Sally Pinkas, pianist and pedagogue from Dartmouth College, rendered a selection of pieces by Filipino composers in a concert entitled Piano Music from Romantic Manila, held on the evening of December 7, 2015 at UP College of Music’s Abelardo Hall. Pinkas explained to the audience that the pieces, some of which are familiar recital material for Filipino piano students, are pieces for salons, private gatherings organized for the enjoyment of artistic performances at the turn of the 20th century.
The performance was daring: a presentation of Philippine music infused with Pinkas’s sensibility before a Filipino audience familiar with much of the material. The dare, however, was rewarded with a standing ovation at the end of the performance, attesting to its revitalizing quality. Her rendition of the pieces called for an expansion of one’s notion of Filipino music, the reexamination of the impression that such pieces are to be rendered with great emotion, concretized through the liberal use of rubatos, shifts in volume, and tonal coloration.
Pinkas is a talented, accomplished, and academically grounded pianist. Enabled by her piano degrees from Indiana University and the New England Conservatory of Music, as well as a Ph.D. in composition from Brandeis University, she organized and discussed the concert pieces by genre; discussing, during the intervals between performance sections, the connections between the pieces and others from around the world. The audience was given an opportunity to trace the travel of musical genres through history, concretizing the idea that distinctly Filipino music is linked to music from other countries.
A pianist who had her London debut at Wigmore Hall, Pinkas belongs to a line of esteemed musicians who performed in the same space, including pianists Artur Schnabel, Artur Rubinstein, and Sir Andras Schiff. It is no wonder that the technique needed to render works by Frederic Chopin and Claude Debussy informed her performance of those by Filipino masters, such as Julio Nakpil, Marcelo Adonay, Nicanor Abelardo, and Francisco Santiago. The following were observable from the audience area: economy of movement, the precision of hands and arms, a careful way of touching the keys, and distinct pedal work.
Pinkas’s pedaling defines her pianistic strength. What riveted me during most of her performance was the careful attention to the damper pedal. In the pieces where she needed it, her foot firmly but gently pressed the pedal in differing levels, manifesting her control of that easily underestimated facility of the piano. Certainly, the accuracy of her hands, guided by an easy concentration that did not border on the overbearing, was a gift. However, the memorable singing tones at the concert could not have been possible without Pinkas’s mastery of the damper pedal.
The question came to mind whether Pinkas’s quality of playing, also manifest in her general observance of regular timing and stability of volume, did justice to the Filipino flavor of the romantic pieces in her program. The fascination that I had with her renditions, provocative as they were, led to the question: Who truly owns musical pieces? Indeed, the performer owns the pieces as much as the culture where these come from.
No musical performer can be denied the privileges of interpretation. As much as one strives for knowledge of the music and its context, the influence of one’s background and preferences cannot be held back. As Pinkas herself told me post-concert of her rendition of Buencamino’s Gratitud, of which the midsection can be played a bit slower in observance of the spare marking “folk song,” she said that what is important for the pianist is to “make a case.” Indeed, the “folk song” section of Gratitud, given its repeated notes and patterns, sounded interesting with Pinkas’s fast playing, implying a cheerful naughtiness that characterizes the bucolic.
The ovation given her, led by no less than National Artist for Music Ramon P. Santos, indicates that Pinkas gained the pleasure of her audience. This pleasure comes both from her different yet beautiful playing, and her willingness to converse with her audience, as seen in her explanations in between sections of the concert and in my subsequent talk with her.
Pinkas said in one of her explanations that she is preparing for a recording of the pieces, which can bring the music to an audience of a global scale. As much as the unraveling of a predisposition to Filipino piano music was inevitable with her performance, her careful attention to the pieces and her bridging these to other parts of the world is a sufficient exchange. A greater solidifying of the reputation of Filipino music and musicians on the global stage, moved by factors mediated by various kinds of capital, can only contribute to expanding the field of possibilities for our nation in this day and age.
December 11, 2015, Quezon City