The Pianist and I
SCENES FROM 40 YEARS OF HER ART AND LIFE
by Pablo A. Tariman
I first met pianist Cecile Licad at the Cagsawa Church Ruins in Daraga, Albay one day in August of 1975 when she was only 14.
That was the year she performed at the St. Agnes Academy in Legazpi City.
I got married in the same Albay tourist attraction eight months earlier when I was 26.
But on the night I first heard her with a PNR train hooting in the middle of Ravel’s Sonatine, I also got married to her music.
It’s been forty years since I met her in Albay and here I am am, a 67-year old music fan, suddenly reflecting on our first meeting forty years ago.
I recall that I was carried away by the performance of a then 14-year old Cecile that I made a radio program out of that recorded performance on a cassette in one radio station.
My first Licad interview and came out on the front page of the Bicol Chronicle and that recorded performance would always begin and end my day in Albay. (Now I am in frantic search of that Jurassic cassette which probably perished along with my first cellphone the size of a short bond paper.)
In the late 70s when I was still based in Albay, I got to see CCP concerts through complimentary train rides courtesy of then PNR head Nicanor Jimenez, father of PDI editor Letty J. Magsanoc.
What were the highlights of those 40 years of life listening to her music?
I was able to monitor not just her music but her personal life as well.
I got to meet her husband, Brazilian cellist Antonio Meneses (gold medalist in the Tchaikovsky Competition) and I toured them not just in Manila but in Bacolod, Zambales, Tagaytay and Cebu, among others.
I have a ringside view of her as a mother and I remember attending a CCP rehearsal of a Tchaikovsky concerto with her carrying a stroller and feeding bottles for her young Otavio.
I stood helpless in her hotel room with her asking me how to cure her son’s asthma as she prepares for a Brahms concerto at the CCP. I told her I just take a long walk at the beach and soon it’s gone.
When Otavio was ten, he was our pre- and post-concert entertainer. Relaxing with beer after her Mom’s engagement, he could regale us with his own brand of one-man shows. He mimic another pianist play Variations on a Theme by Paganini, he could mimic a rich music patron, delicate walk and all and yes, even his own Mom and the former first lady.
In one outreach concert in Dumaguete City, her lola, Mrs. Rosario B. Licad, had stomach ache after our hearty lunch of seafood in Cebu. In the dead of night, I scoured Dumaguete’s streets looking for a drug store.
Next day in Dumaguete, another drama unfolded on the day of the concert in the level of “Black Swan” and “Turning Point.”
Cecile didn’t like the huge Steinway grand that sounded like a harpsichord and I again went out looking for substitute piano in the houses of well-off music lovers. None exists but two would have sufficed but owners insisted not all my big music connections would make her say yes to the piano leaving their beautiful abodes.
When I returned to the theater, Cecile was doing some ironing of some sort in the inside part of the piano. “Pablo,” she insisted. “This piano won’t just work. My fingers are close to bleeding but no sound would come out. I guess you just have to cancel the concert.”
This led to a near bloody exchange between the music department head and the pianist.
Otavio approached me when he heard her Mom’s outburst which went thus: “Pablo, sino ba yang p-ing yan?”
Confused, Otavio managed to ask me, “Pablo, what does pu- mean?”
I wanted to laugh with that question asked in all pure innocence but it was a heated situation.
Otavio’s grandma, Mrs. Rosario Licad, turned to the pianist and implored, “Cecile, “Maawa ka naman kay Pablo. Think of the tickets Pablo will reimburse. Concert is almost sold out.”
The pianist gave me another look and she was probably alarmed. I looked like it was my last day on earth. “Okay Pablo. So there is nothing we can do. I will agree to perform only if you do this: make a polite speech before the concert asking the school to buy a good piano after this concert. I don’t know how you will put this but tell them I am performing on a bad piano.”
I was composing a speech just a few hours before the concert and thanks to the Divine Providence, the concert went well, bad piano and all. It turned out the piano was kept in a bodega with leaking roof for many months.
Indeed, Cecile loved going to the provinces when she’s done with her Manila concerts.
