MANILA, Philippines -- Filipino groups brought home a harvest of international trophies in choral singing this month, cementing the Philippines? reputation as a nation of natural-born singers.
On Nov. 3, the University of the East Chorale (UEC) won the championship for the second straight year of the Busan International Choral Competition in South Korea.
The 26-member UEC won the grand prize, two gold medals and a grade of ?internationally excellent? from the judges of the international choral tilt held in Busan.
At about the same time, the multi-awarded Himig Singers of Davao City swept the First Asian Choir Games held in Jakarta, Indonesia, from Nov. 2 to 10, winning the top prize in the mixed vocal ensembles category, besting rival groups from China, Malaysia, Russia, South Korea, Sri Lanka and Thailand.
They performed the Visayan folk song "Usahay" (Sometimes), ?Circle of Life? by Elton John and the gospel hymn ?Walls of Jericho.?
The 15-year-old UEC, composed mostly of UE undergraduate students, beat choral groups from the host country, the United States, Russia, the Czech Republic, Poland, Germany, India, Japan, China, Taiwan and Indonesia.
?The victory is sweeter this time because last year there were mostly Asian choirs, there were only two European choirs... Though Asians are really hard to beat, when you add the Europeans, the competition becomes tougher,? said Anna Tabita Abeleda-Pequero, the UEC choir master.
The UEC took home the $10,000 grand prize, which the choir plans to use for their European tour next year. They will be taking part in competitions in Spain, Germany, France, Italy, Austria and Hungary.
Darwin Vargas, a bass who doubles as tour manager, said the format of this year?s competition was much more difficult.
?Before, it was free programming, it was up to you what you wanted to sing. But this year, there was an obligatory piece, one piece from different periods and there were more international choirs,? Vargas said in an interview yesterday, three days after the choir returned from Korea.
Improving on their first-time win last year, a more prepared and more solid-sounding UEC won gold medals in the two categories where they chose to compete. Choirs were given the choice to compete in two of these categories: mixed classical, equal voices (all-male or all-female) classical, pop and ethnic.
They retained the gold medal in the pop category by surprising the audience with unique a capella arrangements of the bossa nova classic ?Mas Que Nada? by Sergio Mendes, Josh Groban?s ?You Raise Me Up,? the R & B hit ?Pon De Replay? by Rihanna, Donna Cruz?s ?Rain? and ?Conga? by the Miami Sound Machine.
The choir then improved on the silver medal they got last year, winning the gold in the classical category. They won for their performance of the required piece ?Exultate Justi in Domino? by Andreas Hakenberger and three songs of their choice??Virga Jesse? by Anton Bruckner and two Filipino compositions ?Veni Creator Spiritus? by Alejandro Consolacion II and ?Crucifixus? by John August Pamintuan.
Of the last two pieces, Pequero noted: ?It?s really different if the song is by a Filipino. Its appeal to the heart is different... you?d see people in the audience crying... I think Filipino artistry is really unique.?
The UEC not only succeeded in defending the championship they took last year, they also won the hearts of the audience for their unexpected rendition of pop hits and stirring performance of classical pieces.
Before the Busan competition, the group went on a concert tour around South Korea, which for them was a chance to get reacquainted with the fans they gained after their victory last year.
?They gave us two-minute standing ovations. They would cry over our songs. They?d wait for us to leave the venue, and followed our gala concerts. We were surprised to see Koreans holding up banners that said ?Mahal kita[I love you],? Vargas said.
After the concert series, the UEC headed for Busan for the competition in which two other Filipino choirs were competing. They were the University of the Visayas Chorale (UVC) and the Philippine Male Singers, which also took home runner-up medals in their categories.
UVC won the silver in the ethnic category and the bronze in mixed classical. The all-male Filipino group won bronzes in the equal-voices classical and pop categories.
City councilor Myrna Dalodo-Ortiz, who announced the Himig Singers? victory in the Jakarta tilt last Tuesday, said the news was relayed to her by one of the group?s handlers.
?We are very happy for the victory of the group as their victory means the victory of the people of Davao and of the Philippines,? Ortiz said.
Other Philippine groups also won top prizes in other categories in the Jakarta tilt.
In the mixed youth choir category, the Lyceum University of the Philippines Chorale took the gold diploma, a mere point away from the Gema Sangkakala Youth Choir of Indonesia, which was declared champion.
The Lyceum Chorale won the silver diploma in the folklore category while the Mandaue City?s Mandaue School for the Arts Children?s Choir finished second after Indonesia?s Voice of YPJ, which was declared champion.
Philippine representatives also performed well in the Asian Open phase of the contest, with Quezon City?s Coro de Sta. Cecilia winning the silver diploma in the mixed vocal ensembles category and the Mandaue School for the Arts Children?s Choir bagging the gold in the children?s choir category.
The Himig Singers won the National Music Commission for Young Artists awards in 1990 and 1993. It also brought home the Award of the Audience at the 2004 Vivace International Choral Festival in Veszprém, Hungary.
In 1997, the group won first prize in the mixed category and the grand prize in the 26th International Youth and Music Festival in Vienna, Austria, garnering the highest rating ever of 99.93 percent in the history of the competition.