Noblesse oblige

I sometimes see myself as a meritocrat with an aristocratic streak. I believe that while we have an obligation to help people get out of poverty, etc., any decisions on who is to run the country should be solely based on merit and one’s origins. In a perfect world, the Platonist “philosopher-king” is the ideal, but the best we can do is to make sure it is difficult for anyone to claim any position of leadership in politics or business without proving one’s self or going through the most rigorous education one can offer.

So it is that people send their children to the Big Four universities in our country so that they have a better shot at being leaders. Of these four, three are private universities operating under the once-dominant religious tradition (now grasping at a pair of condoms) and one is the oldest public university (if one does not count Gov.-Gen. de la Torre’s attempt to establish one during his time). Our universities, especially those four, are burdened with having to correct the inadequacies of an educational system which is way behind the international norm not only in terms of quality, but also of quantity (we are the last country in the world to require ten years of basic education). The government claims not to have the money, of course, but can find time to give bags full of cash to its most loyal supporters.

But these universities, very much like in other civilized societies, have the burden of forming part of the governing class, the aristocratic element of it. Being part of this class not only gives one great power, but also great responsibility. The idea of noblesse oblige ensures that one does not forget that a good number of the governing class weren’t born with silver spoons, that one has the obligation to be responsible for the welfare of everyone else. It is this obligation that prevents the governing class from hogging everything for themselves. It ensures that, if properly exercised, society won’t go into grave instability.

It is with these thoughts in mind that I comment on today’s editorial in the Philippine Daily Inquirer where they allege two things:

1. Ticket scalping, as Recah Trinidad implied in an earlier piece for the paper, is a pernicious evil that must be stopped, and it is instigated at the highest levels of the Universities Athletic Association of the Philippines or by very powerful persons known to them but could not be prevented because they may be likely “on the take.”

2. The two universities are not exercising noblesse oblige. This is the most generous way I can interpret their very bitter comments about the game this afternoon being a “private party for the perfumed set.”

If that is the case, then I am quite ashamed of two of the Big Four, and those who are connected to them. In fact, I am ashamed of myself, since I came from one of them. But of course, that gives me reason to hope in that other society I believe in.

For that other society is one where the distinctions of class and origin disappear, where it is possible to be truly human in a way different from what this world can promise. It is a society where our dignity can be recognized not because we achieved something, but we were willing to be subject to a different type of lordship—one exercised in weakness and defeat on the Cross—and to share in that suffering, death, and resurrection.

Now that is change I can believe in. That is the Church I believe in.

“I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic Church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting.”

– The Baptismal, or Apostle’s Creed

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Rewrite the script

(I am posting this because, in defiance of an earlier decision not to talk about the UAAP basketball finals, something does have to be said.)

There is a script that this year’s University Athletics Association of the Philippines men’s basketball finals has to follow, in order that the finals would be more exciting and profitable for all concerned. Ateneo has to win Game One (which they did), La Salle has to win Game Two (which they hope to do tomorrow), and it’ll all come down to a Game Three this Saturday. This is a script I know is in a lot of people’s minds, because it’s the most logical and reasonable thing to expect. After all, if you want a true rematch, you’ve got to play it to the end.

But isn’t there anything better to do than to rewrite the script? Can’t it go the way we want? Isn’t the true underdog story that of a team who beats the odds and every historical fact against it happening? (Ateneo has not won a two-games-in-a-row championship since 1988, and neither has it beaten La Salle in all its games in a season season.)

If you ask me, this year really is the comeback. It can be said that the team learned from both the lucky break Ateneo de Manila got in 2002 and from the years thereafter when we could not make the finals. This is a team that plays with passion but is not burdened (as my friend Mike always points out) with the emotionalism that clouded past teams, a large number of whom came from the prep school attached to the university.

So why not rewrite the script, defy expectations, and make it happen? It is possible. It always is.

