No landmark in southern Metro Manila is more iconic than the Las Piñas Bamboo Organ at Saint Joseph Parish Church.
Built along with the Baroque structure by its first resident Catholic priest Father Diego Cera de la Virgen del Carmen from 1816 to 1824, the 19th century church organ is unique in that its pipes are made almost entirely of bamboo – the only one of its kind in the world.
A musician and an organ builder from his native Huesca, Spain [with a one year stint in Mexico], the young priest knew that it was hard to invite natives to come to Church and sit out listening to Spanish or Latin sermons. He knew it would be easier to entice the locals when music was incorporated in the services as he experienced in his previous assignments in Bohol and Manila.
Normal wear and tear, calamities and natural disasters had rendered the famous musical instrument unplayable for a long time until 1972 when Belgian priest and founder of the Las Piñas Boys Choir Leo Renier, along with the local community and the national government, joined forces to have the bamboo organ shipped to Germany for rehabilitation and restoration to its old glory.
While the restoration of the Bamboo Organ was taking place in Germany, a massive project was completed at the church and its surroundings undertaken by renowned architect Francisco Mañosa and partner Ludwig Alvarez.
International Bamboo Organ Festival
On February 18, 1975, the Las Piñas Bamboo Organ was completely restored and a celebration was held with a concert at the Klais Organ Workshop in Bonn with distinguished organist Wolfgang Oehms. Three weeks later on March 13, the Bamboo Organ returned home.
To mark the milestone, Renier thought, “If paintings need a museum to view them, musical instruments need a festival to hear them live.” As such, he organized the first Bamboo Organ Festival with the support of Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) president Lucrecia Kasilag [who was later named National Artist for Music].
The inaugural concert was held on May 5, 1975 featuring Oehms, the Las Piñas Boys Choir, Maharlika Rondalla and the CCP Philharmonic Orchestra. .
Since then the International Bamboo Organ Festival has been an anticipated annual event, held in the third week of February. It continues to attract musicians and music enthusiasts from all over the Philippines and the world.
For its 42nd year, the International Bamboo Organ Festival takes place from February 16 to 22 with a gala night on the first day at 8 p.m. titled, “Ensalada de Natividad.” The program is comprised of motets by Johann Ludwig Bach, Johann Michael Bach, and villancicos for the feast of Christ’s birth.
University of the Philippines-based Musika Sophia, Las Piñas Boys Choir, Villancinco Vocal Ensemble, Luc Ponet (Organ, Belgium), Raphael Leone (Flute, Austria), Lambert Colson (Cornett, France), Carsten Linck (Guitar, Germany) are the featured artists. Resident organist Armando Salarza together with cellist Renato Lucas will play the continuo parts, with Beverly Shankuan-Cheng conducting.
The program will have a repeat on February 17.
On Saturday, the annual “Concert Under The Trees” will be held at the open court of Las Piñas Church featuring the Philippine Philharmonic Orchestra at 8 p.m. A fusion of pop and classical, popular singer Morisette Amon has been invited as vocalist along with Filipino soprano Stefanie Quintin. The show’s conductor is Herminigildo Ranera with Las Piñas Boys Choir alumnus Michael “Eagle” Riggs hosting the program.
Sunday’s performance is open to the public at 4 p.m. for the “Festival Mass” featuring the music of Franz Joseph Hayden with the Las Piñas Boys Choir and Quintin providing vocals, Austrian Johann Trummer playing the organ, and Salarza conducting. This event will be held at the San Ezekiel Moreno Oratory, Villar Sipag Compound, C-5 Extension where Bishop Jesse Mercado will the newly built pipe organ during a solemn Eucharistic celebration.
The concert at 8 p.m. at the Bamboo Organ church is a repeat performance of the gala concert “Ensalada de Natividad.”
A recital of Belgian organist Luc Ponet at the Saint Joseph Academy Auditorium is set on February 20 with Colson playing the cornetto and Leone on the flute.
Tuesday will be a rest day for everyone in preparation for the finale on February 22 titled, “The Splendor Of Choral Music,” featuring works by Parry, Stratford and Rutter with the Ateneo De Manila College Glee Club at the San Ezekiel Moreno Oratory, Villar Sipag Compound at 8 p.m. Salarza and Trummer take turns on the organ, with Shangkuan-Cheng conducting.
