For the past decade, the University of Santo Tomas Singers has impressed their audiences around world with their unique brand of music.

After eight months of making big waves in the international choral scene, the UST Singers, the “Choir of the World” and arguably the best university chorale in the country, are back.

Since they started touring abroad in 1993, the UST Action Singers, formerly known as the UST Action Singers, have serenaded audiences in major countries in Europe, Latin America, and Northern America. They have also consistently bagged the highest honors in the most prestigious competitions in Europe, the world center of music and arts.

The group, led by their conductor Professor Fidel G. Calalang, Jr. of the UST Conservatory of Music, returned to the country last December 28 after touring 12 European countries and 11 states in Northern America.

In Europe, the UST Singers received all first prizes in the three categories of the Tonen 2002 International Contest for Chamber Choirs in Monster, Netherlands. Likewise, the group’s conductor was awarded the Best Conductor Prize, besting more than 30 top conductors worldwide.

As a gesture of pride and thanksgiving for promoting UST abroad, the UST Singers were given a testimonial dinner at the Main Building Quadrangle last January 30 graced by their guests from Spain and Mexico. The members also had an exhibit at the lobby that featured their travels abroad, awards and media reviews in major countries both in Europe and US.

Choir of the World

Before the Dutch festival, the UST Singers were the lone Philippine representative to four prestigious international choral competitions where they claimed all top prizes. In the 4th International Chorwettbewerb 2002 in Mittinberg, Germany, the choir won first prize in the Polyphony category and second in Public Prize. It was awarded by the Bavarian Minister President the Best Interpretation of the Compulsory Piece “Magnificat” by Jozef Swider.

The UST Singers received two First Prizes, two Jury Prizes and two Public Prizes at the 41st Concorso Internazionale di Canto Corale “C.A. Seghizzi” 2002 in Gorizia, Italy.

Last June, at the 30th Mezinarodni Festival Mundi Cantant “Peveckych Sboru” in Olomouc, Czech Republic, the UST Singers reaped an unprecedented five Gold First Prizes in all five categories.

In their 2001 Pacific Tour, which covered Hawaii, California and Mexico, the UST Singers were awarded as the Best Choir at the World Chorale Festival, a non-competitive festival in Puebla, Mexico.

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Over the years, various competitions have improved the group and raised them to higher levels. The UST Singers still hold the distinction as the first and only Philippine and Asian choir to receive the most prestigious title “Choir of the World” in the 1995 at the 47th Llangolen International Musical Eistedfodd in Wales, United Kingdom. Aside from the grand prize, they won four first prizes, making a landmark history in the oldest international choral competition in the world.

Powerful

During their 10th anniversary concert dubbed “Amor Y Amistad” at the Philamlife Theatre last Feb. 2, UST Vice-Rector Juan Ponce, OP called the UST Singers the most powerful advertisement of the University and the country abroad. In his welcome note, he cited what one of the Philippine ambassadors to Europe said, “The UST Singers is doing a better publicity for the country than the Department of Tourism.”

One of the guest conductors, Snr. Javier Tameno, director of the World Festival of Choirs, spoke to the audience in Spanish during the short concert interval as Fr. Lucio Gutierrez, O.P., regent of the Faculty of Arts and Letters, translated. Snr. Tameno, who came all the way from Mexico to see the origin of what he considered as the best choir he had ever heard, challenged the UST Singers to sponsor the first Asian International Choral Festival. According to him, the UST Singers is in the best position to hold what could become Asia’s most prestigious chorale competition that could rival those in Europe. Not waiting for Fr. Gutierrez’ translation, the crowd already drew cheers to signify approval and pride.

Maria Viola Villena, president of the group, told the Varsitarian that people abroad, especially in Europe, never fail to welcome them with genuine appreciation of their music. During their eight-month tour, they lived with host families and in seminaries that received them warmly and helped them blend with the different cultures. UST alumni associations in the US and foreign choral groups they met in the past also helped them survive their longest tour to date.

More than renewing friendships and deepening relationships from country to country, the members try to increase Philippine profile abroad. According to Villena, they feel more like pop stars with the treatment they get in foreign lands.

