MANILA -- Five decades ago, a group of young musicians and singers was assembled at the University of the Philippines (UP) College of Music to start regular choir practices that became their music theory classes.
Under musician Flora Zarco-Rivera, who acted as the first choir directress, the students were divided into two groups – Grades 1 to 4, and the older batch had Grades 5 and 6 – who regularly vocalized, started learning new songs and singing even in a non-familiar foreign language.
Apart from merely singing, other activities of the choral group included reading, recitation and even movement. They were taught even how to sit properly, using only the front third of their wooden chairs while rehearsing.
Standing was also not overlooked. The young students were instructed to stand with their arms always positioned on their side. Other pertinent movements were taught, too.
In the regular activities, the children had to perform familiar stories, like “Cinderella,” “Emperor’s New Clothes” and “Little Red Riding Hood.” Each of them was tapped to portray a character in the story.
The kids had to learn and take to heart the fundamentals of music. On September 21, 1971, the group became known as the UP Cherubim and Seraphim, the official children’s choir of UP.
Zarco-Rivera was married to Manuel Rivera, an orthopedic surgeon. The couple had three children: Elena Rivera-Mirano, Manuel Michael and Robin Daniel.
Zarco-Rivera’s daughter, Mirano, is the present director of the UP Cherubim and Seraphim. The members reminisced fondly about their stint with the choir and how it has been a part of their lives.
The choir travelled to many places, both locally and internationally, bringing the joys of choral singing and the unique repertoire of Philippine music it has developed over the many years of its existence.
The UP Cherubim and Seraphim travelled twice to the US, once to Europe, twice to the different countries of Southeast Asia, twice to Japan and twice to China. It has held training workshops for teachers and children and has concertized in 10 of the 17 Philippine regions.
Mirano or fondly Lennette, is an Art Studies professor in UP. She has an AB English degree, cum laude, a Master of Arts in Comparative Literature and a Ph.D in Philippine Studies, all from UP. Moreover, she has another MA degree in Humanities from Stanford University.
Associate conductor is Alyssa Liyana Dioquino, with Celinda Guevarra and Michelle Nicolasora as pianists.
The UP Cherubim and Seraphim holds two to three full-length concerts annually, performing about 10 times a year regularly for UP concerts, official events and celebrations. They also act as service choir for student recitals during the semester.
On September 25, the UP Cherubim and Seraphim will celebrate its 50th anniversary with a virtual concert, “Aurea Carmina” (Golden Songs), at 7 p.m.
The UP Cherubim and Seraphim has been noted to render a unique Filipino repertoire for children. Some of the original songs that make it to the group’s repertoire were even especially composed for the choir.
Since the lockdown and quarantine measures do not allow children out of their homes, the UP Cherubim and Seraphim brings their choir performance online.
“It is a very challenging format that has required its music staff to learn many skills and techniques that are really out of the experience of most musicians,” Mirano said. “The production staff prepares a complete set of learning materials that are disseminated online -- piano and individual voice tracks -- to keep all the singers coordinated and synchronized.”
The group has weekly Zoom rehearsals to assure that each child knows his/her lines and parts well. “Each singer, using a cellphone, an iPad or computer with a camera, takes a video of him or herself, singing his part of a song and submits it to the production team online.
“Then the editors stitch all the vocal and instrumental lines together and fill out the story board that will put each child’s face and voice online, together with special graphics, if necessary, to create a full and expressive choral experience,” Mirano explained.
“For about a year and a half, we have had to learn to use many apps that are new to us and gain competency in production and studio techniques that are not taught in music schools.
“But you have to hand it to my young staff, who has put together a DIY [do it yourself] operation that has succeeded in producing about 20 songs over the past 16 months.”
Although the character of the celebration will be quite different, the golden anniversary of the UP Cherubim and Seraphim is undoubtedly affected by the pandemic.
“I feel that the virtual form we will be using will nonetheless be both celebratory of the beauty, joy and community that make the choral experience so valuable,” Mirano said.
“The choir involves a large group of people, singing in close quarters in enclosed spaces. These conditions are very dangerous in a COVID-19 world. But choirs have been blessed by the development of the virtual choral video.”
The new form allows all singers of UP Cherubim and Seraphim to come and sing together, no matter where they are in the world, even if they are locked up in their houses.
“In fact, the virtual video format has enabled many of our alumni, scattered through almost every continent, to join us in song,” Mirano disclosed. “So the fact that we can do this concert under the most adverse circumstances and make beautiful music together, is already enough cause for celebration.”
Among the songs that UP Cherubim and Seraphim will perform for the golden anniversary concert are Lucio San Pedro’s “Sa Mahal Kong Bayan,” Felipe Padilla De Leon’s “Maligayang Bati,” Eudenice Palaruan’s “Sa Dakong Sikatan,” Joey Ayala’s “Manong Pawikan” and Ryan Cayabyab’s “Nais Ko” and “Bata ang Bukas.”
The songs were given new arrangements by Krina Cayabyab, Nhick Pacis, Phoebe Roa-Pacleb and UP Cherubim and Seraphim alumna Annie Roque Nepomuceno.
At present, the UP Cherubim and Seraphim is composed of 28 members, ages seven to 16, from the UP Integrated School and other institutions from the communities surrounding UP.
“We have anywhere between 20-30 members at a given time,” informed Mirano. “A smaller group cannot give the full intensity needed to project at a concert hall distance, but more than 30 can become a bit unwieldy, discipline wise.
“Also, children need a lot of time and attention. Many of them are still learning and need all kinds of support and a single conductor cannot really deal with much more and still be effective.”
Five decades of singers and instrumentalists coming from the group’s alumni will be the special guest performers in the concert. Among them are Cayabyab, Ayala, Pacleb, Lynn Sherman (also an alumna of the group), Luisa Dioquino, Felicitas Cabildo, Solinda Bautista, Vikoy Bautista and Robin Rivera.