Key Moments: Musings on Music in Three Parts

Pianist Joshua Alexander Manalo on the anatomy of a concert performance, the parallels between music and architecture, and learnings from mentor, Jovianney Emmanuel Cruz

Words and Images Joshua Alexander Manalo

The author performing at the now-demolished Philamlife Theater (November 2011). Header: Viktor Mogilat, Unsplash

A balancing act

I am drawn to the aura from the recordings of classical pianists during the time of the Cold War. I was born just before the Cold War “ended” but I grew up with these recordings and coincidentally, this was the time when collecting music CDs became my biggest obsession (This is the heyday of Odyssey and Tower Records). Studio recordings are one thing: very personal, and of which I am partial. Live performance is something else. A good analogy would be to compare studio recordings to exercise, rehabilitation, meditation, and writing. On the other hand, a performance could be compared to theater, or a sporting event, like a marathon, or a race. In both cases, the unifying factor is that performances are often interpretations of someone else’s composition.

Like roles being played in a film, the script is a given. As a pianist, I can attest to the amount of training and balance necessary to achieve the end goal, which is to embody the composer’s intentions whilst also being able to bare one’s soul with the audience. Beyond just the performance, it is also vital to forge a connection with the audience to elicit a reaction, an emotion, to initiate an exchange of energies. It is this metaphysical aspect, this connection desired, that spells the difference between music and noise.

Everyone talks about Cecile Licad’s 1982 recording of the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1 with the Chicago Symphony conducted by George Solti, a performance I find brilliant and noble. But for me, Jovianney Emmanuel Cruz’s villainous 1988 performance of Liszt’s 1st Piano Concerto at the Jose Iturbi finals is one of the most deftly executed, heartfelt recordings of the concerto ever. It is a whirlpool of energy. Why be a snooty (God forbid, boring!) show-off when you can be wicked, and playful while pulling at heartstrings along the way? The performance starts gently but as it progresses you are hit by a wall of sound and emotion and you don’t know what hit you by the time you get to the finale. Magnificent. 

Frozen music

It’s worth noting the parallels between the classical piano tradition of the post-war period and the midcentury design and architecture that surfaced during this time. The Brutalist and Modernist design period is something that I am a great fan of. None of us exist in a vacuum and so it is amazing that just as a building “stands the test of time”, so can the life force given by music when a performance becomes a memory to be cherished. All great architects know that the best projects are ones wherein they are in communion with the client and the intent is pure (and if the budget permits, then it’s a dream come true!).

Not even a massive signature campaign was able to save the demolition of Arguelles’ seminal modernist masterpiece, the Philamlife Building, last year; the developer responsible vows to reconstruct a replica of the structure using materials from the original; it will serve as the podium for their condominium development
The vacant Philamlife Building before its demolition in 2021

I had the opportunity to be part of a group concert some years ago at the now-demolished Philamlife Theater and it was a special one for me for the reason that I had a bad memory lapse during my performance. But just like in any moment where expectations are shattered, it was a humble reminder that how we deal with failure is as important as how we deal with an achievement. The next day I had no choice but to practice again this time for another upcoming performance of completely different pieces. I remember during that time I was still actively performing in live concerts. On a side note, this performance was just a year before the news was made that Philamlife was sold and it was the beginning of the end for this great piece of architecture.

Photo of Jovianney Emmanuel Cruz at five years old, in a recital at Malacañan Palace, March 1972. The girl with the glasses three seats to the left of Imelda Marcos is the young Cecil Licad. Photo courtesy of Jovianney Emmanuel Cruz

Taming the piano

If there is one musical instrument that is arguably the loneliest—it is the piano. For me, practicing the piano is a mechanical process: each day a pianist tries to master this great musical machine like a soldier preparing for battle: overcoming neurosis, monotony, chaos, and the physical discomfort of sitting on a bench alone for hours each day. Like chess, it is very much dictated by the mind and pure logic. Like calisthenics, it requires intense physical control.  

It is not all rigor and technique with the piano, of course. There is joy, grief, anger, and loneliness. There is child-like innocence and a sense of wonder like looking at the moon and the moon whispering back at you. There is fear and awe of the power of the rain and wind…It is such a thrill to exercise power only when you need to and gentleness when you want to. The piano carries this duality but requires the hand of the individual to unleash it.

In line with this, I feel Jovianney Emmanuel Cruz is one of an endangered species of pianists who exemplify the beauty of a holistic take on classical music and the performing arts; he encourages his students to continue adhering to the rigorous discipline of practice while never remaining in their comfort zones.

Mr. Cruz has bravely done numerous piano festivals for over a decade now, not to mention introducing to the Philippines the El Sistema method of music education. He helped piano students become well-balanced musicians― not just a competition prize winner or a piano robot hitting all the right notes with precision. To train balanced musicians entails training even the emotions and behavior—not just the mind. He has planted numerous seeds; it is my personal hope that it grows into a huge tree in our lifetime. 

As my mentor, it was Mr. Cruz who truly opened up my sound and piano playing―his matrix method of practicing (Like a lot of analytical solutions, this requires visuals but this will be for another time) is something I absolutely hate but is absolutely effective in learning tricky passages. More importantly, he instilled in me that practice is a mental ordeal, as well as physical―arm movements, finger movements, and wrist movements, are all separate studies broken down. In addition, the score is something to not only learn, but continue relearning and looking at differently each time.

Mr. Cruz was also the reason why I started playing and learning jazz as well, which turned out to be one of the best things that ever happened to me as a pianist. The jazz I mean of course does not refer to the technique but to the musical style. This can be either jazz transcriptions (Bebop solos) or classical music composed with jazz in mind (Gershwin). There is much discourse about what jazz and classical music are stylistically and all that sets them apart…but let’s not forget that Beethoven and Mozart improvised on the spot like how jazz musicians do today. Brubeck and Thelonious Monk composed works that use extremely complex classical harmonic language. For me, jazz turns the incomprehensibility of the modern world into something that can be embraced rather than resisted.

However, as much as music styles and genres are very enjoyable to ponder on, they also carry the weight of society and the audience that they are composed for. Music and the performing arts do not exist in isolation and will continue to evolve so long as humans continue listening to music. They are both mirrors of who we are as well as visions of who we want to be. Government rulers, regimes, and architectural styles may come and go, but the spirit of the music reigns and continues to renew us each time we listen. •

Joshua Alexander “Joey” Manalo is a classically trained pianist having navigated through scores on his own from the age of six, eventually taking private lessons and graduating cum laude in 2009 at Rutgers University with a Minor in Music and a Major in Psychology. He was then taken under the wing of pianist Jovianney Emmanuel Cruz and had his orchestral debut in February 2011 in Insular Life Theater under the baton of conductor Marlon Daniel. Joey currently manages Outlooke Pointe Foundation’s projects and art collection. The non-profit organization was founded by his father, Jesulito Manalo in 2007 in a bid to support emerging artists and foster creative collaborations, “with the vision of utilizing art as a tool for nation-building.”

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