November 10, 2017

November 10, 2017

by Michele T. Logarta

Good ears, according to multi-awarded musical director, conductor, and arranger Gerard Salonga, are an absolute must for anyone who wants to be a conductor.

“If your ears are not very good, don’t be a conductor.” he said.

Evidently the owner of a good pair of ears, Salonga is one of the country’s most successful musicians today.  

He is currently the director of the ABS-CBN Philharmonic Orchestra in Manila and Assistant Conductor of Hong Kong Philharmonic. 

Salonga will be the guest conductor, upon the invitation of PPO music director Maestro Yoshikazu Fukumura, for the third concert of the Philippine Philharmonic Orchestra 2017-2018 season. 

The concert on November 17 at the CCP marks his debut in the subscription series.

Salonga has led the PPO thrice over the past 14 years but always in special concerts not part of the PPO season.

“I feel like it’s a good time for me to be conducting a proper concert with the PPO.  I’ve gained a lot of experience in the past few years handling different repertoire with different orchestras, and this past season I spent as part of the Hong Kong Philharmonic under Jaap van Zweden has really changed me as a musician.”

Salonga was appointed in 2016 as Assistant Conductor of the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra, selected from 170 international applicants.  In this capacity, Salonga assisted conductors such as Yu Long, Zhang Guoyong, and Constantin Trinks and soloists such as David Fray and Yo-Yo Ma.

Salonga started his career in the world of pop and music theater.  His first conducting job came in 1996 after he had just finished a semester of school in Boston.  Repertory Philippines founders Zenaida Bibot Amador and Baby Barredo asked him if he wanted to get some real world experience in the company’s Carousel production at the Meralco Theater.

Later, after finishing school, he returned to Manila “to do more of the same”, he said.

In 2005, Salonga joined Filharmonika, an orchestra established for the commercial recording and the film scoring market, where he spent the next six years.

“I’m very thankful for that time I spent with Filharmonika.  It was being in front of that supportive orchestra five days a week for six years that afforded me the podium time that all conductors need to develop,” said Salonga.

With Filharmonika, he added, he learned how to listen.

His path towards conducting what he described as “serious music” was paved by pianist Jovianney Emmanuel Cruz, at the time artistic director of the Filfest concert series at the Insular Life Auditorium.

“He (Jovianney) invited us to perform several concerts for the 2008 season, and that lit the fire!  I don’t speak about it often in public, but I do owe him a debt of gratitude for having faith in who was basically an inexperienced conductor from the pop world,” Salonga said.

In 2010, he turned to orchestral conducting.

According to Salonga, he had long been searching for a mentor to teach him about conducting orchestral music.  “Working with Maestro van Zweden, I‘ve found not just one but many.  Several of my fellow musicians there have become mentors to me, as well, always offering advice and guidance on how to further my craft.”

As an orchestral arranger, his works have been performed by the Hong Kong Philharmonic, as well as the New York Pops, Cincinnati Pops, Indianapolis, and Winnipeg Symphony orchestras.

In December of 2016, Salonga orchestrated the Concerto for Bassoon and Orchestra by Philippine National Artist Col. Antonino Buenaventura, which was given its world premiere by the Philippine Philharmonic Orchestra and bassoonist Adolfo Mendoza.

He has conducted the HK Philharmonic, Shanghai Opera House Orchestra and Chorus, The Evergreen Symphony Orchestra (Taiwan), Bangkok Symphony, the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra, and in February 2017 made his debuts with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra and Orchestra Victoria.

In 2012, Salonga was honoured by the President of the Philippines as one of The Outstanding Young Men (TOYM), the Philippines’ highest civilian award to achievers under the age of 40. 

Salonga is an all around music man.  In addition to arranging music and scoring films, he sings, plays the piano and a bit of the violin.  “I tried the violin, then gave up after a while.  Like the merchandise at Ollivander’s, an instrument has to choose you as much as you choose it…and it didn’t like me very much.  For a long time, as an arranger of orchestral music, my writing has served as my instrument.”

Salonga is married to a musician—prizewinning violinist DJ Francisco-Salonga.

“She was one of the first people to nudge me towards conducting classical music.  Being in a relationship, and eventually marrying a musician felt very natural.  We never run out of things to talk about.  Music is such a diverse and deep subject that there’s always something interesting and new in our conversations.”

Their children are creative minded, Salonga said.  His son, 10, has a very high musical IQ while his daughter, 7, likes singing, has a very good pitch and a talent for painting.

No conversation with Salonga is complete without mentioning his famous sister Lea.

“A lot of people have asked me what it’s like to have her as a sister, and the answer will always be this:  I don’t know, because I’ve grown up with her as my sister.  It’s not as if she became famous before I became her brother.  As a sister to me, her role was more like a third parent.  She’s always looked after me and taken very good care of me.  To this day, I see in her the example of discipline, diligence and humility.  She, of course, opened many doors for me, but always maintained that she’d be the first one to shut them closed if I failed.”

So far, sister Lea hasn’t done that.

And that’s because Salonga has done a very good job at doing what he does.  Conducting, he said, is something he can’t just get enough of.

“I love people and I love music,” he said.  “Conducting an orchestra allows me to work with a lot of people on great music…The impact of a good orchestral performance is profound and transformative, and being a conductor allows me to have a hand in sharing these great works of art and providing that experience for the listeners in the audience.”

For his upcoming concert with the PPO, Salonga chose to do Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess-A Symphonic Picture, J. William’s Catch Me If You Can-Escapades and A. Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9 in E minor “From the New World”.

“It’s very personal.  The first half contains music that is representative of the world I spent a lot of time in during my studies, and for the beginning of my professional musical life—jazz, musical theater and popular orchestral music.  Two composers whose works easily move amongst the jazz, commercial and concert hall spheres are George Gershwin and John Williams,” Salonga explained.

As for Dvorak’s piece, which comprises the second half of the concert, Salonga said he chose it for sheer love of it.  “Secondly, the nickname “From the New World” seemed appropriate since I will be stepping into the PPO’s realm of historical art music, which even now feels new to me,” he added.

Adding to Salonga’s excitement about the concert is his collaboration with saxophonist Tots Tolentino.  It’s not the first time they’re working together, but doing Catch Me if You Can is something they have talked about for a long time. 

“I am a huge admirer of his.  He is one of the most hardworking musicians anywhere.  He just doesn’t stop climbing that mountain.  When this programme was conceived, I knew it was only going to be him playing John Williams’ Escapades.  If he was not going to be available, I would have changed the piece.”

Catch Salonga with Tolentino and the PPO on November 17, 8 PM, at the CCP Tanghalang Nicanor Abelardo.  For inquiries and reservations, call the CCP Box Office (832-3704), TicketWorld (891-9999) or visit