MANILA -- Gerard Salonga will have to go through a really busy 2019, as he recently took on a new job to wield the baton for the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra (MPO).
Salonga’s calendar is pretty filled with schedules lined up until the end of the year. His conducting assignments will take up most of the months, as he shuttles between Malaysia, Hong Kong and also Manila.
The news that he got the job as resident conductor of the MPO was not really a big one for Salonga. He attests the big change actually happened when he got the assignment as assistant conductor of the Hong Kong Philharmonic, back in 2016.
At that time, Salonga was at the crossroads between pursuing a life in conducting or simply being happy with the way things had been going for him in Manila.
“Winning that audition (with the Hong Kong Philharmonic) made the decision easy for me,” Salonga said. “At that time in my life, I needed a conducting mentor and I knew I needed to be around a world-class orchestra, so that I could learn the sound.”
“Getting that job in Hong Kong in 2016 was the best thing that could have happened to me at that point in my musical life.
Salonga specifically considers working with Maestro Jaap van Zweden a great learning experience. The latter is the music director of the Hong Kong Philhamonic, as well as the New York Philharmonic. Van Zweden is also one of the world’s most sought-after conductors, noted Salonga.
“He has been a wonderful mentor,” Salonga said of Van Zweden. “He gave to me a lot of what I had been missing and filled a lot of the blanks.
“He told me he could sense that I wasn’t satisfied with my own status quo and he liked that. I observed in him and learned from him a brand of work ethic and commitment to the music that I had never seen before.
“You can really get a sense from him that while he and the orchestra are working, nothing is more important than the music. Every phrase and every moment are shaped and tended to with so much care. I came out of that experience a totally different musician.”
Asked how he got the job with the MPO, Salonga disclosed there was an opening and he applied. Yes, he had to go through that!
The numbers were screened down to an audition. The orchestra and the management made a decision.
“Many orchestras around the world are multinational,” Salonga noted. “As an example, the MPO is made up of musicians from 25 countries. For groups like this, one’s country of origin is irrelevant. It all boils down to whether the musicians choose you to join the orchestra or not.”
When he became assistant conductor of the Hong Kong Philharmonic (which is also multinational) in 2016, Salonga had to go through the same process.
“There were 170 conductors who applied at that time,” he recalled. “Four of us got called back to conduct a live audition in front of the music director, then I won. It was a bit like a competition.”
In Hong Kong, Salonga won the orchestra vote, as well as that of Van Zweden’s.
“In the case of the MPO, I had actually auditioned for them a couple of months before applying for the Hong Kong Philharmonic. Towards the end of my term in Hong Kong, the MPO invited me to join them as resident conductor.
“By that time, I think around May 2018, I had already worked with the MPO as a guest conductor on many concerts, so I felt very comfortable joining them, and had established a good personal rapport with many of the musicians. I already have a lot of good friends there, who share a love of music and, of course, good food! A lot of good food in Malaysia!”
Salonga learned about his new job in May last year, while he was in Kuala Lumpur to conduct one of the concerts of the MPO.
“At that time, the general manager sat down with me and let me know of their intention to invite me to be their next resident conductor,” he recalled. “Naturally, I felt great about it. I’ve known about that orchestra since they were founded in 2008.”
“It’s an orchestra that I have always respected and admired. Their sound is so beautiful. The predominantly European string section really brings with them a tradition of beautiful sound and the music is loaded with emotional content when they play.”
The first person to learn about the good news was Salonga’s wife, DJ. Then, his sister, Lea, was told about it, followed by Ryan Cayabyab, his mentor.
Thankfully, Salonga’s decisions for both his work in Malaysia and Hong Kong always received a positive reaction from his family.
“There was no real shock involved, as many things were already leading up to it,” he discloses. “In the case of Hong Kong, I had been guest conducting there since 2008, so the people and city were familiar. I will always consider the Hong Kong Philharmonic as the place where I really started considering a life as a conductor.”
Before the end of 2018, Salonga had to prepare for his life in Kuala Lumpur. With his wife, DJ, he scouted for an apartment that will be his home away from home, even if he’s not with the MPO full time.
The couple found it exciting and felt like newlyweds setting up the new pad in Kuala Lumpur. “DJ and I have already rented an apartment close to the Petronas Towers,” Salonga shared. “The orchestra’s concert hall and offices are located in the towers.
“One thing we found fun was setting up the apartment. We’ve been living in our own detached house in Manila for many years and never really went through that phase of renting an apartment/condo and setting it up. I haven’t lived in an apartment since I was in the US in my 20s, so it’s fun.”
In the mid-'90s, Salonga lived in the US to study at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, Massachusetts, where he graduated summa cum laude.
In Kuala Lumpur, Salonga was very fortunate to hook up with a good real estate agent. “We found a great place that’s just seven minutes from the door of the apartment to the dressing room,” he allows.
Though his wife will merely shuttle between Kuala Lumpur and Manila whenever Salonga needs her, the former will still be based in Manila with their kids.
The only thing Salonga has to deal with while in Kuala Lumpur is the separation from his two kids – Antonio, 11 and Carmen, 8.
MISSING THE KIDS
“I’ve been dealing with it since I started working in Hong Kong,” he said. “I’ve worked with a lot of the guest conductors and soloists who came through Hong Kong while I was the assistant there and they all say that the hardest part is being away from family. It does take a toll. I don’t know. I just try my best.
