MANILA, Philippines - Above the din coming from cafés, from screams of children chasing each other, from chattering passers-by, from jingles and rock tunes blaring in fast-food chains, Cecile Licad rose. The goddess of the piano, dressed in shimmering silver paints a la Liberace, mastered the keyboard, as usual, sans speakers. Through her long fingers pounding, flying, gliding, she sang her heart out, she poured her soul, she shared with every melody, cadence, and nuance her own ups and downs in life.
Cecile Licad, indeed, has matured a lot since the first time she concertized at nine. Now, for the first time, she was performing solo in a park in a mall for free. The venue was the open space on the fourth floor of Ayala’s Trinoma mall in Quezon City. It was a hot Sunday in March 2010, towards sunset, a time when lovers, servants, groupies and families go out. Cecile had to muster full concentration, she had to focus hard, she wasn’t allowing any accidental sound distract her. Cecile visibly had fun playing to a new set of audience — her kababayan who couldn’t afford entrance tickets.
She was warmly applauded for her flawless rendition of the Scherzo, Etude, Nocturne and Valse of the Poet of the Piano, Frederic Chopin. Her interpretation of Francisco Buencamino’s Kumintang, Mayon, Harana and Larawan was also very well-received, what with their lilting tunes in intricate and complicated arrangement and with highly recognizable Filipino flavor. Despite a few out-of-tune keys of the piano, Cecile returned the audience’s sincere appreciation with not one or two but four encores!
Incidentally, Franz Schubert played in the streets to anyone who cared to listen. Other composers played in saloons to a drunken audience. Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Leo Tolstoi and other fictionists serialized their novels in popular magazines because they needed money. Lualhati Bautista, Edgardo Reyes, etc. had their works appear in installments in local magazines. Many of what had been considered pulp fiction have now become classics.
And now, she doesn’t confine herself to performing to the bejeweled and well-heeled . She’s insistent on going to the provinces and the malls, where only movie stars and pop singers perform! Except for the Podium, no other mall has seriously and regularly staged classical singers, pianists and symphony orchestras.
It, actually, wasn’t the first time Cecile performed gratis in a public place. Years ago, she played at the Concert at the Park at the Rizal Park (formerly Luneta). How did she feel moving out of the air-conditioned halls and into a space full of benches where sat the curious and gaping masa in clogs and slippers? Unfortunately, this piano genius doesn’t remember what she played, how she felt or how the audience reacted.
She finds her first public appearance in Cebu memorable, however. It was her very first plane ride. She liked the atmosphere, she found it “natural ang dating.”
Her last provincial performance in March 2010, in Nueva Ecija, was inside a hall. She reflects: “You know the people can listen better in a hall, you feel a connection. In the malls, you have to focus hard because you’re competing with video games, noises from restaurants, etc., but it helps me connect to the real world and better my performance in concert halls.
“At Trinoma, it’s open air, there are no vibrations, the sound system is bad, the notes fall flat and dissipate. In a hall, I feel the sound.”
Unlike other performers who ham it up by closing their eyes, wrinkling their noses, pouting, and faking sadness or grief, pretending and acting, Cecile irrepressibly connects to the people, touches them, and moves the earth under their feet. For Cecile, from her mobile, expressive face to her toes, is all heart, all feeling.
She must have played her best, for instance, some years back one or two days after her father, Dr. Jesus Licad, passed away. In another concert, during her breakup with ex-husband, Brazilian cellist Antonio Meneses, she seemed to be pouncing on Antonio when she displayed power in a fortissimo. Still, in another performance, she was like prancing with children in a fairy tale.
She has observed that in the provinces, the audiences don’t go by the rules, they clap when they like what they hear. “In the provinces, the people immediately get or appreciate what I’m playing.” And that’s because she tells a story on the piano, she plays what comes to her mind in telling the story. She may think of the wind or of the rain or of the rustling of trees, and she reproduces it through sound.
She wonders aloud why people come to see her play. Well, aside from her being a celebrity, Filipinos are by nature musical. It’s also because she can relate to ordinary people. “I’ve always spoken Tagalog. I eat rice, sinigang, sili, bagoong every day. I like what ordinary people like, so I relate to them. I am simple-minded. I am not rich, my only wealth is my music.”
She also finds cooking relaxing, she enjoys going to the grocery, food hunting, discovering new food and restaurants, watching drama movies and chismis.
What about personal tragedies and relationships? “They definitely help in improving one’s performance…Love life? Anong pakialam nila?! When I have no problem, I make problems. For instance, I think of how to play a certain piece. Sometimes I cry just to get something from inside of me.”
Turning 50 on May 11, Cecile still smokes a lot and trudges and stomps around in comfortable T-shirts, shorts and rubber shoes. But when occasion calls for dressing up, she wows the audience with her classy gowns and her bedimpled smile. And she cries easily. Why? “Hormones?” she quips with her throaty, hearty laughter
Much has been said about her musical inheritance from her mother’s side, the Buencaminos. How many know that Cecile has also inherited her musical genes from her father’s side? Her greatgrandpa Tiburcio Licad was a good clarinetist and a flutist. Grandpa Fermin Licad was a well-known choirmaster and tenor in Pampanga. Lolo Fermin’s two sisters were pianists and organ players.
Dr. Jesus Licad’s sister, Gloria Licad Lanot, is a pianist and a retired music teacher from the University of the Philippines College of Music. She finished Music, major in Piano at the St. Scholastica’s College, and was praised by her professors at Chicago Musical College, where she obtained her M.A. in Piano. Tita Gloria also got an M.A. in Music Education at the UP College of Music.
All nine Licad siblings knew how to play the piano, but only at family gatherings for sheer fun and entertainment. It was Dr. Licad who played classical records when Cecile was still in her mother’s womb, and then while baby Cecile was asleep and awake. In the related arts, she has had Licad first cousins and aunts before TV and movie cameras.
Now, her son Otavio Licad Meneses, 22, who’s based in the US, and who likes Elvis Presley, plays the piano very well (when his mother isn’t around), and is taking up Philosophy, is Cecile’s friend and listener. They always talk about music, literature and philosophy. “He is my best critic at the moment. He totally supports me,” beams Mom Cecile.
Cecile has found a haven for practising, while in the Philippines, in the house of actor-scriptwriter Bibeth Orteza and hubby director Carlitos Siguion-Reyna, whose piano Cecile admires for its superb sound. During this interview, Cecile noted that she stood ninang for the first time at the baptism of her nephew, writer and sometimes actor Kris Lanot Lacaba. She was a chubby 10-year-old in thick eyeglasses. Bibeth, on the other hand, was principal sponsor late last year at the wedding of Kris and writer-teacher Francezca Kwe.
Here’s Cecile Licad on herself:
“I take risks, do my own interpretation. Sometimes my playing creates a discussion. They say, ’She shouldn’t play like this or she shouldn’t play like that…’ I try to find a balance. I do my own way of playing, but at the same time I want to relay the message I think the composer intends. I play what comes naturally, I play like I’m story-telling. I want to portray the story in a simple way, in a way that comes from my soul and goes to the sound I make and to the people.”
“I have to work on my skills to be able to express what I think the music should sound like. Wala namang wrong sa art, di ba? I have to work on my courage to show what I believe in. I’m just human, I’m not a CD player.”
“You cannot predict me. What’s important is how I feel and play at the moment. I think differently, next time, maybe I play differently. I’m always discovering my own language.”
“I’ve changed, I don’t expect anything anymore like standing ovation. I just play for the love of it.”