a trip to Baguio in my youth.


Hi Nanay! Hi Tatay! Sorry it's only now that I've gotten around to emailing you.

Our days have been long since last week! We left Ho Chi Minh by bus Friday midnight and slept throughout the trip. An immigration officer woke us up at around 6 am when we were about to cross the border. He collected our passports and $1 from each of us. We just stayed in the bus and waited, then another officer came back with our passports already stamped with Vietnam departure and Cambodia arrival.

We arrived in Phnom Penh at around 12 noon, then asked a tuktuk driver to take us to a hotel near the city center. We went to the Russian market for a bit of shopping, then to the Toul Sleng museum. The genocide museum was depressing. We didn't go to the Killing Fields since it's a bit far from the city center. We also went to the night market for more shopping. I got Tatay the Buddha head, but it's made of wood, not made of iron or ceramic because those materials are heavy to pack.

Next morning, we did a short walking tour of some of the city landmarks like the Independence monument, Royal Palace and National Museum. We took the 11:30 am bus to Siem Reap. We arrived there at 5 pm. A tuktuk from the lodge we checked in picked us up at the station. We left our bags in our room and headed straight to Angkor Wat to catch the sunset.

Monday early morning, we left the hotel at 5 am to catch the sunrise at Angkor. It was magnificent, with the temple's reflection on the pond! We got the two-day pass, which was $40, then hired a tour guide and tuktuk driver to take us around. I got a bit sunburned from a whole day of walking around the temples. We caught the sunset on top of a hill in one of the temples. You can even take an elephant ride all the way up, but it was a bit expensive. There were a lot of tourists, mostly Asians and Europeans.

Today, we will bike from our hotel all the way to Angkor! We still have a couple of temples to visit, since our tour yesterday only covered the major temples like Angkor, Bantay Shrei, Bantay Kdei, Tah Prohm, and Bayon. My favorite so far is Tah Prohm, with the temples looking like 're they being eaten alive by the trees. From our hotel to Angkor, it's around 6 kms.

I guess it's safe to ride a bike here since there's not much vehicles and motorcycles, unlike in Vietnam. Hopefully, we'll get there in one piece, ha ha! We'll just keep to the right side of the road and the bike lane.

Tomorrow (Wednesday), we take the 8 am bus to Bangkok. We arrive around 4 pm. Will keep you posted once we cross the border. I've been away for almost a week now! And I've been to 2 countries already and 3 cities. I like it here in Siem Reap because it's very tourist-friendly, and the city center is also small enough to bike around in.

Please send my birthday greetings to Lola Mommy. I will buy her sampaloc in Bangkok. I miss you all!

Photo shows Kimi (first biker) with her friends Marye Panganiban and JC Salvador