A Trailblazing Orchestra of Filipino Expats

FASO in one of its Christmas concerts at the White Memorial Church in Los Angeles. (Photo by Ricky Gavino)

FASO in one of its Christmas concerts at the White Memorial Church in Los Angeles. (Photo by Ricky Gavino)

Some drive as long as two to three hours, depending on the traffic, just to attend rehearsals. Most of them have daytime jobs but on certain nights, no matter how tired they are in pursuit of the American Dream, they drop everything to practice with the Filipino American Symphony Orchestra (FASO).

These are the dedicated 55-plus members of FASO, the only Filipino symphony orchestra outside of the Philippines. The trailblazing Los Angeles-based orchestra is a non-profit organization. So for many members, it’s their simple passion for music that drives them to endure long commutes to attend evening rehearsals, after their regular jobs, in a Fil-Am community hall or a rented church auditorium.

Coming from various sectors of the Fil-Am community, of various ages and degrees of musical experience – from students to professionals, from newly-arrived immigrants to first, second and third generations of Fil-Ams – the musicians somehow have melded into one cohesive orchestra in each of FASO’s previous 10 major concerts.

FASO in one of its performances for the Fil-Am community. (Photo by Ricky Gavino)

FASO in one of its performances for the Fil-Am community. (Photo by Ricky Gavino)

The group continues to grow and evolve since FASO’s historic first concert on May 17, 2009 at the Saban Theatre in Beverly Hills.

That first show, and FASO itself, began from a simple back-porch conversation between Roger Oriel, Asian Journal (AJ) publisher, and Lito Ocampo Cruz, then editor-at-large of AJ’s magazine, Balikbayan. Lito asked Roger if there was a Pinoy symphony orchestra outside of the homeland. From that chat, several musicians worked together to create the precedent-setting orchestra, with AJ’s financial assistance.

Today, FASO is run by an independent board, headed by its president Arlene Ferrolino, a piano teacher by day and church musician on weekends, and 11 board directors who are dedicated to keeping the orchestra alive for many generations of Fil-Ams to enjoy. The board also implements the orchestra’s music programs, which include a series of music workshops for all ages in summer.

The FASO board (from  left to right): Ruben Nepales, Titus Verzosa, Claire Espina, Robert Shroder, Luis Ramos, Edwin Raquel, Carmelita O'Neil, Arlene Ferrolino (president), John Mina, Susan Legaspi, Rocio Nuyda and Asuncion Ojeda. (Photo by Ricky Gavino)

The FASO board (from  left to right): Ruben Nepales, Titus Verzosa, Claire Espina, Robert Shroder, Luis Ramos, Edwin Raquel, Carmelita O'Neil, Arlene Ferrolino (president), John Mina, Susan Legaspi, Rocio Nuyda and Asuncion Ojeda. (Photo by Ricky Gavino)

Audiences have flocked to FASO’s shows, which showcased music ranging from classical to spiritual songs, from kundiman to Broadway, in venues that are just as diverse – from the Pasadena Civic Auditorium to the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels to the Hilton Glendale ballroom.

The trailblazing FASO in a concert at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in downtown Los Angeles. (Photo by Ricky Gavino)

The trailblazing FASO in a concert at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in downtown Los Angeles. (Photo by Ricky Gavino)

Robert Shroder, more popularly known as Bob in the community, who has successfully led FASO as the conductor and musical director in its warmly received concerts, is as Filipino as you and me. He grew up in a musical family in Kawit, Cavite, and went on to become the principal flutist of the Manila Symphony Orchestra before joining the Manila Chamber Orchestra.

Robert "Bob" Shroder conducts the Filipino American Symphony Orchestra (FASO), the only Filipino symphony orchestra outside of the  Philippines. (Photo by Ricky Gavino)

Robert "Bob" Shroder conducts the Filipino American Symphony Orchestra (FASO), the only Filipino symphony orchestra outside of the  Philippines. (Photo by Ricky Gavino)

FASO’s gain was the U.S. Navy’s loss. In 1991, the University of the Philippines alumnus, who was then working as a freelance musician and a financial analyst in the U.S., nearly signed up for military service.

“I was one signature away from becoming a musician in the U.S. Navy,” Bob said, “geared to be with the Naval Academy Band and the White House Orchestra. My father was in the Navy and requested me to try something else as a musician in a civilian life, not in the military. I was so frustrated at that time because I thought being a Navy musician was the best opportunity for me pero ayaw ng tatay ko (my father didn’t want me to). But I followed the request of my old man who was very sick. Now, I have no regrets because there’s FASO. That might be one of the reasons from above why I decided to cancel my naval career.”

