LOS ANGELES, USA – “I look forward to being surprised,” Jose Mari Chan said about his hit compositions, beloved by Filipinos for many years, being performed by the Filipino American Symphony Orchestra (FASO) at the world-famous Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles on August 20, 7 pm.
In its first in-person concert since 2019, the only Filipino symphony orchestra outside of the Philippines will also fittingly return to where it performed live the last time – Frank Gehry’s internationally renowned architectural landmark and considered by many music aficionados as one of the most acoustically sophisticated performance halls in the world.
Titled Celebration!, the much-awaited live concert of FASO, under the direction of maestro Robert “Bob” Shroder, will highlight the cherished hits of Jose Mari Chan, who will be in attendance.
Jose Mari, who marks his 55 years as a singer-songwriter, has recorded 14 hit albums and enriched Philippine pop music with a long list of songs that hold a sentimental and special place in Filipinos’ hearts. He also penned commercial jingles that captured the Filipino pop consciousness.
In an evening that promises to be a special one for Filipino musical artistry, the iconic concert hall will reverberate with many of Jose Mari’s treasured original compositions, including “Can We Just Stop and Talk Awhile,” “Hahanapin Ko,” “Constant Change,” “Beautiful Girl,” “Refrain,” “Sing Me Your Song Again, Daddy,” “Let’s Stop and Talk Awhile,” “My Girl, My Woman, My Friend,” “Afterglow,” “I Remember the Boy,” “Please Be Careful With My Heart,” “Good Old-Fashioned Romance,” “Minsan Pa,” “Big Beautiful Country,” and “Love at Thirty Thousand Feet.”
As an added treat, it will be Yuletide in August when FASO plays Jose Mari’s “Christmas In Our Hearts,” often described as the Philippines’ biggest selling Filipino Christmas song.
At 77, Jose Mari, who will receive FASO’s Excellence in Music Award for his long career and accomplishments as a singer-songwriter, is as sharp, engaging, and personable as ever. He was at home in the Philippines when I interviewed him via Zoom but he is scheduled to fly soon to LA.
“I’m looking forward to listening to FASO’s interpretation of my music because each arranger has a vision of my songs,” Jose Mari enthused, flashing his well-known genial smile. “And sometimes it’s a slightly different take.”
“It’s quite interesting to see from their viewpoint rather than copying the exact arrangements of my recording. So, I’m looking forward to that.”
No pressure to the arrangers tapped by FASO – hope you have surprises for Mr. Music Man – Louie Ramos, Ria Osorio-Villena, Orlando Dela Cruz, Saunder Choi, Resty Dela Cruz, Naldy Rodriguez, and no less than National Artist Ryan Cayabyab.
I then asked Jose Mari to say what came to his mind – just something short – when I rattled off some of his most popular songs on Spotify.
The man, whose family was and is in the sugar business, was impressively quick and eloquent about each composition that I randomly picked. What surprised me was how some of his hits have political and patriotic underpinnings.
“I remember Vilma Santos and Gretchen Barreto. People thought that I wrote the song for several other actresses. So even my wife was beginning to be suspicious: ‘Did you really write the song for them?’”
“Please Be Careful With My Heart”
“‘Please Be Careful With My Heart’ started as a solo song for Jam Morales. And then several years later, I decided to make it a duet. So, I had a response assuring the girl that yes, I’ll be careful with your heart from the very start.”
“My Girl, My Woman, My Friend”
“I wrote that song on the occasion of the wedding of one of my sisters. I wanted to write something inspirational, something that would inspire them to look forward to a beautiful lifetime together.”
“So, I said the secret to a successful marriage is to have your wife be your girl, your woman, your best friend, your lover. So, I combined them into one. You’re my girl, my woman, and my friend.”
“I was living in the United States then. I lived there in New York for 11 years doing sugar business. And then right after the revolution, when the sugar business in the Philippines was back to the private sector, we decided to return to Manila.”
“And so, I was on the plane and I was looking at the clouds. The clouds didn’t seem to be moving, but actually, the reality is, when you look at the formation of the cloud, five minutes later, you look and the formation has changed. So, it’s constantly changing.”
“So, I said, after having lived 11 years in New York, and now we have to move back to the Philippines, the friends we knew then, we will have to say goodbye to them.”
“So it will be a change of venue again, a change of place. So, life is really a series of constant changes and you just have to adapt to these changes.”
“Can We Just Stop and Talk Awhile?”
“That song, as that idea, came to me when I walked into a coffee shop one day and I noticed that there was a girl seated by herself. And although I did not approach her, the fantasy in my head was saying, what if I…you know, and she’s attractive.”
“What if I went up to her and said, ‘Hi, may I share this table with you? Are you expecting anyone? You know, can we just stop and talk awhile?’ So, it’s like a casual meeting.”
On which was a breeze to compose, the Iloilo city-born artist quickly replied, “The easiest to compose was ‘Mr. Songwriter.’ It was like writing a song for someone like me who writes songs, making it a short and simple melody. I was actually writing a very subtle protest against the Martial Law regime.”
“If you listen to the lyrics – plenty of lengthy discussions among leaders of nations, the weak and strong. Quarrels unending, suppression of rights, we can be strong. Let’s sing with all our might.”
“So, Mr. Songwriter, write me a song, make it a short and simple melody with words that will carry our message across. Our message of peace to every country.”
“So that was very easy because I was inspired. I woke up one morning and it was Martial Law. The business of sugar was taken over by the government and given to one of the cronies. And so, it was a very big disappointment that for three years, we didn’t have a business. So, ‘Mr. Songwriter’ was inspirational.”