*****

And here’s another script: Because we don’t need humanism to advance in the world, progress in higher education comes from dumping unnecessary fields of study. European philosophy goes out the list, possibly literary criticism next, and so on. We can shut down departments of philosophy and history because they do stand in the way of progress, questioning our assumptions and forcing us to do needless and harmful thinking. We don’t need gadflies to stand in our path. So the mania for nursing and management courses, and English departments that will make us nothing more than better call center agents should continue.

And still another: Because the ways of the great Christian tradition are irrelevant to today’s young people and to the society at large, let’s get rid of unnecessary ritual. Let’s get rid of the Mass, or the liturgy. And all that old music is stodgy, dry, and dated, and people will go off to sleep. So let’s dump chants, Gregorian and otherwise, and hymns, and yes, even meditative music and start singing songs where one word spells the difference between what we sing in church and what we hear on pop music stations. It’s relevant and cool. And while we’re at it… dump the saints. Simplify religion. In fact, get rid of the church. We don’t need it to stand between us and God (even if, some of us are reminded, we are the church).

Can’t we rewrite those too?

And so the challenge of this century begins: as things rapidly change, the old certainties collapse, and the last gasp of modernity is being felt all over, it is time for us to rewrite the script.

Site of the month – Lutheranism and liturgy

My friend, Don Jon Alano, gave me this link to try and while it is just starting out, I think it looks promising if the author keeps his eye on the ball.

It may be of interest to note that Luther and Calvin had a strong sacramental and liturgical sense that their followers all but dumped. However, Lutheran liturgy seems to have thrived in the Swedish/Finnish Lutheran tradition—the term hogmesse is still being used for the principal Sunday act of worship.

Indeed, Don notes in a text received a few minutes ago that it is in the interest of ecumenism to read and encourage writers like Pastor Jack Whritenour in their efforts to keep the liturgy a part of our common ecumenical heritage.

*****

Will the bonfire be burning on Bellarmine Field? Abangan. But as I said some months back, I am Christian before I am Filipino, and Filipino before Atenean. And that is all.

Not a sound on the pavement

I’m writing at midnight, which is something I rarely do. The last time I did such a thing was when, if I recall correctly, I wrote about a play—and I honestly forgot what it was.

This might become a regular occurrence, of course, given that once a week, I am on the night shift.

*****

One of the things I do to relax is to listen to podcasts. iTunes has been my favorite companion at work, and I can get things like the news, programs on religion and theology, and Garrison Keillor’s “News from Lake Wobegon” monologue.

However, I have two particular podcasts whose episodes I have been downloading in recent days. One is Lynn Rosetto Kasper’s The Splendid Table, a weekly radio program from American Public Media (the producers of A Prairie Home Companion), and the other is the Celtic and Irish Music Podcast. The latter is an accidental discovery, which I found through a search for podcasts.

You can download them and find out for yourself why I like listening to them. Just a word about Kasper’s show: she’s one of the most interesting food personalities I have seen/heard, and her enthusiasm for food is infectious. And she likes chicken adobo. She mentioned this in a March 2008 episode, in an account of a visit to the Honolulu Filipino market.

*****

And here’s a classic midnight prayer:

Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch, or weep this night, and give your angels charge over those who sleep.

Tend the sick, Lord Christ; give rest to the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the joyous; and all for your love’s sake. Amen.

(Attributed to Augustine of Hippo, from the service of Compline in the 1979 American BCP.)

In the light of recent events in the financial world and elsewhere…

“Jesus told his disciples, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?’”

– Mt. 16:24-26, esp. v. 26 (NRSV)

I am sorry if I had not been posting as often as I wanted, but I had been thinking about a lot lately to write about it publicly.

Something’s coming

This is a review of the musical West Side Story staged by Stages Productions at the Meralco Theater. The performance took place at the Meralco Theater on 5 September 2008 at 8:30 p.m., and starred Christian Bautista as Tony and Joanna Ampil as Maria. The play was directed by Marilou Lauchengco-Vera and music provided by the PhilharmoniKa orchestra, conducted by Gerard Salonga.

