Culture Magazine

Mi Ultimo Adios, Now and Then

By Gibbs22manila @gibbscadiz
Now: The recent CCP Pasinaya 2011 promised that, for its finale, a “1,000-voice choir that includes the Madrigal Singeres will be accompanied by the UST Symphony Orchestra and the Philippine Philharmonic Orchestra in a performance of Rizal’s poem 'Mi Ultimo Adios' (My Last Farewell),” with music and choral arrangement by Ryan Cayabyab.
From where I sat, which was at the stratospheric second balcony of the CCP Main Theater (it was a full house--every seat was taken!), the gathered big choir onstage didn't look like it numbered a thousand members. But the sound it produced was still a mighty blast--Mi Ultimo Adios not as a sad farewell, but appropriately as a martyr's ringing call for his countrymen to rise to the full measure of his supreme sacrifice.
My only quibble: I'm familiar with the poem in its original Spanish, but even I couldn't make out what the choir was singing. I see this often enough in trained voices--gorgeous sound at the expense of clear enunciation. Here--watch. What do you think?

Then: I studied Spanish for three years in high school, and didn't learn a thing. Nada. Our minor seminary curriculum had all the DECS-mandated subjects, along with Latin and Spanish. Latin I took a liking to because, at its most basic, it helped me understand the origin and meaning of many words in the English language. And for a young boy already in thrall with writing, that supposedly dead language was like a key to new ways of thinking and expressing ideas.
Spanish? It was a bore. Even if it was an offshoot of Latin, I never got the hang of it. I would retain enough of the daily lessons for the recitation the next class, and then the mind was back to zero. Perhaps it was because we never had the environment to help the language take deeper root; we never used it outside of the classroom, and inside the attempts were often of the halting, hilariously pidgin kind.
In our junior year, our Spanish class teacher, Msgr. Palces, told us to memorize Mi Ultimo Adios--all 14 stanzas of it. We'd have to recite it individually in front of him as part of our final exams. Mamo Palces, as we called him, was then in his 60's, a small, gnome-like man with spectacles the thickness of magnifying glass, which somehow italicized both his brilliant mind and ornery disposition. He was known to fall asleep--or at least appear to--during mass or even in the middle of class, when one of us couldn't get his conjugations right.
Come finals day, we had to go to his room, sit in front of his big, glass-topped narra table, and recite Rizal's poem. As it happened, by the third stanza, Mamo Palces was already in dreamland. One by one, as soon as he shut his eyes, we would open our notes, placed strategically on our lap so he wouldn't see them from his end, and recite the poem off the page--of course, with a pause here and a stammer there to make it sound as if we were retrieving the lines from memory.
We passed the exams. In truth, I had managed to memorize the poem's first six stanzas, but, since everyone had been inducted into the charade, I took part in it as well, gleefully. Mamo Palces went to sleep for good a few years ago--a much-loved priest in our small diocese; I'm guessing he never found out how we aced his Spanish class. Decades later and I regret not having taken the subject seriously. What a thrill it would be to converse in the language spoken by Cervantes, Picasso, Neruda, Garcia Lorca, Almodovar--by Rizal himself, and by nearly a third of humanity today.
Don't ask me now to recite Mi Ultimo Adios--only the first few lines squiggle in my head. But, where before they were only a vexation, now they are, vividly and irreplaceably, a wellspring of happy memories: Adios, Patria adorada/ region del sol querida/ Perla del Mar de Oriente/ nuestro perdido Eden...
PLUS: The combined choirs sang another number after Mi Ultimo Adios, with young actor Cheeno Macaraig doing the solo part. Conducting the PPO-UST orchestras was Hermie Ranera. The finale program was directed by Tanghalang Pilipino Actors' Company member Riki Benedicto. Watch until the end for the crowd's effusive response to the close of CCP's whole-day patikim activity.

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