The Philippine Star
Music & Misyon
INSPIRED BY VENEZUELA’S LAUDED EL SISTEMA, a classical music program for underprivileged youth, the Philippines’ Ang Misyon was established in 2012. For co-founder and artistic director Jovianney Emmanuel Cruz, Ang Misyon is a growing symbol of the fulfil
After completing his masters degree at the Manhattan School of Music, Cruz had to decide whether to stay in the US and pursue a career as a concert pianist or come back to the Philippines and try to help out in what little way he could. “I’ve always had that vision that I wanted to give something back to the Philippines,” he says.
For his first five years back, Cruz alternated between Manila and New York, teaching one semester at the University of the Philippines (UP) while continuing to perform, audition and compete.
The award-winning pianist’s last competition was in 1995. He shares he had reached the semi-final round, having bested some 3,000 applicants from all over the world. However, when he did not get into the finals, he decided to move on from the competition circuit and pursue other endeavors.
Cruz found himself teaching full time at UP, producing some good pianists, but that did not feel like enough. “I was teaching at UP for 20 years and I never really felt like I was making any impact.” Cruz wanted to change people’s lives.
His opportunity to make a bigger impact came some eight years ago when energy executive Federico “Piki” Lopez bought a Steinway and asked Cruz if he could inaugurate the piano. What Cruz was expecting as a simple performance for a few people ended up being an event with the entire Lopez clan.
After his performance – and some wine – Cruz was able to talk to patriarch
Oscar Lopez. “I asked him, ‘ How do you feel about building a concert hall in Rockwell?’ He said he would think about it.”
Cruz says, “Makati has never really had a cultural center. Filipino musicians deserve some kind of support.”
Little did Cruz know that the small talk he made would result in something big. The Lopezes made good on their word to consider building a hall. In their latest development, Proscenium, the concert hall is part of the fourth phase of the project. With the celebrated Carlos Ott as the architect (he designed the Opéra de la Bastille in Paris among other iconic structures), the hall will seat 726 and is slated to be launched in 2019.
With plans underway, Piki asked Cruz, “Now that the hall is being built, what do you want to do?” Cruz asked the Lopez scion if he had heard of El Sistema and it just so happened that Piki had Tricia Tunstall’s book, Changing Lives: Gustavo Dudamel, El Sistema and the Transformative Power of Music, in his library. With that, Ang Misyon was born.
“I call it 20-20 vision,” says Cruz, noting that he had spent 20 years in UP and a 20-minute conversation with the Lopezes to reach this point.
Ang Misyon started with the plan to manage the Orchestra of the Filipino Youth (OFY) of 40 young musicians from families that earned P200,000 or less per year. Cruz was surprised when over 100 kids came to the audition.
“Most learned music on their own,” he marvels. They would use their painstakingly-saved allowance to go to Internet cafés to watch YouTube videos and teach themselves how to play. Some had come from their local symphonic bands.
“When we formed the OFY, we didn’t think that suddenly there would be walk-ins. Every other day I would receive an email, I would get a message on Facebook, somebody would walk in and ask if they could join. Or parents would come and say ‘We cannot afford lessons for my son, we heard that you’re offering scholarships’.” Starting in September 2012 with 40 talented kids, the number had doubled by the end of the year.
To accommodate more young hopefuls, Ang Misyon created the OFY prep club – later called the Young Filipinos’ Orchestra (YFO).
The children of Ang Misyon have been given the opportunity to be mentored by some of the most talented local and foreign musicians. OFY’s resident conductor is former Philippine Philharmonic Orchestra conductor Olivier Ochanine, while YFO’s resident conductor is violinist and professor Juan Luis Muñoz. The orchestra has members who come from as far as Nueva Ecija and Mindoro, who travel by land and even sea every weekend to attend lessons and rehearsals. The group has performed alongside the Philippine Philharmonic Orchestra and the ABS-CBN Philharmonic Orchestra and have mounted concert tours in Iloilo and Dumaguete, among other destinations. 2016 was a banner year for OFY, with seven string players performing in concerts in New York, New Jersey and Washington DC. Soon enough, people were approaching Ang Misyon, wanting to make their bands into orchestras. OFY alumni have also gone on to teach in their own communities. Ang Misyon even has a satellite group on Talim Island – a small island on Laguna de Bay that not many have heard of. “It is such a small community, kids of fishermen,” says Cruz. “There are so many talented musicians there.”
Cruz also notes one talented OFY member, 15-year-old violinist Axelle Miel, who put up her own satellite group in a depressed area in Cebu. “She’s just 15 year old – it took me 50 years!” Cruz exclaims.
Miel won Honorable Mention in the junior strings division in the 2016 National Music Competition for Young Artists.
Four years later, over 600 kids have become part of Ang Misyon, with 13 satellites – and counting. “It’s overwhelming. It’s really overwhelming,” says Cruz. “It’s a renaissance of a culture.”
Ang Misyon started that faithful day some eight years ago when Piki Lopez dug up a book on El Sistema. Coming full circle,
Ang Misyon is now featured on the cover of Tricia Tunstall’s latest book, Playing for Their Lives: The Global El Sistema Movement for Social Change
through Music, which tells the story of 25 countries which have adapted the El Sistema model. Tunstall told Cruz that the Philippines was chosen for the cover because Ang Misyon is the fastest growing El Sistema in the world and its principles are closest to that of the original El Sistema in Venezuela.
Cruz recalls that Ang Misyon made quite an impact on Tunstall when she visited the Philippines with Jamie Bernstein, daughter of the revered Leonard Bernstein. They visited an orphanage in Caloocan, which was also a satellite of Ang Misyon. “They didn’t have instruments yet at that time,” says Cruz. But the children regularly sang in their church choir, so they sang for their guests. To see the tears well up in the eyes of Bernstein – someone who must have been surrounded by superb music her whole life – “We must have been doing something right,” says Cruz.
After 20 years of teaching, and even more as a concert pianist and music student, Cruz has found his fulfillment in Ang Mission. “My life was changed so immensely because of this. This is what music is about. I wish the entire Philippines will help see this through. Because one thing that the Philippines can be proud of is our music.”
He adds, “Music is supposed to unite people. That’s why they call it ‘playing music.’ It’s supposed to be fun.” With El Sistema’s model, young people experience “the camaraderie in an orchestra, the sense of listening to one another, or listening to the other more than you’re listening to yourself, paying attention to detail – all of those good values that the discipline of classical music is all about. They make people better.”
Cruz says many of their members have dreams to become engineers, doctors, teachers and more. “Even if they don’t choose classical music as their career, we were able to instill the discipline of classical music.”
The mission has gone beyond making music. “It’s not about music. It’s not about creating musicians. It’s about changing lives of human beings who are in situations that put them at risk. It’s trying to make them feel that there’s something else beyond their walls.”
Cruz says, “If music – something that they like, that they enjoy, something that can give them hope – can get them out of that situation, then we are giving the country a good service. The sense of belonging that they are part of something that can become great really uplifts their lives.”
For Cruz, Ang Misyon is no longer just an advocacy; it has become a vocation. “If I’m able to help somebody get out of their situation and put them in a higher plane, then I was able to do my job, I was able to fulfil my vocation.”