Las Piñas Boys Choir
If Europe has the famous Vienna Boys Choir, the Philippines and Asia has it own – the Las Piñas Boys Choir (LPBC).
Founded in 1969 by Renier, the priest’s objective was to have a group of young voices—aged eight to 15—to sing at church services. For a time, membership was open to other schools in Las Piñas but the daily rehearsals was hard for some, so membership became exclusive to students of Saint Joseph Academy where choir members enjoy academic scholarship and are directly exposed to the cultural activities offered in and out of the institution.
The group became favorite performers of former First Lady Imelda Marcos during events at Malacañang, especially after they won first place in the 3rd National Competition of Children’s Choir.
The existence of the choir is closely connected to the Bamboo Organ as the boys are regular performers in the annual International Bamboo Organ Festival. At present, the choir is comprised of 26 members.
“The 45 years of the LPBC have proven that there are still young people who never stop striving for the perfection of good performance,” Renier told The Sunday Times Magazine.
A distinguished alumnus of LPBC is Armando Salarza, the titular organist of the Bamboo Organ and a music professor at the University of the Philippines and St. Scholastica’s College.
Performing at ‘Ensalada de Natividad’ gala night are (clockwise) resident organistArmando Salarza, cornettist Lambert Colson and conductress Beverly Shangkuan-Cheng
He started piano lessons at age seven, organ lessons at nine, gave his first public performance at 11, and became the youngest finalist in the National Competition for Young Artists (NMCYA) piano division and the official accompanist of LPBC at 14.
Immediately after high school, Salarza became the first scholar of the Bamboo Organ Foundation and was sent to the University for Music and the Performing Arts in Graz, Austria. In 1986, he received a special recognition from the Austrian Federal Ministry of Science and Research. He graduated with honors in 1988 and earned the title “Magister Artium” or Master of Arts in Church Music and a Teacher’s Certificate in Organ.
He then went to pursue a Postgraduate Course in Organ Concert Performance at the University for Music and the Performing Arts in Vienna, Austria.
In 2003, Salarza took over the helm of the choir. Since then, the choir harvested a first place in the Vivere Choral Competion in 2005 and were declared World Champions in the 5th World Choir Games held in Graz, Austria for the Children’s Choir Category besting 54 other groups from all over the world. They were also awarded Silver Medal in the Musica Sacra open category.
Other exemplary alumni of LPBC are Cealwyn Tagle and Edgar Montiano who were sent abroad by the foundation for organ building. In 1994 they put together the Diego Cera Organ Builders, Inc. – the first Filipino organ-building company. They are responsible for the maintenance and preservation of the Bamboo Organ, and have restored already 10 of the 18 remaining Historical Organs the country still possesses.
Over its 40 years of existence, full sponsorship of the government has been gradually taken over by the private sector.
The Villar family—Congressman-turned-Senator Manny Villar, wife Cynthia and son Mark —of Las Piñas eventually took over the funding from their Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF or pork barrel) in succeeding years but their contribution was greatly reduced when the controversial allocation to politicians was terminated in 2014 following the Janet Napoles scandal.
“From 50-percent it’s now down to only 20-percent. And even with the funding from NCCA [National Commission on Culture and the Arts] we barely survive,” said Renier, who is also a trustee of the Bamboo Organ Foundation. He said it is hard to get corporate sponsors, wondering how can an event like Miss Universe was staged in Manila yet their solicitations had been declined by the same names in the industry.
For the daily maintenance of the museum, the foundation relies solely on tour fees of P100 per person. There were 10,500 visitors last year and they hope to double the number this year with the support of media.
On February 3, during the press conference at the Manila Hotel for the 42nd International Bamboo Organ Festival, 22 busloads arranged by a friendly travel agency for cruise passengers docked in Manila visited the Bamboo Organ.
Foundation staff and LPBC organist Juvy Quinay expressed appreciation that they have on-the-job trainees from TESDA (Technical Education and Skills Development Authority) assisting in time of the festival, as they cannot hire additional manpower at this time.
The historic Bamboo Organ, being a perennial topic in elementary and high school textbooks, could well be included as a stop in student field trips and tours – with discounted entrance fees, of course – not just to educate them of the ingenuity of Filipinos but in what music brings to humanity, and how a musical instrument built almost 200 years ago unifies people and brings about connections to the Divine.
Sources: www.bambooorgan.org, wikipedia.com