Classical pianist Victor Asuncion to aspiring artists: ‘Never stop learning’

He founded the FilAm Music Foundation in support of young artists.  Photo by Mike Grittani

By Maricar CP Hampton  

Three years ago, prolific classical pianist Victor Asuncion met a young violinist by the name of Adrian Nicolas Ong in New York City. He learned that Ong was already a “young artist to watch” back in the Philippines and that he was gathering praise wherever he performed.

The FilAm Music Foundation gave Ong the opportunity to realize what his goals were. He was invited to perform at a dinner soiree at the Manhattan residence of Ambassador   Claro Cristobal, then consul general in New York.

“He did not disappoint,” raved Asuncion. “He is incredibly gifted both technically and musically, and is also very humble and open to learning.”

The foundation that saw the potential in Ong has been nurturing a dozen other talents touted as next-generation Filipino classical musicians. It is celebrating its fourth year with a concert at Carnegie Hall. Asuncion, its founder, is pleased to see how a speck of an idea 20 years ago had become a purpose worth pursuing.

“I think it has always been in my mind: the idea of giving back,” said Asuncion sounding reflective.

As he recalled how the foundation came to be, his mind returned to the time he came to the United States in 1993 as a member of the UP Madrigal Singers whose founder and conductor Andrea “OA” Veneracion suggested “it was time I left the country to pursue musical studies abroad.”

He was then an in-demand piano player who played at gigs here and there and that he was known as a gifted student at the Philippine High School for the Arts. That he played “for the money” may have felt good at the time but Asuncion was eager for something more meaningful and worthy of his time.

In the U.S., he went right back to school not resting on his laurels as a prolific pianist.  To support his education, he gave piano lessons to FilAm children and came to meet the families that would later form his network of emotional, social and financial support.

Asuncion with Austrian cellist Jeremias Fliedl, one of the winners of the Queen Elizabeth Competition.

“Benny and Anita Jongco, and their amazing children Melissa, Kristen and Robert welcomed me into their home and treated me like family as I waited for the school year to begin,” he recalled. “Tito Benny and Tita Nanette rallied their friends to come to my support by organizing concerts, fundraisers, even garage sales to help me come up with funds to support my living expenses as I continued my studies. They also provided a home for me during the holidays when being alone in a foreign country was the toughest. 

“There’s Dr. Mars Custodio and his widow Tita Cora Custodio. Their unwavering support has always motivated me, and Tito Mars’ sudden demise pushed me to really turn my dream into fruition.”

He managed to complete his master’s degree in Piano Performance at the Manhattan School of Music in 1999, and later his doctorate in Musical Arts: Collaborative Piano at the University of Maryland at College Park in 2007.

The foundation was inspired by the kindness of families who saw the passion and brilliance in Asuncion. As his way of “paying it forward,” he created the FilAm Music Foundation in 2018 and registered it as a not-for-profit. Eleven young musicians of Filipino descent have been plucked from all across the country and offered assistance by way of training, introduction to other professional musicians, and private lessons.

The 11 are Adrian Ong, Ezra Escobar, Jay Julio, Carla Fortmann, Lorenzo Medel, Marian Mayuga, Brent Taghap, Michelle Mariposa, Stephen Joven Lee, Nathaniel Taylor, and Amanda Laborete.

On November 6, the foundation is holding a concert at Carnegie Hall. The Fil-Am Young Artist Showcase will feature a pair of young fellows, Stephen Joven Lee and Nathaniel Taylor, who will be performing chamber music along with the more established artists such as soprano Margarita Giannelli and Asuncion. He will be by the keyboard providing masterful accompaniment and cheering.

“Mentorship is part of what we do,” said Asuncion in an interview with The FilAm. We present them in performances, as well as offer some type of assistance in their quest for career advancement.”

With young artists after a concert. From left: Asuncion, violinist Marian Mayuga, mezzo soprano Michelle Mariposa, and pianist Stephen Joven-Lee

Reading notes at 13

Music may be his first love, but jealousy was his motivation.

“I was envious of my sister,” he said. “My dad bought her a piano I was so interested in the sound (it produced), but I was forbidden to touch it. My sister then was taking lessons, so I started copying what she was doing. I was playing by ear for the first two years until I learned to read notes when I was 13.”

“I’ve always found music in general to be moving whether it be tender, sad or angry emotions but of all the genres, classical music really spoke to me and really grabbed my attention,” he said.

His favorite classical musician is the late American cellist Lynn Harrell, a Grammy winner for chamber music performance. They met in 1999 when Asuncion began playing recitals with him at the Aspen Music Festival and School.

“He was a force in my life,” he said. “Every musical decision I make is influenced by what I learned from him. He was a friend, a confidante and a father figure.”

With pharmaceutical executive Ariel Porcalla, his partner of 23 years.  Photo by Jeff Ebert 

It saddens him that Filipinos do not have the same exposure to classical music unlike other nationalities who regard classical music as a springboard for their cultures.  He saw its emergence in the Filipino consciousness when Imelda Marcos was first lady in the 1970s and 80s, funding the building of cultural centers and discovering young classical-trained talents. “That doesn’t exist anymore,” he said as if in a lament. He has performed in concert halls in Brazil, Canada, Ecuador, France, Italy, Germany, and has played with world renowned classical artists.

“As a performer, I have had the privilege of performing with some of the most amazing musicians at some of the most amazing venues. I am not exactly slowing down per se, but I do see now the value in being more selective with the opportunities that I commit myself to,” he said.

He would love to see the foundation grow even bigger and reach a point where endowments will allow it to accomplish its mission and help more young people.

To aspiring musicians, he offers this morsel of wisdom: “Stop comparing your progress to others, their ability to your own abilities, whether they’re better or you’re better.  Compete with yourself and yourself alone. And never stop learning. Be a student for life. But above all, be a kind and decent human being.”

© The FilAm 2022

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