By By Pablo A. Tariman
posted 12-Jul-2019  ·  
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The 11-year old cello wonder kid Damodar das Castillo. due in Catanduanes August 10 with pianist Dingdong Fiel.

Catanduanes last heard a cello recital in 1997 when Victor Michael Coo (with pianist Mary Anne Espina) played to an appreciative audience at the Provincial Capitol lobby.

On August 10, 2019, an 11-year old cello prodigy, Damodar Das Castillo, performs in Catanduanes for the first time with pianist Dingdong Fiel. (On August 17, he proceeds to Iloilo City to play at the Nelly Garden where my first all-Chopin concert happened with pianist Cecile Licad.)

It has been 32 years since I got personally involved with cellos and cellists.  Before that, I thought only pianos and violins exist.

Then I rediscovered the cello when Cecile Licad married Brazilian cellist Antonio Meneses, a gold medalist in the Tchaikovsky Competition. The result is my CCP debut as impresario when they performed together for the first time in Manila in the late 80s.

After that marriage (which lasted all of 10 years), there was no way I could avoid the cello. My concert programming which consisted mainly of piano sonatas and piano concertos (for pianists) and operatic arias (for singers) now expanded a little bit to include pieces for cello namely the Bach Suites (solo unaccompanied pieces), the Haydn, Schumann, Elgar and Dvorak cello concertos, among others.

Relatively good pianos await Licad wherever she goes concertizing but do cellists have that luxury? Nope. They carry their own instruments most of which are twice or thrice expensive as the pianos.

To top it all, you have to buy a separate seat just for that non-breathing passenger. For the cellist of Meneses’ stature, it had to be first-class!

It turned out that Meneses was using a cello (it was on loan to him at that time) used by the greatest cellist of all time, Pablo Casals. That was one of the many big reasons why assigning it in the baggage compartment was out of the question.

On TV many years back, I saw Casals perform for the Kennedys in the White House. But at that time, my cello IQ was non-existent. I only knew Casals was a great cellist but in the 60s, I have yet to hear and even see an honest-to-goodness cello.

When I heard my first live concert in the early 70s at the Concert at the Park, I only treated the cello as part of the string section instruments with bodies uniquely situated in between the knees.

With Meneses, my late cello education started at close range. His cello was no longer part of the string section but one with soloist status.

What was special about that Pablo Casals cello?

Meneses explained it to me thus: “It is actually a much-stronger instrument with more possibilities for the soloist. It has such a penetrating sound and I imagine that is one of the reasons Casals liked it so much. It can rise about the sound of an entire orchestra which is not a normal thing with the cello.”

When Licad and Meneses opened my First International Music Festival in Baguio City in 1988 along with tenor Otoniel Gonzaga, I remember that we went back to the Hyatt Hotel without the Pablo Casals cello after a sumptuous meal from Cafe by the Ruins. We were so overwhelmed by the food we forgot we had a super-expensive cello with us. The cello was still there when we frantically went back to the Cafe. If it got lost, I would have died figuring a program of sonatas for cello and piano without the latter and Meneses would have paid millions for a lost collector-item instrument owned by Casals himself.

But before Meneses, I recalled a CCP concert where Russian cellist Mstislav Rostropovich received a shower of confetti after a performance of the Dvorak cello concerto in 1982. At that time, I was still a stranger to the cello and like the way I reacted to former US first lady Jackie Kennedy with Casals at the White House, I couldn’t figure out why Mrs. Marcos adored Rostropovich as though he were a living saint.

I was given a first-hand explanation of the significance of Rostropovich’s existence when Italian conductor Pierro Gamba told me -- during a break in the rehearsal of a Saint-Saens cello concerto with Pasamba as soloist: “I conducted Rostropovich in the Dvorak concerto in Canada and later, the Rococo Variations. At that time, there was no doubt that he was the greatest cellist alive. When I heard that he was going to lie low as a cellist and turn to conducting, I wanted to send him a telegram to say not to abandon the cello. Because as a cellist, he was sublime. He was still great but he was greater before he turned to conducting.”

(As then editor of the CCP Arts Monthly Magazine, I invited Associated Press photographer Bullit Marquez to a private party for Rostropovich in Malacanang and not heeding my plea not to take incriminating pictures, he actually did the opposite. He took a rare photo of Rostropovich dancing with Mrs. Marcos. That photo landed front page in New York, London and Moscow.)

In the 90s, the byword in cello was Yo Yo Ma and I was thrilled to discover that the cellist’s sister Yu Cheng Ma, who is a violinist, is married to a Filipino classical guitarist Michael Dadap. Like Pavarotti, Yo Yo Ma interacted (read: crossed over) with musicians of other genres like jazz and it did not diminish him as a classical artist. He is the only cellist to appear in a Rolex ad (other endorsers were Japan’s prima Yoko Morishita, Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, and Placido Domingo).

Cellist Willie Pasamba -- who figured in the first and last cello recital in Albay in 1997 -- cites Casals, Rostropovich and Yo Yo Ma as cellists worthy as role models.

