Jeffrey Solares’ radical ways are building a reputation in the local classical music scene.
The conductor curates hybrid concerts for the 94-year-old Manila Symphony Orchestra (MSO) as well as the six-year-old Manila Symphony Junior Orchestra (MSJO). He has been with the MSO since 2008, holding positions such as executive director and associate conductor. He also founded the MSJO in 2014.
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In these concerts, he chooses to pair classical pieces with different genres, including pop, rock, and even soundtracks. “My 50-50 formula of Classical and popular music is an ice-breaker for those who are icy about Classical music,” he says. “It also closes the age-gap of orchestra fans.”
Enriching the repertoire of the two orchestras means getting more followers while sensitively maintaining their historic and classic character, Solares argues. He adds that breaking down the barrier of the Classical genre for significant cultural presentation in the Philippines means higher demand for music arrangements. “We have hundreds of arrangements—from me and other Filipino composers,” says Solares, adding the MSO and MSJO have a “covetous collection of all kinds of music.”
Solares is credited for making the MSO and MSJO inclusive, versatile, and adept in performing all kinds of music. “Now that the MSO and MSJO are popular, it’s easier to sell the concerts,” says marketing director Ronadel de Leon.
The conductor’s background is rooted in mentorship and training. He graduated at the top of his class at the Philippine High School for the Arts (PHSA) in 1990. Coached by musicians Basilio Manalo and Arturo Molina, he also won at the National Music Competition for Young Artists while studying music at St. Scholastica from 1990 to 1996. He is also a graduate of the Asian Institute of Management, earning his degree in 2003.
After leaving St. Scholastica, Solares continued on a path of education. He joined pianist Ingrid Sala Sta. Maria’s Sala Foundation, and established the Cebu Youth Symphony Orchestra and Peace Philharmonic Philippines Chamber Players. He has been teaching at his alma mater PHSA (since 2006) and St. Scholastics (from 2006 to 2014) as well as at the University of Santo Tomas since 2005, where he served as the school’s assistant conductor until 2016.
He led the Philippine Philharmonic Orchestra from 2004 to 2005 before transferring to MSO and conducting for Ballet Philippines’ productions. Solares also pursued formal training in the Suzuki Method, a specialized approach in teaching music to young children, by Suzuki Shinichi. To build world class orchestras, and to train old MSO and MSJO members, Solares established the MSO Music Academy in 2014, which has three branches: Taft Avenue, Glorietta, and Circuit Makati.
The conductor believes that the members of his orchestra should share the mission of training others. “In a project starting 2020, trained MSO members are scheduled to teach public schools with orchestras. It is a joint project with the education department,” Solares says, adding, “This will help build a nation.”
The MSO was at the center of spirited debates since its May 9, 2019 Rush Hour concert at the Ayala Museum. At the event, the orchestra mostly played music from video games.
Solares says he chose to highlight the 35-year-old video game industry as a means to reach out to a new generation of music lovers—ones who are familiar with these games and might appreciate the homage. Similarly, “there is also a generation of classical musicians who are similarly familiar with them,” he adds.
Solares does confess to a lack of familiarity with the music prior to working on “Tifa’s Theme,” from the game Final Fantasy VII, an arrangement he one concert in 2019. But this initiative eventually opened him up to the world of such video game music greats as Costa Rican composer Andres Soto, London-born composer and conductor Nic Rain, and composer Jacob Zeleny. The work of these celebrated musicians should give Filipino composers and arrangers a push toward this digital platform as a source of creativity—and possible livelihood.
In the aforementioned concert, Solares five major arrangements from the New York-based Soto: Under the Flag; Freehold Battle Music; Pokemon Medley; To Zanarkand; and The Legend of Zelda.
Some notes about the games that bear these arrangements astound. “Under the Flag,” from the soundtrack of Assassin’s Creed was Bryan Tyler’s composition for France’s Ubisoft, which sold 100 million games in 2016. “Freehold Battle Music” from World of Watercraft was Russell Brower’s composition for the California-based Blizzard Entertainment which sold 100 million games from 2001 to 2014; and grossed USD 9.2 billion in 2017. “The Legend of Zelda,” composed by Koji Kondo, for Nintendo, has had 19 episodes since 1986. “Super Mario Bros Medley,” Koji Kondo’s composition for Nintendo which sold 40 million games in North America and Europe in 1987 revived the video game industry after its 1983 crash.
The MSO also performed “Angry Birds;” “Nate’s Theme;” and “Grand Auto Theft.”
Weeks before the aforementioned video game-themed concert, Solares first made the MSO “controversial and popular” after its performance of rock songs of British band Queen. Held on April 26 and May 25, 2019, the project was inspired by the popularity of Bohemian Rhapsody, the movie titled after one of the band’s most well-known hits.
In the Queen-concert Solares created arrangements for “Bohemian Rhapsody,” “Another One Bites the Dust,” “Love of my Life,” and “Under Pressure.” Electric guitarist Noli Aurelio accompanied MSO’s performance of “We are the Champions.” The concert’s highlight was “Bohemian Rhapsody in Blue,” arranged by Glenn Aquias for orchestra, a mash-up of the 1975 Queen song and George Gershwin’s "Rhapsody in Blue.” Solares says that mashups are a new art form, and draws people’s attention.
In a concert at PHSA on May 18, 2019, the MSO performed soundtracks of other movies such as “Medley,” a 2005 mash-up of John Williams’s composition for Harry Potter (2005); ET (1982), Indiana Jones (1981), Superman(1978), and Star Wars: A New Hope (1977). They also performed “One Summer’s Day” by Joe Hisahishi, for Japan’s 2001 cult favorite Spirited Away; and “Cavatina,” by Stanley Myers for 1978’s Deer Hunter.
When it comes to Philippine music, Solares favors ethnic and folk music. “Filipinos should not forget musical roots in a borderless world,” he insists. He and the orchestra has made certain to emphasize this in their travels.
Last July, for example, the MSO performed “Leron, Leron Sinta,” which was arranged for orchestra by Los Angeles-based Filipino arranger, composer and music director Saunder Choi, in a concert in South Korea. There, the MSO highlighted Freddie Aguilar’s 1979 hit “Anak.” In Shenyang, China last June, meanwhile, the MSJO performed “Ilocandia,” composed by Filipino National Artist Ryan Cayabyab; and “Philippine Scenes” composed by National Artist Lucresia Kasilag.
“MSO and MSJO members always play Philippine compositions from memory—or historical, political, and symbolic meaning,” the composer adds.
This sentiment underscores an important rationale behind Solares’ bold choices. While others may only see novelty, there is a purpose in the interbreeding of these genres—it creates a platform where a composition’s significance can be appreciated, where lessons can be learned.
And, more importantly, it gets more people listening. – with Jacs T. Sampayan