Conductor Marlon Chen at the end of the performance.
Culture Spotlight

The Manila Symphony Orchestra in Shenyang, and a surprising tale of amity

Away from the fiery debate and even hotter heads that surrounds Philippine and Chinese international waters, our world-renowned orchestra tours one of China biggest cities, proving that music is the better diplomat. 
John L. Silva | Jun 29 2019

I was on my way to breakfast at the hotel and passed a room with the faint sound of a trumpet, scaling notes. It was a prodigious strain, full of verve, and confidence.

The trumpeter had reason to play with flourish. The night before, he along with 60 members of the Manila Symphony Orchestra (MSO) played to a brimming outdoor audience in the 5th Hunle River Bank Symphonic Festival in Shenyang, China. It was an honor for the Philippines, being the first foreign orchestra invited to perform in the festival’s five years.

Ambassador Chito Santa Romana posed with the MSO after the evening performance.

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I tagged along as groupie, trustee, and a lover of the collective orchestra ethos—the one that inextricably links these individuals with disparate instruments, allowing them to come together and create an evening of passionate music.

At the Hunle River, they performed in an open sided pavilion. It resembled an old temple, with softly waving red lanterns that swayed to the tonic breeze. The crowd started filling up the 1,000 seat-venue before the concert started at dusk, and it soon became standing room only for the rest of the evening. 

Conductor Marlon Chen with the MSO at performance, Shengjing Symphony Hall.

The orchestra played various pieces: “Romeo and Juliet” by Profokiev; “Danzon” by Arturo Marquez; “Ilocandia,” a medley of Filipino folk songs; “The Barber of Seville,” by Rossini, and two favorite Chinese pieces, “Jasmine Flower” and “Song to The Motherland.” The latter, a rousing patriotic song which enraptured the audience, was performed with the Shenyang Jiuge Youth Chorus. 

After calls for an encore, guest conductor Marlon Chen obliged with the 70s hit, “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.” The ebullient Marlon danced on stage as the crowd vigorously clapped to the beat.

MSO members pose with Shenyang Jiuge Youth Chorus at the River Bank Festival.

I thought that the “Ilocandia” suite, composed of three northern folk songs arranged by National Artist Ryan Cayabyab, would only be politely listened to since the audience wouldn’t have heard of the songs. But I was mistaken; all folk songs have a style and sentimental appeal and this audience swayed and were moved, its sweet nostalgia and pathos conveyed. Music has a universal appeal, transcending ethnicity, culture and man-made geographical constructs.

I had a chance to witness rehearsals, giving me a deeper sense of the interaction among the conductor, the concertmaster, and the orchestra. Backstage, I had a view of Chen and his interactions with the musicians, which was obscured from the audience.

MSO musicians performing at Shengjing Symphony Hall.

Having led many orchestras in Europe and the United States, Chen possesses a vigorous baton style, consciously drawing out the best of the orchestra’s efforts. With an acute ear, he tweaks, modulates, and synchronizes tones and blends. He is animated, using his hands, shoulders, and body to approximate a movement. The music plays on and Chen, anticipating a new pitch, must act in a nano second, and express the feeling to be imparted to the orchestra. They, in turn, should be ready to express the same in their strings, woodwinds, brass, and percussion. I constantly marvel at an orchestra playing in unison within each group, which in turn plays in harmony with the rest of the orchestra.

Shengjing Grand Theater, Shenyang China.


Harmonious blending

Several days later, there was a second concert, this time held at the oddly jagged Shengjing Grand Theater. A serious one-day rehearsal was required given the plan between the host, the Shenyang Symphony Orchestra (SYSO), and the MSO to mix things up.

SYSO conductor Sicong Bian and Chen took turns conducting the two orchestras, embedded with musicians from both groups. Each piece allowed the orchestras and their countries to shine, from the sweeping strings of “Ilocandia” (particularly the folk song “O Naraniag na Bulan,” or Bright Moonlight) to the emotionally patriotic Yellow River Piano Concerto. The latter featured renowned guest pianist Fang Zhang. The concert ended with the ponderous “Symphony No. 2,” by Sibelius.

MSO musicians at the Shengjing Symphony Fall.

Yellow River Piano Concerto, a stirring mélange of composition excerpts and the most popular song of the Chinese Cultural Revolution made me think of my days as a young activist. Many of us then memorized and sang one excerpt called “East is Red.” (It went “…Bright is the sun, China has brought forth a Mao Tse Tung…”) That, as well as the concerto’s final section, the “Communist Internationale.” We sung it boldly then, to herald a proletarian triumph.

Has it been a proletarian triumph? This mega-city is the capital of China’s northeast Liaoning province, and looks like Dallas or Los Angeles with its wide freeways. Once a city thronged with bicycles, now everyone has cars. I feel that there is a palpable and still increasing prosperity, and it’s certainly headed to that much vaunted proletarian ideal. Despite having half of Manila’s population, Shenyang has eight orchestras while we only have three. And, in an indication of largesse, SYSO and the Shenyang City Government underwrote most of MSO’s airfare, accommodations, meals, and the performing site.

MSO performing at the River Bank Symphonic Festival.

Being the first foreign orchestra to perform in conjunction with SYSO, the reception received by our musicians was warm and friendly. Despite scant knowledge of the Philippines, the public that attended the concerts were clearly smitten by the MSO. This love fest between the two orchestras occurred about the time of that Western Philippine Sea incident involving a “hit-and-run” of a Filipino fishing boat by a Chinese vessel. Philippine Ambassador Chito Santa Romana almost didn’t make the concert given the events.

Festival guests taking pictures of the MSO on stage.

We need more people-to-people cultural exchanges between our two countries. Governments operate at a level of official protocols posturing and constantly securing propaganda points. This concert was billed as the “Belt and Road Symphony Concert,” making the evening one of the Chinese Government’s “soft” approaches to their otherwise massive dangling of aid loans through much of the world.

Shenyang Jiuge Youth Chorus singing "Jasmine Flower" at the River Bank Festival.

Seeing our musicians arm-in-arm, taking selfies with their Chinese counterparts, or hugged by an enthusiastic audience are precious vignettes of amity. These are much more satisfying than our government’s bluster, alternating with questionable obeisance, and harboring delusions of our hapless country being nuked. China, once poor, is a world power today while our succession of governments having squandered and stolen from the public coffers, leave us unable to safeguard our shores and defend our sovereignty.

Let music be a balm instead in fostering relations and uniting our two peoples in the years ahead.


John L. Silva is a trustee of the Manila Symphony Orchestra and Executive Director of the Ortigas Library.