He saw Yo Yo Ma perform six Bach suites at the Tanglewood Music Festival and he recalled his impressions thus: “He does a lot of music exploration which is good for the cello. However, it is his interaction with the audience, which is incredible. It is as though he was embracing the audience when he plays. He does not simply read notes. There is music in everything he does.”

When I covered the Singapore Arts Festival in 2005, I was told that tickets to several concerts with Yo Yo Ma in it were sold out ahead of time. Every day during my three-day stay in Singapore, I pestered my guide about getting a ticket to the Yo Yo Ma concert even if it meant dying for it. One day at the Esplanade, my guide shrieked at a van with a man carrying a cello. She said, “Look, Pablo! Your Yo Yo Ma is right there and you don’t have to watch his concert! I asked for Yo Yo Ma’s autograph and told him I know his Filipino brother-in-law.

That personal encounter made me even more determined to watch a Yo Yo Ma concert in Singapore even if the official box office verdict was: sold out two months ago.

In my last itinerary in Singapore was an interview with the manager of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra (SSO). It was also the last day of the Yo Yo Ma concert series in the festival. I told myself that interview had to be a bravura performance so I could ask a favor later. Trying to sound like a CNN interviewer, I got all what I needed about the birth and resurgence of the Singapore orchestra. Then coyly -- but with great but understated -- determination, I asked the SSO manager if she could help me with a big problem. I said I wanted to watch a Yo Yo Ma concert but tickets were sold out months ago. Could she do something about it?  “It is really sold out,” she confirmed. However, in another breath, she told me, “I’ll see what I can do. If you see me in the theater lobby 30 minutes before concert time, then it is good news. But if you don’t, that means it’s a big sorry.”

I left my hotel early to the Esplanade and waited gingerly at the lobby. Deep in me, I was still determined: I could not leave Singapore without watching Yo Yo Ma play. Then lo and behold, I saw the SSO manager smiling at me. She handed me a ticket to the Yo Yo Ma concert and told her, “I can’t thank you enough.”

It was actually a concert of Asian music with Yo Yo Ma as a special guest. The only decipherable music in the concert was Debussy’s sonata for cello and the rest were a cacophony of Asian sounds. As it was, it was still a great Yo Yo Ma experience. It wasn’t just the musicianship that impressed me: it was more of his overwhelming humility.

Before I worked with Pasamba, I heard a 17-year old cellist named Victor Michael Coo and his musicality at such a young age awed me. After winning the NAMCYA, I gave him a debut at the Philamlife Theater then I brought him to Catanduanes, Albay, Palawan and Antipolo because I wanted to hear his Schubert and Saint-Saens pieces in various settings: in a hall facing the Pacific Ocean in Virac, Catanduanes; his Mendelssohn in the shadow of Mayon Volcano and Elgar in idyllic Puerto Princesa and Abelardo’s Cavatina by an Antipolo creek.

In the year 2000, I heard Chinese-American cellist Angela Lee in an evening of Schumann, Schubert and Rachmaninoff at the St. Stephen’s Parish Concert Hall. In her, I saw a whiff of the artistry of the British cello legend, Jacqueline Du Pre. I brought her to Ilagan, Isabela and that was probably the first and last time a cellist was hard in that part of Northern Luzon.

It turned out that the two cellists had one thing in common: they both studied with eminent British teacher William Pleeth.

When I saw the film Hilary & Jackie which was based on the life of Du Pre, I knew that my love affair with the cello would go on and on.

In the 90s, I brought Meneses (with Licad) in Cebu, Bacolod, Tagaytay and Pundaquit including Antipolo.

During the same decade, I brought Pasamba to Legaspi City, Cebu and Dumaguete City.

I brought back Victor Michael Coo as soloist in Dvorak’s cello concerto with Manila Philharmonic under Rodel Colmenar and everybody was ecstatic.

In 2009, I secretly yearned to hear German cellist Alban Gerhardt. Since I could not finance a cellist of his caliber, I told Licad about this obsession and passed on the idea to the CCP. The result was a fantastic cello recital with Licad and an evening of Prokofiev piano and Shostakovich cello concerto in one evening!

Some years back, I heard Li-Wei Qin, a Chinese silver medalist in the Tchaikovsky Competition play with Albert Tiu. It was sheer heaven.

I thought then that my cello life was over after Casals, Rostropovich, Gerhardt, Meneses, Pasamba, Lee and Coo.

Then I heard the then ten-year cellist Damodar Das Castillo in a concert last year. He was amazing. And then he was accepted at Salzburg’s Mozarteum at age 11 which reminded me of Licad entering Curtis at the same age. Out of the blue, the 11-year old Castillo won first prize in an international competition for young artists in Estonia!

As fate would have it, my cello life returns when Castillo performs in Catanduanes August 10 and in Iloilo City August 17.

Join me in this rare cello experience. For inquiries, please email: or text 09065104270)

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