“There was one soloist who went so far as to say that, though he gets to travel all over the world, he’s only happy for the two hours or so in the day that he’s rehearsing or performing, then miserable for the other 22 hours.”
Salonga is simply thankful that his family understands what he does and why he needs to be away so much.
“It’s very hard, really – while I’m away,” he acknowledged. “I’m only okay while I’m working, meaning rehearsing, studying or on stage performing. Every other minute is spent missing my family, especially while I’m eating alone. It doesn’t matter how good the food is if you’re alone and without the people you love.
“I love doing homework with our kids. The time that I need to spend with them has a very strong bearing on my decision to keep most of my conducting here in the region. I haven’t really attempted to reach out to places like Europe or the US.”
Yet, Salonga is looking forward to his kids spending summer this year, with him and his wife in Hong Kong and Malaysia.
“For future seasons, I will need to intelligently fix my schedule between ABS-CBN, MPO and other conducting engagements,” he insists. “I’ve been invited back to the Singapore Symphony after debuting there last November and the HK Philharmonic usually calls me for several weeks in the season to conduct or assist.”
For the 2020 MPO season, Salonga is still tentative whether or not to bring his kids to join him in Kuala Lumpur.
“It depends what my workload will be like in KL for that, as well as subsequent seasons,” he maintains. “If by next year I find out that I have to be there more than 50 percent of the year, then we’ll get together as a family and figure out what to do.”
WIFE AND MOTHER
Salonga’s wife, DJ Francisco, is also an accomplished musician. She plays the violin for the ABS-CBN Philharmonic Orchestra. Notwithstanding her own career, DJ plays her role to the hilt, as the supportive wife who has been behind every major decision that Salonga has made. The couple has been married for 14 years.
“(DJ ) is the person I talk about music with the most. She keeps me humble and always lets me know where I can get better. Last January, I was conducting the ‘Der Freischütz’ overture in KL and after the Saturday evening concert, she gave me some ideas on how to make the piece work better.
“On the Sunday afternoon concert, I applied those ideas and the performance of the piece did become better. She can also tell very easily which pieces I’ve prepared for better than others.”
His 81-year-old mother, Ligaya, is perhaps the happiest with Salonga’s sterling accomplishments. “Her usual advice is to get enough rest, eat well and don’t let anyone push me around. Her main concern is the family, so naturally, her questions were, ‘Are the kids coming along (to Malaysia)?’ or ‘Where will they go to school?”
Salonga is aware he really has to go through a lot of adjustments in his personal and professional life, though the guy is not complaining. This year will see him not totally based in Malaysia just yet. He will be there for less than half of the season.
Apparently, he still had many other commitments by the time he signed his contract with MPO, so everything will still have to be fulfilled.
“A full time professional orchestra like the MPO works on a 44-week season and the MPO’s season follows the calendar year, as opposed to the HK Philharmonic whose season goes from September to July, as in the American school year,” Salonga grants.
Yet, even now that he’s on board with the MPO, Salonga refuses to make any promises that he cannot fulfill.
“I’m just one member of that team,” he admits. “But I did mention to the musicians on my first day on the job, that I will do my best on the podium working with them and off the podium, when I’m working FOR them.”
Shuttling between Kuala Lumpur and Manila will still include Salonga’s work as conductor of the ABS-CBN Philharmonic Orchestra. “We make it work by inviting guests to conduct the orchestra while I’m not around,” he said.
“I know my workload in KL, plus other guest-conducting work, quite far in advance and I let the ABS-CBN Philharmonic office know about it as soon as it comes to me.”
With his work in Malaysia, does it mean that sister Lea will often be seen performing there, too, particularly with the MPO?
“Not necessarily,” Salonga said. “She’ll perform with the MPO when the orchestra invites her to perform. We’ve talked about it, but nothing concrete just yet.”
The secret behind the excellence in one’s craft, ironically, Salonga said, is to “stay insecure,” yet “work very hard.”
“Someone out there is working harder than you are,” he reasoned. “Excellence is not a state, it’s a habit. You can’t say ‘I’m good’ and then stop trying. If you stand still, you’re going backwards.
“It’s important to find something you really like, so that there are no regrets or resentment towards the amount of time and energy spent on it.”
Five or even 10 years from now, Salonga is still unsure if he will do the same thing. “I couldn’t have predicted this situation 10 years ago or even five years ago, so I’ll stay safe and not predict anything. The only thing that I can predict is that I will still be trying to become better, working as hard as I can.”
His ultimate goal in his musical career? Salonga mused, “I never thought about a life in music in terms of career, but I hope to become good enough to one day conduct the Berlin Philharmonic or the Royal Concertgebouw. Those are my two favorite orchestras. I listen to their recordings all the time.”
Of course, he does not mind if people still refer to him as “the younger brother of Lea.” Undoubtedly, however, Salonga has successfully carved a name for himself and built his own stellar identity in the music scene, on his way to gaining international stature as a renowned conductor.
Aside from conducting the MPO this year, Salonga also has schedules to lead the Hong Kong Philharmonic this March, Kunming Nie-Er Symphony Orchestra in May, South Denmark Philharmonic Orchestra in August and Sydney Symphony Orchestra in November.
Salonga will also work with an orchestra for theater productions like “Sweeney Todd” for Atlantis Theatrical in Manila (October) and Singapore Repertory Theater (November-December).