Political Tidbits is the prestigious column of Belinda Olivares-Cunanan that ran for 25 continuous years in the op-ed page of the Philippine Daily Inquirer, the newspaper that she helped put up with its multi-awarded founder, the legendary Eugenia Duran-Apostol, in December 1985, just two months before the EDSA Revolution.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Violin prodigy conquers setbacks

As I said earlier, my columns will appear here every Tuesday and Friday, with the latest political developments, an analysis of various events and other items of interest to my readers. But in between, when time permits, I’ll write on matters that I know will catch your fancy---perhaps stories on the triumph of the human spirit, humorous stories, significant passages from other writers, some poetry and even letters to this writer.

Today I write about our own Filipino violin prodigy, Joaquin “Chino” Sebastian Gutierrez, now 20, who triumphed over serious setbacks and bounced back by dint of his enormous God-given talent, intense personal discipline, faith in God and his persistence no matter if his horizon was hazy. Chino is a role model for all of us in handling setbacks in our own lives, but most especially he’s a model for our youths.

Four years ago, he thought his career was over, and as his mother put it in the radio interview Cecile Alvarez and I did on their family last night, “maraming iyakan.” Earlier Chino was studying in a high school in Munich, Germany, while at the same time taking up violin lessons under the renowned pedagogue Professor Jans Ellerman who saw in the teenage boy the makings of an international violin star. He was able to study in Munich under a scholarship program worked out by three people: the late Foreign Secretary Blas Ople, former German ambassador to Manila Herbert Jess and our ambassador then to Berlin, Jose Abeto Zaide.

It was renowned Filipino violinist/conductor Oscar Yatco who heard Chino play when he was about 11; he said he wanted to introduce the boy to someone, but he had to come to Germany. That someone was Prof. Ellerman, who had taught at Juilliard School of Music in New York for 25 years and was known as the teacher of the big stars in the violin world. Ellerman was quite impressed that Chino chose to play for him a Bach piece full of angst and not the usual Paganini with all the fireworks that young violinists resort to, to impress. He agreed to take the young boy under his tutelage; but first Chino had to compete at the Hochschule fur Musik und Theater, the prestigious German music academy in Munich, for one slot that was open. Had he failed to get it he would have had to return to Manila.

* * *

Chino bagged that slot for the pre-college level and was to receive his violin training at Hochschule and his academic training at a regular high school there. Because of his tender age then, Ellerman insisted that his parents move to Munich too (no foster parent was willing to take the responsibility of rearing him). It took the family two years to move. Secretary Ople, a distinguished man of letters, worked it out so that Chino’s father, Lamberto, a computer man, would be employed by the Philippine Embassy as a local-hire expert. It worked well for nearly three years, with the boy soaring to incredible heights---despite the fact that at some point his mother Bambi had to go home owing to multiple illnesses.

Early in his first year in Munich. Chino represented his high school in a math competition, beating those of other schools in Bavaria until he became the state champion; a Pinoy beating the Germans in math! As Bambi noted, since he had just arrived in Munich then, Chino’s champion math skills were obviously honed during his Philippine Science High School stint. He also continued his studies under Professor Ellerman until he was primed to compete in a most prestigious international competition in Freiburg, Germany, where no Filipino artist had competed in a long time.

* * *

Unfortunately, something happened to change all this. New Philippine ambassador Delia Domingo Albert, perhaps unaware of the special arrangement mentioned above, terminated the local-hire status of Lamberto. With his residence permit cancelled, the father could run into immigration problems, but he also badly wanted to shepherd his son through that international competition for which he had trained so hard and so long. This conflict disturbed Chino immensely and Ellerman, seeing his inability to concentrate at that point, advised the boy not to join the competition any longer, to avoid the stigma of losing.

With a heavy heart the Gutierrezes returned to Manila. For the next three years Chino had no training in violin here (his early teachers had already taught him all they knew when he left for Germany). But the boy did not lose heart. He kept on repeating the lessons Ellerman had taught him even though, as Bambi pointed out, he didn’t know where he was headed and whether there was any future for him in music. He also picked up his math and taught at the Philippine Science High School and at the UP to keep busy. Only once did he concertize in those years here. At some point he got a scholarship for a small but well-known music school in Upstate New York called “Bard College,” but the training they gave there did not suit what he had in mind for a lifetime career.

* * *

But as they say, when God closes one door, He opens another. In Chino’s case, He has opened two and even perhaps three doors, and he now has the luxury of choosing which one would suit his career. Last February he auditioned at the renowned Peabody Conservatory of Music in Baltimore, Maryland, which is affiliated with Johns Hopkins University and he successfully landed a full scholarship, with the privilege to train with the renowned pedagogue Danchenko.

Then, a few weeks ago, Chino traveled to Europe all by himself, to audition in two schools, one in Vienna, whose results he is still awaiting, and in the Hochschule in Munich, where he was enrolled some years back. Chino recalled in our radio interview that the Hochschule audition was the toughest, for it consisted of three rounds; the second round involved each contestant playing two instruments, the first one of his choice and the second always the piano. In the case of Chino, who had been formally handling the violin since he was seven, he had never played the piano in his life! But since he wanted the audition so badly, he took a crash course in piano with Dean Borromeo formerly of the UP Conservatory of Music several mornings a week for about five weeks. At home the Gutierrezes had no piano and Chino had to content himself with practicing on a Yamaha keyboard and only occasionally on a baby grand. Chino had to reorient his thinking from violin to piano, two very different instrumentsm, constantly asking Dean Borromeo, “how do pianists think?”

* * *

The first round in Munich involved the violin and he played Vieuxtemps Concerto No. 5 and Schumann’s Sonata no. 1, passing it with flying colors (had he failed that one, it would have meant no Hochschule). For the second round he played on the piano of his five-weeks crash course Bach Invention No. 1 and Beethoven’s Sonata in G major, Op. 42. The third round was both written and oral, featuring theory, hearing, etc. What made his parents in Manila worry was that he was also all alone in Munich, unlike the other contestants who had their own big alalay group. While preparing for the auditions he had to do his meals, iron his clothes, prepare ten sets of his music for the members of the jury, etc. But earlier adversities had toughened him up; buong-buo ang loob, said Bambi proudly.

* * *

Chino admitted over radio that the audition was “”medyo nakakakaba,” but he hurdled all three rounds and is now ready for a bachelor’s degree at the Hochschule. Buong-buo ang loob, said the mother proudly. The Gutierrezes are praying hard---and helping them are Chino’s biggest fans, the Carmelites of Gilmore---that he make the right choice between Peabody with its full scholarship, and Hochschule, which is not free and the German standard of living is quite high. But Munich seems to be where his heart is.

We asked him what a young person needs to succeed and he said, “Sipag at tiyaga.” Cecile added “Galing at talino” and Chino agreed (it sounded like we were back in the election campaign with the slogans). He also added “family support,” admitting that his mom, who doesn’t play any instrument but is very musical and intuitive, has been his biggest supporter.

This time Chino is into competition for the international stage, fully aware that he has a lot of catching up with other world talents to do. In the music world so many years lost is so many years lost. But this young virtuoso is focused, driven and super-talented, a genius. Let’s watch him. Above all, let’s help support him with financial help. Call Lamberto Gutierrez at 0917-5970-946. Pls. reproduce this article and send to all your friends.

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