The musical is based on the 1981 Philippine staging, which is based in part on the 1961 film directed by Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise. Some of the songs in the film are reordered from the 1957 Broadway original production, as is in the current Philippine production.

I am listening to the soundtrack of the film version of West Side Story tonight as I’m writing this. I have seen the film several times, first as a kid (probably eight) who barely understood it. It is still one of the best musicals for me, because musically, it still has its charms. And it was indeed a pace-setter; I would say that a Bat Boy or a Rent would not have been possible without West Side confronting issues like racism, poverty, criminal delinquency, and social disparities. This is set amidst brilliant choreography by Jerome Robbins and, of course, Leonard Bernstein’s incidental music and songs with lyrics by a young Stephen Sondheim. 

However, I have only seen West Side on stage once before 5 September, when our high school batch was required to watch an earlier staging at the same theater (Meralco) about thirteen or fourteen years ago. It featured a staging that was faithful to the original libretto; the key is how “Somewhere,” the musical’s big hit song, is performed therein. In the original, which was done in the first production I saw, it was sung by a voice off-stage. The current production, which is based on a 1981 revival which my dad saw, features “Somewhere” sung as a ballet in a dream sequence, which is based on how Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins staged it in the movie version.

I must admit that I was excited about this. When Minnie Fong, representing the cancer charity Kythe, sent out word that they would be sponsoring the opening night, I did not hesitate to let her know. But what made me really look forward to this production was a clip I saw, of Leonard Bernstein himself conducting Jose Carreras and Dame Kiri te Kanawa in “One Hand, One Heart.” This made me pay attention to what was important: the music.

Because, after all, as two of my friends and I discussed this morning, it indeed would be difficult to put a celebrity like Christian Bautista alongside the likes of Joanna Ampil, a veteran of the Philippine Opera Company. The disparity is indeed noticeable; while Bautista is a good singer, getting the cadences and volume changes of, say, “Something’s Coming,” right, I noted that he lacks the edge needed to be a good Tony, a Romeo role which involves the right amount of grit at the right moment. To his credit, his duets with Joanna Ampil were among the better musical moments of the night.

My first big flush of praise is for the show’s Maria, Joanna Ampil. She was one of the most consistent performers of the evening. She played Maria with energy and youthful vigor, and yes, I think she could match Natalie Wood’s performance in the film. And she exuded the right amount of naivete to play the role, which is based on Juliet, herself quite a young character.

Of course, the chief technical problem of the night was the sound system. The microphones weren’t working properly during Act One, especially those of the ensemble, thus making their contributions inaudible. And in Act Two, the scene with “A Boy Like That/I Have A Love,” was marred by static from the microphones. I wonder if the problems have been fixed by yesterday night, but I am sure that they would. (Those watching future showings, please tell me.)

But I would save the highest amount of praise for the musicians, led by Gerard Salonga. I was told that he offered to conduct this without charge, and I would admit it would be a huge honor to do one of the best scores of an American musical in the 20th century. And they did justice to the score. In fact, thanks to the Bernstein clip, I listened intently to all the elements, vocal and instrumental, in “One Hand, One Heart,” and I should say, by George, I think they got it! In fact, I took to listening to the orchestra when I could not bear the technical problems.

My recommendation? I would like readers to watch it. It is understandable that in order to sell a musical ‘round these parts, one must have a marquee name not necessarily connected to the world of theater, but one must watch it because of what it has to offer: a feast for our eyes and ears. Especially the ears.

Better yet, I urge you not to watch it alone. It is the sort of play that makes you want to talk to your companion during the interval and right after. And I am grateful that I had a friend who was also into musicals and gladly shared this night with me.

A final word: I suspect that a fifth of the audience that night have not even seen the 1961 Academy Award ™ winning film, so they may realize by now that “I Feel Pretty,” sung as part of Adam Sandler’s therapy in Anger Management, is from West Side Story. A new generation of theater-goers will hopefully get to enjoy this play, and for that I am very grateful to the producers.