The Child Cellist

The Child Cellist

By DOM GALEON | Image courtesy of PABLO TARIMAN

Cellists are difficult to come by. It’s not because there are so few of them. Quite the contrary, there are a number of popular cellists. The cello, however, has often been overshadowed (ironically) by its more popular, smaller cousin, the violin. This does not mean that there is no beauty in the deeper, more somber sound of the cello.

Just as there are pieces made for the violin, there are also works composed for the cello, many of which have been popularized by cellists. Most notable among these, perhaps, is Yo-Yo Ma. Locally, we’ve had the likes of Wilfredo Pasamba and Filipino-American Raymond Sicam.

Giving new life to this classical instrument is Filipino musical prodigy Damodar Das Castillo. This young musician, only 12 years old, has been recognized here and abroad for his talents with the cello. He started playing with musical instruments at a very young age.

“I started the cello at five years old,” Damodar says. “Then I tried playing the guitar, piano, violin, and drums—all of which I still play today.”

At age seven, he joined the National Competition for Young Artists (NAMCYA) and became the youngest ever to have become a prizewinner. “I was happy but also sad because I didn’t win the first prize,” says Damodar. By then, he had become the youngest member and soloist of the Manila Symphony Junior Orchestra.

Things were only beginning for the young musician. He would go on to perform for a number of occasions with several heads of state present until he debuted for the Philippine Philharmonic Orchestra. In 2017, he won first place at the North International Music Competition (category 2). This was followed by another impressive feat the year after, when the MSJO with Damodar as one of its soloists, won the top prize at the 2018 Summa Cum Laude Music Festival in Vienna, Austria. Then, in 2019, Damodar won first place at the Talinn Young International Music Competition’s category B (for ages 11 to 13). His winning piece was Haydn’s “Cello Concerto in C,” which he performed with the chamber orchestra. Even with all of these, Damodar hardly considers himself a musical prodigy. “I don’t think I’m a musical genius,” he says, with the humility of a child, “because I’m not like Sarah Chang or Yo Kitamura.”

While he doesn’t consider himself to be at the level of his idols, Damodar continues to work hard and study music to be at par with them. He has not wasted every opportunity given to him to hone his craft. In 2018, he was granted a place at the prestigious Universität Mozarteum Salzburg in Austria where he came under the tutelage of Barbara Leubke.

Damodar got into the program thanks to his father, Alvin, who heard about the university during the Summa Cum Laude Music Festival in Vienna. The older Castillo sent a video of his son to the school’s screening committee, who were so impressed that they offered the young cellist a chance to learn under the head of the pre-college program. Recognizing Damodar’s genius in music, he was moved to the Mozarteum’s Leopold Mozart Institute, a special program for gifted children, where he will begin classes this coming winter. At present, Damodar is back in the Philippines and he had just recently performed at Nelly Garden in Iloilo, with pianist Dingdong Fiel.

When not busy with performances, the young musician follows a rigorous schedule. “I play the cello every day from 10 a.m. to 12 n.n., and then again from 4 p.m. to 5 p.m.,” he says. As much as Damodar is a genius, he is still a child, and his parents recognize this by letting him have a chance to enjoy and play games as much as he could. “When I’m not practicing with the cello, I wake up at 6:30 p.m. to do meditation, exercise, and then play. After lunch, I take a nap, then I play again when I wake up,” he adds. “I also spend time studying English and German and math. In the evening, I have a bit more time to play and watch TV.”

All of his hard work, which Damodar says is necessary for young musicians like him to be better, is geared toward his dreams. “I want to play at the Carnegie Hall, at Musikverein, and play with Misha Maisky and Yuja Wang. And I want to be in the finals of the International Tchaikovsky Competition,” he says. “To do these, I have to study and practice hard.

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