Sumi Jo stuns Manila anew

Sumi Jo at Meralco Theater. Triumphant in two Vocalises by Ravel and Rachmaninoff. Photo by Anna Leah Sarabia.

Korea’s celebrated diva Sumi Jo had her second Philippine engagement with pianist Najib Ismail Tuesday night and was singularly awarded with rounds of standing ovations.

The recital program was a rarity for which reason it was a vocal feast even for those listening to the song numbers for the first time. For another, pianist Ismail was at his best with his artistic vision fully in the service of music.

Indeed, the repertoire was daunting, if, unnerving with two Vocalises (Habanera by Ravel and another signature piece from Rachmaninoff) that sent everyone’s head spinning from the indescribable, if, consistent vocal stamina.

It covered rarely performed music from England, France and Italy including a rarely heard Nocturne by Filipino composer Francisco Santiago interpreted with such deeply moving lyricism by Ismail.

She had two guest’s artists, flutist Tony Maigue and tenor Paul Dominique Galvez, who contributed to a well-balanced program rich in variety.

The recital opened with Benedict’s Gypsy and the Bird with stunning flute obbligato from Tony Maigue.

Sumi Jo with pianist Najib Ismail and flutist Tony Maigue. A memorable bird song by Benedict. Photo by Anna Leah Sarabia.

The soprano’s coloratura matched the bird sounds and the flutist reproduced them with such clarity the audience gave them resounding opening applause. It showed quite clearly that she was in the presence of avid music fans.

There was such piquant elegant phrasing in Purcell’s Music for A While and returning with clear coloratura flourishes in Rossini’s La pastorella d’Alpi.

That was a poignantly rendered Juliet’s aria from Bellini’s I Capuletti e Montecchi and you can see from her interpretation that her vocal approaches vary from the lyrical to the dramatic with such amazing results.

Guest tenor Pol Dominique Galvez lived up to the part in Donizetti’s Cuanto e’ bella from Elisir d’amore.

But the most keenly awaited numbers (at least for the singers in the audience) were the two Vocalises -- Habanera by Ravel and another challenging one by Rachmaninoff.

The pieces have no text and are sung to a vowel of the singer’s choice.

Sumi Jo with tenor Paul Domique Galvez in Rossini's hilarious Cat Duet. The number drew laughter in the concert hall. Photo Anna Leah Sarabia.

In the Ravel Vocalise, the soprano’s vocal line was a revelation as she managed the scales, trills, and staccato passages with aplomb. Pianist Ismail was equally mesmerizing as he lived up to the piano part.

Needless to say, the diva wrapped up the two feared vocal numbers with all the nuances intact and negotiating the dangerous curves with flying colors.

She closed the program with Sempre libera (from La Traviata) and drew more deafening applause that shook the theater.

It inevitably resulted in four encore numbers among them O mio babbino caro (from Gianni Schicchi) and Schubert’s Ave Maria and a hilarious number, Rossini’sDuetto buffo di due gatti ("humorous duet for two cats") she rendered with the guest tenor.

As it were, the program offered deeply moving moments and on the other hand, it had audiences laughing when she let out an exaggerated sigh after a long-sustained note and doing finger exercises when she accompanied herself in one encore number.

The cat duet offered hysterical laughter from the audience.

Sumi Jo accompanying herself in a Korean folk song number. Four encore numbers in one concert. Photo by Anna Leah Sarabia.

On the whole, it was a thoroughly enthralled audience that the diva re-conquered after being absent in the Manila concert scene for almost two years.

From Purcell to Rossini, from Bellini to Donizetti and from Verdi to Rachmaninoff, Sumi Jo showed her audiences that singing is not just about operatic arias. The simple songs beautifully sang were just as delightful and gratifying.

As expected, music lovers were beside themselves with excitement.

Music enthusiast Jenny Llaguno: “Her rendition of Puccini was so heartbreaking it's like hearing it for the first time and being captivated for the first time.”

Journalist Alya Honasan: “What a beautiful, beautiful show by soprano Sumi Jo with flutist Tony Maigue, pianist Najib Ismael, and tenor Paul Galvez. What a gift! Her O mio babbino caro from Puccini's (from Gianni Schicchi) made me cry! “

Film critic Mario Hernando said the Korean diva’s performance left no doubt that the singer was a true bel canto interpreter of the highest order.

On the day of her arrival in Manila, the soprano announced she was donating her fee to the Tulay ng Kabataan Foundation which is taking care of abandoned children.

Sumi Jo applauding pianist Najib Ismail and flutist Tony Maigue. Excellent collaboration. Photo by Angel Nacino.

“I have good memories of my last concert in Manila and I was happy to have helped victims of Typhoon ‘Yolanda.’ This time I would like to help Filipino children and show people that I care a lot about promoting friendship between South Korea and the Philippines,” the soprano said.

Jo, the cultural envoy of her country and the ambassador for peace of UNESCO said she is concerned that there is so much publicity about a Korean killed in Manila and Koreans allegedly involved in the drug trade.

“There is more to Koreans than we read in the newspapers. We love music and the arts, and international competitions will show Koreans excel in music. I do believe music can do a lot to promote genuine friendship. For this reason, I want to give a good example by sharing what I have with less fortunate Filipino children. I hope to show my countrymen and my Filipino fans the meaning of sharing.”

A very pleased Carlitos Siguion Reyna, filmmaker said, "It was a wonderful concert and it's really great that she donated her services for the benefit of the NGO for the street kids. “

“Her heart is as large as her talent and artistry," he concluded.

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