Through performance and service, the BYU Chamber Orchestra formed strong connections with the people of the Philippines.
In May 2017, Brigham Young University’s Chamber Orchestra embarked on a journey to rediscover old friendships and forge new relationships overseas. For the first time in 20 years, a BYU performing arts group toured the Philippines. The tour took two years to plan and included collaborations with professional and university orchestras, devotionals and benefit concerts.
The renewing of relationships began during the orchestra’s first performance at the University of the Philippines Diliman. Michi Martinez, professor and conductor at UP Diliman, remembered playing with BYU as a student 20 years prior.
“She was so responsive because she remembered exactly what that experience was like when she was a student. She wanted to give that opportunity to her students: to play with another international orchestra,” said Justin Smith, BYU performing arts manager.
New friendships were created between BYU and UP Diliman students as they learned that though they come from separate parts of the world, they are more alike than they are different. They also discovered how music can play an important role in bringing people together.
“Music is a common language we both speak,” Smith said. “It was rewarding and satisfying to see students share a music stand with orchestra students from the University of the Philippines.”
Kory Katseanes, conductor of the Chamber Orchestra, elaborated on the important role collaboration plays in musical education. “It is informative for students to mingle with students in other parts of the world because it helps contextualize their own education. Turns out we are very similar.”
The members of the Chamber Orchestra were able to explore previous connections between the United States and the Philippines at Corregidor Island, the site of an American fort from World War II, as well as the American Cemetery and Memorial, the largest cemetery for the U.S. military in the world. Sandra Rogers, BYU’s International Vice President who accompanied the orchestra, read the prayer President Gordon B. Hinckley gave at the site in 1961. The visit illuminated the long-lasting history the two countries share.
“We were partners,” Katseanes said. “We fought together and lost our lives together, shoulder to shoulder in the second World War. So there is a deep relationship in the Philippines with Americans.”
Smith emphasized the unique opportunity to play with Salonga in her home country saying, “This was a real highlight for the students. The fact that they not only got to perform on the BYU campus with her, but then return the favor by performing where she is lives in metro Manila in a concert for her people, friends and family.”
Mary Griffin, violinist in the Chamber Orchestra, recalled the warm reception they received from the audience. “I knew that the Philippine people have immense patriotism and any individual that represents their country on the world stage is regarded as a national hero. And that’s Lea Salonga. Her home crowd was electric…the thing that got me, in the end, was when the crowd started chanting ‘B-Y-U.’ I started to cry because never in a million years did I think I’d be at the receiving end of that chant.”
“We played in several venues with more than a concert purpose,” Katseanes said. “It was very important to perform in concerts that have a fundraising or humanitarian cause where we are able to use our music skills to do good, not just to entertain.”
The Chamber Orchestra collaborated with the Archdiocese of Manila, for a benefit concert which featured recording artist and “Voice of the Philippines” contestant, Tim Pavino. The proceeds from the performance were donated to the charity organization Caritas Manila, which helps provide educational opportunities for those with underprivileged backgrounds. The concert displayed the strong partnership the Catholic and LDS church have in the Philippines.
The strong presence of the LDS church in the Philippines was visible when the Chamber Orchestra performed at devotionals in ward meeting houses around the country. The devotionals were heavily attended with upwards of 1200 people in the audience, including general authorities and area seventies. They were patterned after the format used in Music and the Spoken Word broadcasts with an inspirational message given in between music selections. The devotional message was even written by music history professor Luke Howard, who has written many scripts for Music and the Spoken Word.
While on the island of Cebu, the orchestra partnered with the Rise and Rebuild Humanitarian Foundation to build a comfort room – a communal bathroom containing individual showers as well as toilets. Over 80 comfort rooms, each used by between 500 and 1000 people a day, were built by the foundation last year and there are plans to build over 100 by the end of 2017. The organization was founded by Ray Goodson, the first LDS missionary to serve in the Philippines who also happened to be Vice President Rogers’ mission president when she served her mission in the Philippines.
The orchestra also performed several free concerts including one in the children’s cancer wing of the Philippine General Hospital, the country’s largest hospital. “It was very meaningful and touching,” Katseanes said of the performance. “We have a piece we like to perform, the primary song, A Child’s Prayer. That is a pretty touching song to play in a venue like that.”
“These tours serve many purposes and this service component is a huge reason for us to do more than just sightsee or perform. We look for ways to serve so that we can leave something behind, something long-lasting that will be there long after we return home,” Smith said. “In addition to a student’s academic and educational development, there is a service component that’s deep in the foundation of the university: learning that life is service.”
Smith emphasized his belief in the importance of the opportunity to perform and serve throughout the Philippines. “To take this group of students to a whole new culture and integrate them into that culture by having them meet the people, interact and learn how to play music with students is an international experience that cannot be replicated.”
Such a unique tour garnered attention from BYUtv who sent a team to document the trip. The documentary will air at noon in between the Saturday sessions of General Conference on September 30. It will be shown on Channel 9403 on Dish, Channel 374 on DirecTV, Channel 647 on Comcast as well as online at BYUtv. View a promo here.
Katseanes emphasized the elements that made the tour such a success. “There were so many ‘coincidences.’ So many things magically just fell into place. Vice President Sandra Rogers joining us on tour was so important and meaningful. It was the first time she had been back since her mission. The chair of the President’s Leadership Council traveled with us. Another first. Performing with an international star like Lea Salonga has never happened on any BYU tour. We have never had BYUtv cover any tour before. Everything came together in such a miraculous, remarkable way that we had a miraculous, remarkable experience.”