Like many FASO musicians, Bob holds a day job. He is an IT consultant who has worked at studios like 20th Century Fox and Warner Brothers.

Singer Djhoanna "Giji" Garcia rehearses with FASO musical director and conductor, Robert Shroder (Photo by Ricky Gavino)

Singer Djhoanna "Giji" Garcia rehearses with FASO musical director and conductor, Robert Shroder (Photo by Ricky Gavino)

Luis “Louie” Ramos, FASO board vice president and arranger-in-residence, is a computer scientist.

Percussionist Christian Buado, who brings a trailer full of percussion instruments to rehearsals and performances, is a criminal investigator.

Violinist/pianist Rafael Nuguid has a completely different career at daytime: he is a software engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab.

When not fiddling with their violins, these members have office jobs: Mel Bolosan (accountant) and Jennifer Banawa O’Brian (Human Resources professional).

French horn player Edwina Rao is a public health professional. Trumpetist Richie Gonzaga, a new immigrant in the U.S., is a former member of the San Miguel Philharmonic Orchestra.

On November 14, these musicians and the rest of FASO are returning to the landmark Alex Theatre in Glendale, where the group had a vigorously applauded and cheered concert, “FASO Goes Broadway” last April. This time, as the show’s title says, “FASO Goes Pops!”

FASO Goes Pops! (Image courtesy of FASO)

FASO Goes Pops! (Image courtesy of FASO)

“We are very excited about this show because we are extensively featuring pop music for the first time – both mainstream and OPM,” said Louie. “And we will be honoring iconic Fil-Am composers in the show.”

These are Oscar-winner Robert Lopez (“Let It Go”), Cecile Azarcon (“Lift Up Your Hands”), Odette Quesada (“Give Me a Chance” and “Till I Met You”), SJ Gandia (“Tayo ay Pilipino” and “Hanggang Huli’y Ikaw”), Aaron Paul del Rosario (“Minsan Lang Kitang Iibigin”) and Dodjie Simon (“Tatak ng Pilipino” and “Ikaw Lamang”). Most of these celebrated U.S.-based songwriters are expected to attend the concert.

In keeping with its tradition of spotlighting emerging talents, FASO is giving outstanding performers, some of whom are as young as six years old (Sophie Nack, who plays Sadie in NBC's new sitcom, “Truth Be Told”), a chance to sing cherished pop songs with the orchestra.

The singers who passed three rounds of intensive auditions are Bryce Gomez; Ian Chen, who plays Evan Huang in ABC's “Fresh off the Boat”; Gabrielle Current, 2015 Rose Parade princess; Jokai Dawson, who will be performing “Billie Jean”; Sydney Haik; Gian Paolo Jimenez; Michael Keith Pronda; Mikaela Bautista; Therese Masangcay; Denise Gonzales; Shelby Miguel; Kaitlyn Fajilan; and Daryl Ogalino, ABS-CBN's “TFCkat USA” Grand Singing Champion 2012 and “Tawag ng Tanghalan” Grand Singing Champion 2008.

Broadway actress Joan Almedilla performs with the orchestra in the well-received "FASO Goes Broadway" at the Alex Theatre in Glendale. (Photo by RIcky Gavino)

Broadway actress Joan Almedilla performs with the orchestra in the well-received "FASO Goes Broadway" at the Alex Theatre in Glendale. (Photo by RIcky Gavino)

These talents will join Dennis Jardiel, Erwin Andaya, Mike Zuniga, Nilo Alcala and Sharon Rose Orosco as guest vocalists.

Also performing is the FASO Children Ensemble, composed of Sophie, Andreas Makiling, Elizabeth Cruz, Casteen Legaspi, Nicole Padilla, Jolleen Mejia and Sabrina Evangelista.

Tagumpay “Pi” de Leon, son of the late composer and National Artist Felipe de Leon (whose Tagalog translation of “Lupang Hinirang,” the Philippines’ national anthem, has been used since the 1960s), explained why he keeps coming back to play the contrabass in FASO’s concerts.

“I enjoy playing and mingling with fellow musicians who have the same passion for music like I do,” said the retired power systems analyst of the City of Glendale and co-founder of the Rondalla Club of Los Angeles. “I’m proud of what FASO represents – being the first Fil-Am orchestra in the U.S. and creating a positive image for Filipinos. We also prove that Filipinos are world-class musicians.”


Ruben V. Nepales

Ruben V. Nepales

Ruben V. Nepales is the first Filipino member of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association and the first Filipino elected chairman of the board (he served in 2012) of the organization which votes on and presents the Golden Globe Awards. The author of the book, "My Filipino Connection: The Philippines in Hollywood," writes the column, "Only In Hollywood," in the Philippine Daily Inquirer.