Cecile Licad debuts with ABS-CBN Philharmonic

Pablo A. Tariman (The Philippine Star) - April 20, 2013 - 12:00am

MANILA, Philippines - There are recurring images of Cecile Licad rewinding in my mind as the pianist prepares for her debut with the ABS-CBN Philharmonic Orchestra on June 29.

To be sure, her program — Liszt’s Piano concerto No. 1 and Totentanz for Piano and Orchestra — she has never played in Manila.

I’ve known Cecile for 38 years to be exact and my thoughts turn to the 14-year-old girl I met in Legazpi City one August day in 1975, when she mesmerized the Albayanos with her Mozart, Ravel and Chopin.

I recall a chubby teener who loved to crack pili nuts and romp around the corridors of St. Agnes Academy in between the matinee and gala performances. The school administrator must have mistaken her for just another idler, because she was curtly told, “Stop running around that piano because Ms. Licad is going to rehearse!”

 She gently answered the poor Benedictine nun: “Sister, I am Cecile Licad.”

Less than a month after that Legazpi meeting, I was greeting her backstage at the CCP main theater after a grueling evening of Bach and Ravel concertos. I don’t recall having seen any trace of fatigue on the countenance of the 14-year-old prodigy then.

I have no idea how long Cecile enjoyed her teen years, or when and how it abruptly ended. All I know is that she grew up memorizing and perfecting etudes, concertos and sonatas and getting standing ovations and rave reviews for the effort. Now, how’s that for a childhood?

When I had a chance to see her West End New York apartment in 1996, I saw framed pictures of various scenes from her childhood, but no photos documenting her New York and European conquests.

I have visited the scenes of her artistic triumphs in New York: The Avery Fisher Hall and the Alice Tully Hall at the Lincoln Center, and the Carnegie Hall. Posing at the entrance of Carnegie Hall, I thought of her brief meeting — actually the last — with the late Leonard Bernstein, and his unforgettable last words, “So, when are we going to work together?”

During a brief stopover in Washington D.C. in the mid-’90s, I had images of her playing the second movement from the Saint-Saens concerto as she shared the Kennedy Center stage with soprano Leontyne Price and actress Meryl Streep. In the audience were a beaming Rudolf Serkin and Ronald Reagan.

After three decades of hobnobbing with the rich and famous, the pianist has remained passionately glued to her art and is now a hundred times more meticulous as a mother and artist. Rehearsing a Brahms concerto once, she cut a restless figure as her son was going through a bout of asthma.

I have seen her worried to death about choosing a piano — which one is suitable for Brahms — in the same breath, inquiring about the best asthma doctor in town. I had the feeling the son shared the pressure faced by his famous mom every time she prepares for a performance.

Like getting the best physician for her son, Cecile considers it most crucial to get the right piano for a concert piece. The first order of the day when the artist arrives for a performance is to check the available pianos.

Over at the CCP where she has no choice, she examines all the pianos and checks their individual sound. On one piano, she plays a passage from a Mozart concerto and goes on to check another one. On another, she tries a passage from a Chopin concerto. Still unsatisfied, she might ask, “Hindi ba tunog lata?” (Doesn’t this sound like a tin can?)

She will confer with the piano tuner and tell him exactly what she wants. Only when she gets the right sound will she rule the piano worthy to be part of the performance — because there is a piano good for Chopin and a piano fit for Brahms and not quite ideal for Mozart. And if there are choices, there can be no compromise.

In her book, a good part of a performance depends on a good piano, and no amount of excellent playing can make up or cover up for a bad piano. In fact, during an outreach engagement in Legazpi on Aug. 19, 1997, a full (9-ft.) grand piano traveled with her to Mayon Volcano country.

Of course, she has gotten used to myriad of accolades worldwide but to her, the most memorable was the standing ovation she got at age seven at Philamlife Theater playing with the University of the East Student Orchestra under National Artist for Music Antonino Buenaventura.

For me, the Cecile Licad magic remains — not because of titles and citations — but because of the way she has touched her audience worldwide for over three decades.

Cecile has lost track of rave reviews but personal letters from friends and acquaintances after a performance have a special place in her heart.

One such letter came from Japanese pianist Ken Noda, who performed for the Kennedys in one White House gala and is now the assistant of James Levine at the Metropolitan Opera: “Dear Cecile. I was so thrilled by your concert that I had to leave this note for you. When I see my friends play like you did, I feel proud and on top of the world. It gives me inspiration! Strength! And a wonderful kind of appetite for music and life. I will keep replaying the concert during my trip in my head and my heart and will see you all when I come home.”

Next month (May 11) is Cecile’s birthday which happens to be Mother’s Day.

She recalls the years she became a mother herself and the transition she had to go through: “She stopped treating me like a daughter and more like a younger sister. I could see through her weakness and she could see through mine. When we were together, there was no need to express things. We could see through each other. Suddenly, we were not just mother and daughter. Suddenly we were also friends. She knew about my first crushes, she knew who were trying to court me and she knew the man I got serious with and got married to. It was to my mother that I broke the bad news that my marriage was over. When I decided that I’d be happy being single and with music as my ‘permanent husband,’ my mother supported me all the way.”

Her mother’s influences on her?

“On the deeper side, I like the way my mother thinks and how she reasons out. She has a very deep emotion and she has a special way of expressing it through music. For her, music is not just all about notes. It has to convey many things — message, emotion. In other words, music should communicate. When I was young, my mother would tell stories to bring out the message of the music and my actor-brother, Albert, would act it out. My mother was a good storyteller. On top of that, she taught me special insight into the nature of music and what it should convey. In that sense, my mother has influenced me a lot because I don’t believe in mechanical playing. I always need to convey something to the audience when I play. On the whole, I feel lucky to have someone I can still confide to at this phase of my personal and musical life. My mother is turning 83 this year and I suppose a large part of her life went to making sure I become the artist I am now.”

(Tickets to the Cecile Licad-ABS CBN concert on June 29 are now available at selected major National Bookstore branches in Metro Manila. Call 891-9999.)

  • Latest
  • Trending
Are you sure you want to log out?

Philstar.com is one of the most vibrant, opinionated, discerning communities of readers on cyberspace. With your meaningful insights, help shape the stories that can shape the country. Sign up now!

or sign in with