Of time, history and the Ilonggo artists

The Nelly Garden in Jaro, Iloilo City. Declared a national landmark in 2014. Photo byFloyed Evangelista Flores.


This elegant mansion owned by businessman and philanthropist Don Vicente Lopez and Elena Hofilena in Jaro district in Iloilo City has a colorful life linked with music and the city’s illustrious past.

The heritage house was built in 1928 on the same decade the Manila Symphony Orchestra was born in 1926. The mansion was only a year old when violinist Gilopez Kabayao was born in Fabrica, Negros Occidental in 1929.

Named after the eldest daughter Nelly, the heritage house became a historic venue for reunion of Iloilo’s music and arts lovers when world-acclaimed Cecile Licad opened a concert series on November 29, 2018 with an all-Chopin recital that earned three standing ovations.

It must be noted that the port of Iloilo was opened to world trade in 1855, six years after Frederic Chopin died in Paris.

By coincidence, Licad and the Ilonggo pianist Nena del Rosario Villanueva – both age 11 then-- went to the same school, the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia where they were honed by great pianists of their time.

Villanueva studied under Isabelle Vengerova and briefly with the piano icon Vladimir Horowitz. Licad found a legendary pianist and teacher in Rudolf Serkin.

The celebrated star pupils of Curtis, Villanueva and Licad won piano competitions in New York in their teens (the former in the mid-50s and the latter in the early 70s).

The young piano prodigy Nena del Rosario. Like Cecile Licad and Otoniel Gonzaga, she was a star pupil in Curtis Institute in Philadelphia. Photo from FB page of The Villanuevas of Negros.


By coincidence, the last concert series at Nelly Garden is a tribute to Ilonggo tenor Otoniel Gonzaga.

Like Licad and Villanueva, Gonzaga received his training at the Curtis Institute of Music under the tutelage of English tenor Richard Lewis and American soprano Margaret Harshaw and later from Prof. John Lester.

While in Curtis, Gonzaga won first prize in the Marian Anderson International Singing Competition in Philadelphia. Serkin heard Gonzaga in a rehearsal of Cosi fan tutte and commented, “Most singers sing loudly but I like the way Gonzaga sing because he sings musically.”

Serkin’s admiration for Gonzaga later translated into an endorsement for him to be the one of the soloists in Beethoven’s Choral Fantasy with Eugene Ormandy conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra.

By another stroke of coincidence, Gonzaga has sung the lead tenor role in La Boheme in Frankfurt Opera in the early 80s with the Mimi of the Romanian diva, Nelly Miricioiu who gave tenor Nomher Nival a specialized one-month masterclass in London.

Nival is one of the featured artists in an Evening of Opera at Nelly Garden along with soprano Jasmin Salvo, clarinetist Andrew Constantino and pianist Gabriel Paguirigan.

The tenor recalled it wasn’t just lessons on singing. He also learned about correct posture, breathing and the like. “I also learned about body movements, how to sing stylistically based on muscle adjustments and many more. I figured then that I needed to imbibe new concepts and get used to new sensations and vocal exercises before I can totally grasp and master them. I like Maestra Nelly’s instincts and intelligence. She can easily demonstrate what’s written in the books and apply it to her singing very clearly. I would say my learning process is still ongoing.”

Otoniel Gonzaga as Otello. The first and last Filipino to sing the much feared Verdi role.


Nival who is the acclaimed Crisostomo Ibarra in the last two CCP staging of Felipe Padilla de Leon’s opera, Noli Me Tangere, says he likes working with pianist (Gabriel) Paguirigan for one reason: “He is so open to things and learns songs fast. He is very musical and is very easy to work with.”

Paguirigan goes beyond the essence of collaboration. “What I enjoy in the art of accompanying is the exchange of energy and exchange of musical thoughts in creating beautiful music. So when we play together, there’s me and the other artist exchanging positive energy and the audience. And that’s true with performing solo or with an orchestra. Because you must also communicate with the audience.”

The pianist says he has many things in his head every time he works with another artist. “I always remind myself to be sensitive whenever I collaborate. This is especially true with singers. With the singers, I’d hum their parts as well so I have an idea on the places they might breathe. It’s good to put oneself in the singer’s or instrumentalist’s shoes so I get a better view of what’s happening. Sometimes oversights do happen. Such as singers forgetting their lyrics, violinists missing their entrances. When this happens, it is important to be doubly alert and sensitive. Be ready for the worst. As a collaborating pianist, I have to be brave and confident because the slightest lack of confidence can affect a performance.”

Both artists are top prizewinners of the National Music Competition for Young Artists and winners within their schools as well.

Nival got his first taste of foreign judges and audiences in the Marcello Giordani International Vocal Competition in Florida, United States, where he received the Tommy Steyer Encouragement Award. “Those competitions made me realize the amount of work that I still need to put into singing,” he points out.

He was also one of the eight participants chosen from hundreds of applicants to participate at the prestigious Pacific Music Festival (PMF) held in Sapporo, Japan, in 2012. That’s where he had the privilege to work with baritone Roberto Servile, soprano Marlis Petersen and perform with the PMF orchestra under the baton of Metropolitan Opera conductor Fabio Luisi.

And from Licad, Paguirigan said he learned how to experiment new ways of interpreting. “For her, learning a piece doesn’t end when you can play all notes by heart. A piece one has been playing for years could still be transformed with new insights. What’s so impressive about her is that she can perform the same piece twice and it still won’t sound the same.”

Standing ovation for Cecile Licad at Nelly Garden. Photo by Floyd Evangelista Flores.


The other featured artists in the Dec. 7, 2019 Nelly Garden concert are soprano Jasmin Salvo, a prizewinner in the ASEAN International Voice Competition in Singapore and clarinetist Andrew Constantino who just finished his stint with the Asian Youth Orchestra.

Nelly Garden was declared a national landmark in 2004 by the National Historical Commission.

For inquiries on Dec. 7 Nelly Garden concert, text 0906-5104270 or 09175758040.


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