I was witness to countless standing ovations in Cebu, Bacolod, Legazpi City, Davao City (courtesy of impresario Margie Moran Floirendo), Nueva Ecija, Zambales, Tagaytay, and Tuguegarao City among others.
One of my last outreach concerts with her was probably the most dramatic.
Held in this resort near the birthplace of Emilio Aguinaldo, the concert preparations went well with Cecile telling me, “Pablo, how did you find this excellent venue?”
She rehearsed while I rearranged the seats for patrons and regular ticket buyers.
With a good venue and a good piano courtesy of Ray Sison’s ROS Music Center, Cecile said she’d take a good rest and then asked me to knock at her room two hours before performance.
But as the pianist was resting, I heard the sound of fire trucks. Where could that be?
What I didn’t realize was that the venue that I prepared earlier was on fire.
My panic was not so much on the venue as on the thought of a grand piano costing millions perishing in that fire.
The most relaxed face that day was the piano owner, the flutist-piano dealer who told me to relax as the piano was insured anyway.
Fire was temporarily contained but we could no longer use the venue.
With a concert happening in two hours, I inspected an alternative venue, found it good enough and we started re-arranging chairs.
Music lover Irene M. Araneta wondered how the concert could happen with fire trucks all over the place.
I breathed deeply and told myself: I can’t panic. Do what you can manage.
When I went to Cecile’s room, she knew something was wrong with my countenance. But I managed to tell, “’Cile, you are performing in another venue?”
“What?| she exploded. “What happened to the venue you prepared?”
“It was partially damaged by fire Cile,” I muttered.
“Pablo, I cannot just perform anywhere. Can I be heard in that new venue?”
“I tested the acoustics Cile. It’s not bad. But Ray (Sison) said the was better than the damaged venue.”
Cecile let out a deep breath and said, “Okay, let’s go and let’s check the theater.”
Probably to sooth a tense and nervous concert organizer and an equally nervous audience, Cecile gave it everything she had. After Chopin’s Polonaise Fantasie in A Flat and Grand Polonaise Brilliante, the audiences were beside themselves with excitement. The new venue allowed them to be just a few feet away from the piano.
What we didn’t realize (again) was that something would happen in the middle of the fiery “Dante” sonata by Liszt. It was a piece that — in some sections — conjured images of inferno.
Indeed, the D minor part depicted the wailing souls of Hell.
The last part (a beautific chorale in F-Sharp Major) was pure apocalypse as she intoned the sounds of joy of souls heaven-bound.
It was a hair-raising performance that elicited several standing ovations and endless encore pieces.
What we didn’t know was that the partially damaged venue was again on fire and threatening the adjacent alternative venue.
This was no way to end a standing ovation but after the autograph-signing, the audiences fled to safety.
Rustan’s Nedy Tantoco led Cecile to her car while I worry about paid tickets for music lovers who didn’t show up thinking the whole event didn’t take place because of the fire.
“That must be your most dramatic outreach concert,” Cecile told me as we settled on this business class plane accommodation on our way to another outreach concert in Cebu. I asked her to sign a picture with her and my granddaughter who witnessed her first fiery concert, literally speaking.
Those forty years with Licad gave me music-making at their most edifying moments.
It taught me that the best of art and the most trying life’s challenges can bring out the best in an artist.
By coincidence, Licad was the last classical musician PDI editor LJM heard at the last APEC event before she went to The Great Beyond.When I saw her on TV camera with President Obama after the performance, I texted PDI columnist Mandy Navasero to ask LJM what she thought of Licad’s performance.
Mandy texted me back, “Pablo, Letty has only one word for Licad’s performance: mesmerizing.”
(Pianist Cecile Licad is soloist of the Philippine Philharmonic Orchestra under Olivier Ochanine on Thursday, January 28, 2016, 8 p.m. at the CCP main theater. The concert is presented by the Rustan Group of Companies and the Philippine Italian Association (PIA) in cooperation with the Cultural Center of the Philippines. Her program includes Tchaikovsky No. 1 in B Flat Minor and Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 2 in C Minor. It will open with Rossini’s Overture to ‘An Italian in Algiers’. For tickets, call CCP Box Office at 8321125 or Ticket World at 8919999.)