Hello, first post of 2017! Here’s a media profile I wrote of Aleron, one of the two Filipino performing arts groups I interviewed for a small research project on the transnational mobilities of performance in Asia.
Of course, a research paper is very different from a feature piece. The task I tried to accomplish in writing the latter was to introduce an accomplished but unusual artistic group to an audience familiar with–but indifferent to–their kind of music.
Choral singing is a big thing in the Philippines. Many Filipinos will have had some experience singing in a group for school, university, church, barangay, village association, or corporate workplace–but very few people actually listen to choral music. This hasn’t stopped many ensembles from reaching considerable levels of expertise and acclaim in big competitions overseas. However, it does result in their strange predicament of needing to convince fellow Filipinos to be interested in, let alone care about, what they do, particularly if it’s of the “serious” sort that Aleron specializes in.
I tried to get this profile published on the cultural section of a big news website last year but no go; so I’m posting it here to celebrate the release of their debut album, Dakilang Hiwaga (Great Mystery), on Spotify.
ALERON STRETCHES MUSIC’S WINGSPAN
All-male choir Aleron is expanding the range and relevance of choral music in the Philippines
MANILA—It’s that time of the year when windows and trees sparkle with parol and fairy lights, and well-loved carols waft through speakers in every corner of the city. But political upheavals over the course of 2016 lend an arguably darker tone to festivities: of the many shifts ushered in by Rodrigo Duterte’s presidency, it is the new normalcy of angry, violent language that confirms that change has indeed come—not just on the streets, but also in ordinary spaces where opinions and feelings are expressed. Collectively, it is an emotional situation unprecedented in its divisiveness: frustration, contempt, and bitter disagreement clashing with a profound desire for peace and goodwill.
Perhaps it is a situation ripe for the music of Aleron, an all-male Filipino choir that is challenging stereotypes of what it means to sing like a man—and to sing about the turbulence of male violence, grief, longing, and peace.
In a singing-obsessed country like the Philippines, home to some of the world’s most respected choirs, Aleron stands out as an intriguing anomaly in two respects. The first has to do with the group’s vocal configuration. Male sopranos and altos sing the higher registers typically assigned to women, in a technique popularly known as falsetto. The second lies in an ambitious repertoire of music rarely heard in the Philippines: from commissioned pieces by emergent Filipino composers and arrangers to international masterworks from Baroque to contemporary eras.
The result is a unique sound defined by lustre, virtuosity, and emotional power, made all the more remarkable by the technical and cultural hurdles of producing it.
“There’s always been a stigma associated with falsetto. Not just in this part of the world, but moreso in this part of the world,” acknowledges Christopher Arceo, the group’s ensemble director, alluding to its cultural stereotyping as a tell-tale sign of effeminacy. “For a very long time it’s been considered an illegitimate faculty of the human voice. But it’s actually still part of the male voice, and it’s interesting how we can cultivate it in a healthy way, and see how it can be a different expressive tool.”
Aleron’s skill in exploring the potential of all-male singing has been validated many times over: the group has won top prizes at international competitions in Manila, Korea, China, and Japan every year since their formation in 2012. This year, they were selected by the UNESCO-mandated International Federation of Choral Music to be one of its 26 global ambassadors of “outstanding artistic achievement.” The group’s mix of professionals, educators, and full-time musicians partly explains their studious approach, borne of a simple passion for a way of singing that’s remained maligned and under-utilized here and overseas. “The mixed (male and female) choir sound is beautiful, but there’s a depth and body that an all-male choir offers,” observes Kenneth Lee, an Aleron member.
This distinctive heft was the hallmark of Under the Olive Tree, a pair of concerts that addressed the theme of war and peace, held right after the Philippine 2016 presidential elections in May. Without overtly referencing the current political climate, the shows thrummed with a sense of subtle urgency, tracing a cathartic arc from apocalyptic destruction (Veljo Tormis’ pounding “Raua Needmine”) to the hushed midnight aftermath of battle (J.S. Bach’s “Gute Nacht, O Wesen,” Eriks Ešenvalds’ “Stars,” featured in the clip above). The commissioned piece “Panahon” by Eudience Palaruan, who also guest-conducted the concert, featured a ghostly choir of mechanical clocks and alarms as the group intoned the Tagalog translation of immortal verses from Ecclesiastes, a sober reminder of the cyclical nature of history.
Amplified by the raw, cavernous acoustics of their unconventional stages—a 500-square-meter mall space in Makati and a Jesuit cathedral in Intramuros, both under construction—the concerts offered a savvily theatrical aspect that’s seldom seen in choral and classical performances in Manila. Playwright and director Floy Quintos described Aleron’s Intramuros concert as “an unforgettable encounter […] what comes [to mind] is more than just a melody, but the memory of an experience. A hushed, unfinished church, dark but for the sanctuary bathed in light. A choir of men moving silently, and then singing, exquisitely, in many languages. A song cycle of love and hate, noise and silence, damnation, repentance and deliverance.”
Well-attended and warmly received, Under the Olive Tree marked a high point in the group’s ascendant trajectory. It also proved a surprising point about Filipinos’ appetite for music that’s all too often dismissed as elitist and exclusionary. For non-mainstream genres such as choral music, the pressure to attract audiences emerges as a choice to focus on familiar and easily digestible music. In being guided instead by a desire for what Arceo calls “an intellectually and spiritually nourishing” repertoire, Aleron is challenging widespread perceptions of what kind of music local audiences can and need to hear from their choral artists.
Singapore-based Filipino conductor Joel Navarro hailed Aleron as “[ushering] an era of prophetic and fearless questioning and questing so sorely needed in the Philippine choral movement, sometimes stuck in its pandering with audiences’ fickle taste for entertainment or novelty.”
Dakilang Hiwaga, Aleron’s independently released debut recording, seeks to advance this mode of questioning while appealing to new audiences of choral music. Taking on Christmas, the quintessential theme of Christian and Filipino choral artistry, the album features traditional carols reworked by Filipino composer-arrangers (“We Three Kings” by Robin Estrada, “Silent Night” by Christopher Arceo, “Gesu Bambino” by Miggi Angangco); wintry Western hymns (“Weihnachten” by Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, “Gifts for the Child of Winter” by Bob Chilcott); and poignant new works that recast Filipinos’ deep affinity with the Nativity (“O Dakilang Hiwaga” by Gianpaolo Eleria and Jesus Ignacio; “Nomads Carol” by Ily Matthew Mariano; “Ullalim,” Mary Katherine Trangco’s arrangement of a traditional Kalinga folk song).
Beyond the group’s seamlessly lush harmonics and thoughtfully eclectic repertoire, Dakilang Hiwaga stands out for the generous space devoted to emergent Filipino composers and arrangers. While there is nothing new about the recognition of Filipino musicians as world-class, Aleron’s drive to push the boundaries of music by and for Filipinos resounds a daring call, with higher stakes. It is a call that is confident in confronting, in and through art, that which is vital, difficult, and transcendent—especially in times of dissonant cacophony.