Music News and Features
by Pablo A. Tariman

As I look forward to Cecile Licad’s all-Chopin program in November and December, I’d like to rewind the clock of time.

Cecile Licad and son Otavio. 51 years of music making and a memorable mothering.

I first saw her in Albay in 1975 at age 14, she received the Leventritt Gold Medal at 19, a bride at 26, a mother at 29 and still a seasoned musician to this day.

The country’s greatest living pianist likes to sum up her life thus: “I was involved with music at age four. That means 51 years of learning and playing the piano.”

It has been a landmark year for the Filipino pianist.

She welcomed 2018 with a solo recital at Weill Hall (Carnegie) January 18 and at the end of the last note, the audience rose to their feet to give her a standing ovation.

In the same venue last October 27, she appeared not as a performer but as one of the distinguished awardees of The Outstanding Filipinos in America (TOFA) citation.

Instead of an acceptance speech, she played Chopin’s Minute Waltz clocking exactly 60 seconds! Audience and co-awardees were ecstatic.

With Vallejo Symphony in California, she appeared three times in one season with Shostakovich, Chopin and Saint-Saens concertos and the standing ovations were endless.

When her all-Chopin program series opened at the Mission Basilica Church in San Francisco last November 10, again there was resounding standing ovation that bordered on the hair-raising. “Grabe!” was all Filipino fan Tony Castro could say as he greeted Licad backstage.

Still exhausted from the performance, Licad told Music News: “I am glad to see people reacting happily. This is the kind of reaction that is a balm to your spirit when you worked hard to do justice to Chopin. Even those who have heard me play Chopin all their lives say what I did was a total reinvention. To top it all, people who didn’t know anything about music loved my program notes. I feel this is a great program to bring to Manila and in the countryside.”

She is happy performing an all-Chopin program in Iloilo City’s Nelly Garden which looks like a composer’s house.

Cecile Licad with Curtis mentor Rudolf Serkin. A deep teacher-pupil relationship was the turning point of her musical life.

The Nelly Garden concert is Licad’s fitting tribute to the 169thdeath anniversary of Chopin who should be 208 years old by now.

Chopin’s Concerto No. 2 was Licad’s debut with New York York Philharmonic under Zubin Mehta. She won a Grand Prix Du Disque from Poland’s Chopin Society for her recording of the same concerto with London Philharmonic under Andre Previn.

For the record, she was heard in Iloilo in 1975 when she was only 14 years old. The organizer was a nun named Sister Fideles who will fly to Iloilo from Baguio to reunite with the piano prodigy who performed in her fundraising concert 43 years ago.

Another good news is that her third CD on American composers is out and the first review is a knockout.

Wrote classical CD critic John France: “It is not hard to find the overt romanticism of Franz Liszt and Joachim Raff in William Mason’s beautiful filigree ‘Silver Spring’ op.6. This was composed around 1850. The liner notes point out that the work is full of ‘delicate bravura figuration and cadenza-like flourishes.’ Mason’s piano music was at the ‘top end’ of the then fashionable salon pieces. It is stunningly played here by Cecile Licad.”

The African-American composer William Grant Still wrote a wide-range of music, including operas, ballets and symphonies. He is usually recalled for his 1931 Afro-American Symphony. “The work is moving and exhilarating at the same time. It is resourcefully played here by Cecile Licad. She is clearly a technically proficient and hugely inspired performer,” added the critic.

With one recital after another awaiting her in the country, she believes an artist needs more time to be alone. “I understand it that people are truly proud of you and want you around most of the time. But an artist needs to withdraw from that crowd, to be cloistered like a nun and to be able to reflect on her calling. It is not an easy profession. You have to live life, but you also make sure your art is enriched by it. It takes some good imagination to learn music and to make it connect to life. I like to experiment with sounds so that the music composed hundreds of years back will sound like it’s part of what we hear every day. “You have to make them sound fresh and not something that belongs to the museum.”

She noted that playing Chopin involves a lot of hard work and she is glad that her concert presenter, Nedy Tantoco, Rustan’s chair and head of the Philippine-Italian Association, had thought of doing two Chopin concertos in one evening last year.

She expounded on her music: “Chopin’s melody may sound easy, but it cannot be played like Mozart or Tchaikovsky. It is a very delicate piece of music that depends a lot on nuances and subtlety. It cannot be played literally as the music scores indicate. Just because it is delicate doesn’t mean you settle for a tubercular version. From the music scores, I like to explore a sound from what I imagined could be Chopin’s time. You must relate to the composer and his time, and this involves hard work. There is no easy way out of these two concertos. That is why I have to practice at once after a 20-hour flight from New York and re-explore the music.”

