A glimpse of the glorious past of Catanduanes is unraveled in the barely two year-old Catanduanes Museum in the old capitol building, one of the historic landmarks of the 12th largest island in the country.
On exhibit are the 1895 window panel from the ancestral house of Don Ariston Sarmiento, including his antique typewriter belonging to the same era; a 1914 baul donated by Maria Magno; old photos like the 1928 wedding of Jose Surban and Carmen Arcilla of Calolbon (now San Andres town) along with a 1938 Ballesteros-Santelices nuptials.
In those photos which clearly reflected the lifestyle of the island middle class, the gentlemen were in white suits with proper hats and the ladies looked like characters from The Great Gatsby. This must be the era when the island was virtual rainforest, when deers roamed the island and the houses of the middle class families (notably the Sarmientos and the Alcalas) reverberated with the music of Bach and Beethoven.
Another clue to the island musical past is the collection of old clarinet, tuba and violin donated by the island violin-maker Fructuoso Borja and from the old Tria Band.
Also on view in the new museum is a 1940s espejo (mirror) owned by island fashion designer Noli Rodrigueza, an honest-to-goodness Petromax, the bronze gas lamp of the 1940s and a photo of a 1953 picnic to the once idyllic Balongbong Falls.
A reflection of politics in the good old days was the photo of the highly revered Congressman Juan “Oban” Alberto addressing a plaza crowd of the 1950s, former President Marcos at the Virac airport and Mrs. Marcos in the island White House in the 60s.
The Marcos-Alberto ties (it lasted almost three decades) were that close it paved the way for a seaside boulevard named after the former first lady.
Museum head Carmel Bonifacio said more donations to the museum are most welcome with items like old artifacts and literature about the old Catanduanes, among others.
On the island’s musical front, it was the Publicos who started formal music lessons in the island in 1933, and virtually for a song.
Among the violin students was actor Dindo Fernando, who also hails from the island.
Designer Rodrigueza, who now works for the Museum, has links to the late actor who is Jose Chua in real life and fondly addressed as Pepito in barangay Salvacion.
Rodrigueza also designed the costumes of bold star Stella Suarez when she was still performing at Clover Theater and Maggie de la Riva when she was still guesting at the Manila Grand Opera House.
Another Clover mainstay was the island kundiman queen Carmen Camacho who jumped to national prominence after winning the Tawag ng Tanghalan.
The local cultural society is on the right track when it paid tribute to the island musicians among them are music teacher Gregorio Sarmiento; trombone player Fredesuelo “Tang Fred” Arcilla, 79, trumpet player for the past 55 years; banjo player Celestino Bernal, 87; and Nelia Molina-Vargas, 79, a singer who also directed comedias, veladas and the toki, a folk-theater interpretation of the search for the Holy Cross by St. Helena.
In the past, Catanduanes was a regular concert destination and among those who were warmly received by island audiences were pianists Reynaldo Reyes (first Filipino scholar at the Paris Conservatory); Ingrid Sala Santamaria (Aliw Awards Lifetime Achievement Awardee for Music along with Cecile Licad); violinists Donnie Fernandez and Joseph Esmilla; pianists Najib Ismail and Mary Anne Espina (now with the UST faculty); Mark Carpio (head of the Philippine Madrigal Singers); Lourdes de Leon (retired from the PPO); cellist Victor Michael Coo (based in Taiwan); baritone Noel Ascona (with the UST Singers); tenor Gary del Rosario (now with Seattle Opera); Zenas Reyes Lozada, National Artist Lucrecia Kasilag and Romania’s violin superstar Alexandro Tomescu.
Meanwhile, the island’s glorious musical past will be recalled anew with the opening of the 2013 Catanduanes Summer Music Festival featuring prizewinning young violinist Christian Tan and pianist Mary Anne Espina on March 16 and baritone Noel Azcona, flutist John Raymund Sarreal and pianist Najib Ismail.
Minerva Morales, president of Catanduanes State College, is trying hard to give the performing arts a decent venue by recommending that the former Catanduanes Cultural Center, built by former Representative Leandro Verceles Jr., be rehabilitated. It became a rice bodega even before it could be inaugurated and now the ceilings are about to give way and the entire venue, including a battered upright piano, are threatened by wind and floodwater.
There is no doubt that progress has come to the island with the advent of iphones and shopping malls, new hotels (including motels) and resorts.
The summer concert series is a reflection of the island’s glorious musical past.
Island music lover and old-timer, former vice-mayor Ariston ”Titong” Sarmiento, is hoping that progress does not get in the way of the islanders appreciating what he calls the “finer things in life.”