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Curtain call for Philam Life Theater?

Pianist Sofya Sulyak takes a bow with PPO Conductor Olivier Ochanine

By Pablo A. Tariman, VERA Files

When award-winning Ukrainian pianist Sofya Gulyak and the Philippine Philharmonic Orchestra ended their “Elegantly Brahms” concert at the Philam Life Auditorium in Manila Wednesday, many in the audience knew it wasn’t just the musicians who were bowing out.

So was the iconic and much-cherished Philam Life Auditorium, which will be demolished after serving for 52 years as the venue of the most memorable performances the country has seen.

“Elegantly Brahms” is the last major musical event to be held at the Auditorium. Its parent company, Philam Life, the country’s premier life insurance company, is moving to Bonifacio Global City in Taguig and Mall of Asia starting April.

Philam Life has sold the site to mall developer SM Development Corp. (SMDC).

Known for its excellent acoustics, Philam Life Auditorium on United Nations Avenue in Ermita is a 780-seat theater whose acoustics were done by Bolt, Beranek & Newman, which also did the acoustics of the Sydney Opera House, United Nations Assembly Hall in New York, Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall, Cultural Center of the Philippines and Baltimore's Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall.

Marian AndersonThe Philam Life building was designed by Filipino architect Carlos Arguelles and built in 1961. The Urban Roamer website said, “The building was built in accordance with the International Style of architecture, a style that emerged after World War II that emphasized on the building’s ‘natural’ beauty …rather than relying on decorative facades.”

Although many expect the site to be turned into a shopping mall, SMDC hasn’t actually decided what to do with the Auditorium, said SM Group of companies vice president for marketing and publicity Millie Dizon.

“They are still in the planning stage” as far as the Philam Life Auditorium is concerned, Dizon said.

Sources familiar with the negotiations with SMDC said initially, there was a plan to renovate the entire building and save the theater, but it was scrapped after further study showed it would cost billions of pesos.

The idea of the theater being turned into a shopping mall has alarmed the classical music community. PPO’s music director Olivier Ochanine has launched an online petition asking the theater’s new owner to spare the auditorium.

“This is one of the best performance halls in the entire Philippines and must be saved,” the petition, which has so far netted an initial 3000 signatories, said. “It has some of the best acoustics for Manila's orchestras, choirs, and solo musical artists and its destruction would be a gigantic loss for Filipino culture and heritage. We must stand together to protect this, our most acoustically ‘sound’ performance venue. Let us make this one of the biggest uprisings Manila has seen.”

Philamlife Auditorium by Vincent Go“This is by far the best hall I've sung in,” said Arthur Espiritu, the first Filipino tenor to sing at the La Scala di Milan. Espiritu ranks Philam Life Theater’s excellent acoustics second only to the little theater in Carnegie Hall.

Many musical icons made their mark at the Philam Life Auditorium.

In the early ‘70s, opera icon RenataTebaldi, reportedly a rival of the equally great Maria Callas, figured in a memorable recital at the Philam Life Theater and cracked in a Manon Lescaut aria. Instead of being booed, she was showered with "Bravas."

The great black contralto, Marian Anderson, also sang at Philam Life. The first Filipino winner of a voice competition carrying her name, tenor Otoniel Gonzaga, also sang there with soprano Camille Lopez Molina.

On Jan. 22, 1969, eight-year old piano prodigy Cecile Licad made her orchestral debut at the Philam Life with the University of the East Student Orchestra under the baton of Col. Antonino Buenaventura, now a National Artist for Music, playing Avery’s Concertino Based on Familiar Tunes.

Otoniel Gonzaga and Camille LopezLicad went on to reap honors, including the prestigious Leventritt Gold Medal that launched her international career. Another recipient of the Leventritt Gold Medal, violinist Pinchas Zukerman, also performed at the Philam Life Auditorium in the ‘90s.

Espiritu has a sentimental attachment to the theater because it was where he made his Philippine debut in August 2010 with soprano Rachelle Gerodias, and his second concert with baritone Andrew Fernando and Rachelle that December.

“If this theater goes, part of my life goes as well because I would never be able to tell this story of my debut recital to my kids because it’s no longer there,” Espiritu said. “Philam Life Theater has become a fixture in my life as a singer.”

Impresario Joseph Uy, who has brought first-rate artists to the Philam Life Theater from Zukerman to John Aler, said, “The acoustic of the theater is a natural wonder. I believe that the architect never in his wildest dream thought of building a theater of this grandeur. I used to tell people that the theater is alive and full of passion. It supplements the artists in making love to music. It caresses every note before transmitting the sound to the audience.”

Music Impresario Ray Sison of the ROS Music Center exalts the clear and distinct sound coming from the artists on stage even if one is seated in the last row.

1Philamlife Bldg by Vincent GoMusic critic Antonio Hila, who is one of the signatories of the Ochanine petition, said the theater’s impending demise showed the total absence of the much vaunted public and private collaboration in the arts.

“The truth is the arts need a passionate patron, probably as passionate as Imelda Marcos. We all die a little death, when an institution is erased just like that after a business transaction,” he said.

“I guess this is the same scenario that happened to Rizal Theater and the intimate Molina Hall named after a National Artist. This country has more affinity with basketball courts than performing arts theater. I will grieve its loss, a heavy one for me. I can only hope the government will build more good venues for the performing arts, or provide the leadership,” Hila added.

Meanwhile, the theater’s full grand Steinway piano, to be donated to the University of Santo Tomas Conservatory of Music, has reportedly been auctioned off.

Requests for farewell concerts have also been turned down. “They want the theater to go quietly,” said an insider.

(VERA Files is put out by veteran journalists taking a deeper look at current issues. Vera is Latin for “true.”)

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