She recalled how years ago, she was told by recording engineers that the tempo of her Chopin No. 2 with London Symphony under Andre Previn was three minutes slower or faster than another version of a famous soloist. “At age 21, I could not always reason out why it has to be so. What I am sure of is that it is my version and not anybody’s. I don’t like copying style and approach from another musician. I go straight to the core of the music and do my own interpretation.”

Cecile Licad at Carnegie Hall with PPO.

She was vindicated when that Chopin recording with Previn won the Grand Prix du Disque distinguished citation from Warsaw’s Chopin Society. She was the first recipient of this citation from Poland’s Chopin specialists.

In her first recital in Poland many years back, Licad used a Paderewski (noted Polish pianist and statesman) piano, after which the critics hailed her as one of the “best Chopin interpreters in 15 years.”

Licad told the media Chopin was her first favorite composer and it was providential she loved his Concerto No. 2 as early as age 11. “That concerto won for me the Manila Young Artists Auditions when I was barely in my teens. I nearly didn’t make it in that competition because one member of the jury thought that the Chopin concerto was not suited for an 11-year-old pianist. But years later, it was my debut concerto with the New York Philharmonic under Zubin Mehta.”

Many years later, Licad found herself in the company of another revered Chopin interpreter, Martha Argerich, who had lunch in her New York apartment and raved over the Bicol laing cooked by this Bicolano pianist.

Argerich, a winner of a Chopin competition, once playfully struck a deal with Licad—“Teach me how to play Chopin No. 2 and I will coach you how to play Chopin No. 1.”

In private, Argerich said she considers the Filipino Chopin interpreter as the greatest pianist of her generation.

More answers to some questions during a media lunch:

No, her hands are not insured and she treats them just like any other part of her body. Yes, she washes them even after a long practice. But at times when she falls, she instinctively protects her hands upon landing on the surface.

She likes to believe she can perform until age 100. “One of my teachers, Mieczyslaw Horszowski, died at age 100 and still gave piano lessons a week before he died. His mother was a pupil of Karol Mikuli, who was a pupil of Frederic Chopin. I believe that if you constantly nurture your art, you can still play beyond the ripe old age. My other teachers—Rudolf Serkin and Seymour Lipkin—were like that.”

No, she doesn’t believe artists should conform to the public’s perception of them. “I was in the jury of a music competition and I thought some contestants all sounded the same just living up to some expectations. There was one Chinese transgender who joined the competition and I thought she was a knockout. She had an individual approach to her music, which to the jury was very unconventional. She dressed differently, too, but to make matters worse, she had a name so difficult to pronounce. For me, she played very well but I could not recall a name. It is pronounced differently from the way it is spelled.”

After 51 years of music, she remains close to what matters most to her: her son Otavio and her music.

She realizes, of course, that she is one artist who cannot mix music and financial acumen with equal result.

Cecile Licad with Pablo Tariman in one presscon. Artists need to be alone.

“Some artists are very good at that—being a good musician and a good investor. That I don’t need money in this career is a lot of bull—-. Of course, I need the money to keep my life going. But it will never be the prime consideration for striving to be a good artist. I like to work hard and being paid but I will never lose sleep figuring out how much I will earn in a season of concerts. My own private fear was that I’d start to play badly if I am preoccupied with money matters. Of course, you cannot live without it, but it will never by my primary concern. It is a means to stay alive but not the deciding factor to become a better artist.”

Looking back at her life, the pianist takes a deep breath and say, “Yes, 51 years of my life was all about music. My music and my son Otavio are all I have.”

(Cecile Licad will appear in a Manila Polo Club music fest to raise funds for the PPO Society spearheaded by Ms. Nedy Tantoco and CCP chair Margie Moran Floirend on November 27, 7 p.m. Sponsored by the City Government of Iloilo, National Commission for Culture and the Arts, the Philippine Airlines and Hotel del Rio, she will be heard for the first time in Nelly Garden in Iloilo City November 29, 6:00 p.m. Molo Church November 30, 6:30 p.m. and Cinema 6 SM Iloilo, CAP Auditorium Baguio City Dec. 6 and Gerry Roxas Auditorium in Roxas City on December 8. For inquiries on the Nov. 27 Chopin festival in Manila, call 895 2109, 0917-570 8301.For the Nelly Garden recital, call 09065104270. For the Molo Church concert call 09498894534. For the Baguio concert, call 7827164, 0918-3473027, 0920-9540053)

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