As to which song was the most difficult or challenging to compose, Jose Mari answered, “That’s a good question. I have a song called ‘Hahanapin Ko.’ I was living in the US at the time when I composed that melody on the piano. I felt that it was such a beautiful melody.”
“So, I said, ‘Where did this come from? It must have been a muse, a muse that whispered the melody to me.’ Okay? So, I wrote that and I completed the whole melody, including the middle portion where it went fast.”
“So, I said, ‘Okay, now that I have the song, I have to write the lyrics.’ And it took a long time for me to come up with lyrics. Somehow it was like, I was staring at a black wall. What should I say in this song?”
“So, a couple of months later, I came home to the Philippines and I met with Jimmy Santiago, who is an advertising man. He was telling me that there was a Metro Pop contest. I said, ‘I joined that already two years ago and I lost. And it was such a beautiful song (‘Minsan Pa’), with lyrics written by Rolando Tinio. And it lost, so I was disappointed.”
“He said, ‘No, no. Let’s try again. Come on, come on. Do you have a song? I can write the lyrics.’ So, I said, ‘Oh yeah. Okay. Okay.’ So, I submitted the melody to him and he lived with it for a couple of days.”
“So, he wrote the words to ‘Hahanapin Ko.’ And that has become one of my personal favorite compositions. But unfortunately, again, it lost (in the Metro Pop).”
“But my satisfaction is looking back over the years. That song has lived on. Very few people now listen to the winners of that year.”
“So, it’s the test of time that’s more important to a song. For example, if you hear a song like ‘Stardust’ of Hoagy Carmichael, until now that song has lived on, even though the songwriters have all gone.”
“But that song has lived on and it is much more endearing than ‘Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini.’ So, the test of time again. Sorry, I sound like a professor.”
Pressed to mention which song he would like to be remembered for, Jose Mari demurred, “That’s a difficult question to answer because I’d like to be remembered for my songs. Like ‘Refrain.’ I’d like to be remembered for ‘Christmas In Our Hearts,’ ‘A Perfect Christmas,’ ‘Can We Just Stop and Talk a While?’”
“So, several songs because each song is like a child of mine. So, each child has a unique talent. Perhaps this child of mine will become an excellent architect. This one is going to be a medical doctor. He’s going to be a surgeon. And this other one is a professor and this other one is a scientist.”
“So, each child is special and I cannot really say that this is my favorite child or no, that one, no. My favorite is something.”
In parting, he said, “Every composer is special. Each songwriter has a story to tell, each songwriter is a painter. So, I respect each and every one.”
“So, I cannot really say that this composer is better than this or that other composer. No. We’re all uniquely good, blessed by God with that gift of music.”
While FASO will render mostly orchestral versions of Mr. Songwriter’s tunes, Celebration! will feature some of his songs with vocals by Felson Palad, Deb Victa, and the FASO Kids: Ardyanna Ducusin, Stazy Reoma, and Eisha Ringor.
Bob Shroder, FASO’s Cavite-born musical director and conductor, knew Jose Mari way back in his Manila days as a musician.
He recalled in a quote via private message, “I met Joe Mari when I was the flutist in the Manila Chamber Orchestra. We met during rehearsal time and shared stories. Then he called me if I can join him on album recordings.”
“We recorded ‘Constant Change’ and ‘Christmas in our Hearts’ albums, a few more singles and commercials, including a jingle for Sony. I did the arrangement for the Sony jingle.”
“We became close and we saw each other. We lost contact when I moved to the US. Then we reached out again because we played the BBC (Banahaw Broadcasting Company, now defunct) jingle (‘Big Beautiful Country’) in a FASO concert before and asked permission if we could play his music again.”
“He is a very good person and wrote a lot of very good music. When I talked to him, this was supposed to be for a concert scheduled two years ago. But because of COVID, we will pay tribute to his songs and give him an award onstage only now. He deserves it.”
“Joe Mari said, ‘I thank you and FASO. Usually, the artists given tributes are already gone.’ So he is very grateful that we are giving him a tribute.”
“His music is very exciting to play. Although it is pop, the way he approaches his songs is like classical in tune. The feedback is very amazing. We hear different genres of music. His music is so global.”
“So it is very exciting. We are very excited about this concert. We hope to see Filipinos and non-Filipinos joining us.”
The rest of the evening’s program will be devoted by maestro Bob to a celebratory romp through different musical periods, from marching bands to contemporary tunes.
Special guests are The Philippine Meistersingers, formerly the AUP Ambassadors, who are among the world’s most renowned choirs. The Manila-based choir’s awards include prizes in the World Choir Games and Llangollen International Musical Eisteddfod.
Led by its director, Ramon “Bojo” Molina Lijauco Jr., The Philippine Meistersingers will fill the Walt Disney Concert Hall with their glorious voices as they sing classical, contemporary, and sacred music.
Also performing are the FASO Youth String Ensemble, FASO Youth Orchestra, and soloist Irene Castillo.
Louie Ramos, FASO’s vice president who is also the orchestral arranger and education director, enthused via private message: “We are very excited to present the winner of the FASO violin competition, Irene Castillo. As the winner and the solo violinist, she will be performing Nicanor Abelardo’s ‘Cavatina.’ Irene competed against many student violinists from all over the world and was selected by a who’s who of Filipino violinists and educators.”
“This performance is especially meaningful for her because ‘Cavatina’ was her grandfather’s favorite violin piece. She will be performing at the concert using her grandfather’s violin.”
Edith Winterhalter, president of the trailblazing Filipino symphony orchestra, summed it up, “This is the first time that FASO is performing live onstage again after this long pandemic – that’s why we titled it Celebration! We’re celebrating that we can all get together and share our music once again, and hoping that the healing power of music would help those who suffered during the pandemic.”