“Chorale groups are very popular in Europe, (we just sing) enjoying what we are doing, but these people are very much moved by our music,” she said. The mayor of Monster, Netherlands she added, claimed that the music of the UST Singers, changed the people of Netherlands.

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According to Calalang, their recent tour took that long because they were celebrating a decade of their music and they wanted to share it with as many countries as possible. Eighty per cent of their stint abroad was spent holding performances rather than competing. In Berlin, they had a major concert attended by dignitaries, celebrities and prominent people. They also performed before Luciano Pavarotti, the King and Queen of Spain, the Princess of Aileengen, politicians and other members of the royal houses in Europe. President Macapagal-Arroyo also graced one of their concerts in Mexico. All their jam-packed concerts elicited standing ovations from what Prof. Calalang said was a very discriminating audience.

“If they (Europeans) want you, they will really express it, otherwise they walk out,” Calalang said. “The standing ovation is the reward that we get, hindi ako makukuntento lang sa applause. I always tell the choir that we want to see the people standing up from their seats because they were able to get what we wanted to communicate. Once we have impressed the people of our performance, their view of us as a people changes. Tumataas ang tingin nila sa ating mga Pilipino.”

Love and Friendship

In the Philippines, the UST Singers are considered the top university choir. Their renown was particularly evident in their homecoming concert at the Philamlife when rival chorales such as the Philippine Madrigal Singers, UP Singing Ambassadors, Ateneo Chamber Singers, and DLSU Chorale attended. The 1,000-seater auditorium drew an SRO crowd that included politicians, national artists and distinguished personalities. They presented a repertoire of classical, contemporary, broadway and Filipino music for which they had gained international prestige.

They entered the stage in a luxurious Muslim-inspired costume and opened with a very distinct rendition of a Charles Stanford original Beati Quorum Via that instantly awed the crowd. Outstanding dynamics, pianissimo and crescendo kept the theatre in a somewhat heavenly atmosphere with their interpretation of Stabat Mater, Richte Mich Gott and Magnificat.

The audiences were more than impressed and at the same time intimidated by the quality of the rise and fall of tones in a tricky non-lyrical piece Miniwanka, describing the states of water, rain, stream, river, fog and ocean in the Northern American Indian Language. The gradual shift of a very soft thread of voice to nerve-wracking high shouts accompanied by small bells, bamboo sticks and synchronized foot works in the Filipino ethnic song Gabaq-an rendered the crowd speechless and wide-eyed.

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Their original version of The Prayer had the soprano and tenor taking the spotlight with their charming, powerful and pure voices that made the public stand up from their seats. The choir performed three excerpts from the broadway musical Jekyll and Hyde: “This is The Moment”, “Take Me as I Am,” and “Someone Like You.”

Living up to their trademark extravagant choreography as the “UST Action Singers,” they ended the concert with graceful dance and theatrical performances of Filipiniana classics such as Ilay Gandangan, Canturog na Nonoy, Galawgaw, Limang Dipang Tao, Waray-waray, Ano Kaya ang Kapalaran and an outstanding finale of a medley of nationalistic pieces Pilipinas Kong Mahal and Bayan Ko this time with the equally outstanding Salinggawi Dance Troupe providing the interpretation in lavish choreography and costume.

The crowd asked for more and the Singers were quick to respond with Broadway songs One Day More, Celebrate and Toda Menina Baiana. In the last song, they called alumni of the group to join them on stage.

The road ahead

According to Prof. Calalang, who will be in the United Kingdom this month to sit as a judge in the First National Choral Competition for Welsh Choirs, music should move, make an impact and best of all, inspire others to be at their best.

“I hope our kind of music will create a special value not only here in UST but also to the country in general. I hope our purpose and significance to the arts can do as well for nation development, especially in our very politically-oriented culture,” he said referring to the high standards of European living because of their passion and taste for culture and the arts.

The UST Singers have grown from more than just a special performing arts group to a family embodying the true Thomasian spirit – compassionate and always committed to the greater glory of the Lord. Throughout their stint, they have consistently personified order and harmony through their music. As they venture to more lands for conquest through friendship and artistry, their voices will continue to speak of their outstanding heritage as sons and daughters of the University of Santo Tomas.

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