Millennials may not be familiar with her name and music but to be sure, classical music aficionados of all generations will know who Cecil Licad is and what valuable artist she is to the Philippines.
World-renowned and multi-awarded, Licad began her passion for music at the tender age of four. Her mother was teaching piano to young students at home, and Licad would sit around, listen and watch what was playing. At one of her students’ recitals, her mother was surprised to see that her daughter was far better than any of her apprentices when the latter took the stage.
Tutored by a more seasoned piano expert from thereon, Licad debuted as soloist with the Philippine Philharmonic Orchestra at age seven. Her unusual talent in music caught the attention of then First Lady Imelda Romualdez Marcos, who took her on as a scholar to be honed by the masters of the time.
Now New York-based, the gifted pianist who is touted as a National Treasure for Music, flew in to Manila for a one-night-only concert at the Cultural Center of the Philippines in October. Titled “Cecile Licad: Chopin in the Key of C,” she partnered with Rustan’s matriarch Nedy Tantoco to raise funds for the construction of the San Pablo Apostol Parish Church in Tondo through the show, which also served as a highlight of the home grown luxury retail brand’s 65th anniversary celebration.
Anecdotes to ponder
Three days before the concert, Licad met a select group of Lifestyle and Entertainment editors and writers at the Old Manila Restaurant at the The Peninsula in Makati.
Her long-time friend, writer Pablo Tariman, whom she first met in Bicol at the age of 14, observed to The Sunday Times Magazine that Licad was unusually chatty during the luncheon. She was revealing much about her growing up years and career that already spans five decades.
One striking anecdote she related was how a “Blue Lady” – that is, a member of the former First Lady’s coterie – told her to have a facelift so as to show a smiling countenance since she has never been considered a cheerful person. She refused to do it especially since she saw how another First Lady from a neighboring Asian country looked, thinking she would be permanently smiling even at her own wake!
Another time, a lady columnist caught her puffing cigarettes and immediately branded her on print as the opposite of a good role model for the youth.
Chuckling, she admitted how she started puffing half a cigarette stick as early as age 12, using “kalahate” as leverage with her mother to finish her lessons. Despite her vice, Licad thankfully shared she had a thorough medical check-up not long ago and is free of any lung disease one might expect.
There had been two music critics too who tried to teach her how to walk like a model by placing a book on her head, but she nixed the idea.
She jokingly said that she wants to be a nun when she retires from her musical career, adding just as quickly she hopes to play the piano until the age of 100 like one of her teachers, Mieczyslaw Horszowski.
“He was still giving piano lessons a week before he died at 100 years old!” Licad exclaimed.
She then recounted that this teacher’s mother trained under Karol Mikuli who was a student of Frederic Chopin.
“I believe that if you constantly nurture your art, you can still play beyond a ripe old age. My other teachers—Rudolf Serkin and Seymour Lipkin – were like that.”
As to how she takes care of her hands, Licad said they are the first part of her body she immediately protects at times she slipped and fell to the ground. Surprisingly, she revealed she washes her hands even without rest after practicing for eight to 10 hours each day.
“They are not insured,” Licad further revealed.
Eager to dish out more trivia, Licad related that one of the very few pop superstars she watched in her life was Madonna—and all she remembers from the concert was the noise, and none of her music.
Responding to criticism that it is difficult to invite her to luncheons and dinners by Filipino communities abroad, Licad said matter-of-factly that she is not alone in that department and other nationalities invite her too, but qualified that an artist needs more time to herself.
“It isn’t because I dislike company. I understand 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,” she explained.
“It is not an easy profession [what I have]. You have to live life, but you also have to 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.”
‘Best Chopin interpreter’
The Sunday Times Magazine approached art patron Irene Marcos Araneta after Licad’s concert, asking how she feels that her mother’s “alaga” [ward]became the big name that she is.
“She has always been a big name, but even bigger now. We are happy for her, but you know, she soared on her own,” the youngest of the Marcos siblings replied.
Overheard was Miss Universe 1973 and Ballet Philippines president Margie Moran gushing over the performance. “Did you see that? She’s amazing!” Moran said to Araneta.
In talking about Chopin’s music, Licad said that the 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 that involves hard work,” she explained.
Licad said she had to practice immediately after a 20-hour flight from New York to re-explore the music, as “there is no way out of these two concertos.”
She credits her producer, Rustan’s chairman Zenaida Tantoco, for the idea of doing two Chopin concertos in one evening, specifically because of its novelty.
“This is something not usually done,” Licad continued.
Nevertheless, the National Treasure for Music said it was her honor to do the show as well as to be part of the luxury store’s 65th anniversary. Apparently, the concert was her fifth time to be a featured artist of Rustan’s.
Speaking more of Chopin, she related that when she was 21, recording engineers told her that her tempo of Chopin No. 2, which she played with the London Symphony under Andre Previn, was three minutes slower compared to another version.
“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 [else’s]. I don’t like copying style and approach from another musician. I go straight to the core of music and do my own interpretation.”
The Filipino music treasure was vindicated for her performance when the said recording with the London Symphony won the Grand Prix du Disque from Warsaw’s Chopin Society. It rendered her the first recipient of such an honor from Poland’s Chopin experts. She was also hailed as one of the “best Chopin interpreters in 15 years.”
Licad confirmed that Chopin was her first favorite composer and it was providential she had fallen in love with his Concerto No. 2 since she was 11 years old.
“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 served as my debut concerto with the New York Philharmonic [Orchestra] under Zubin Mehta.”
Of family and ‘business’
Licad has savored the feeling of being a proud mother when her Otavio by Brazilian cellist Antonio Meneses played with her for the very first time in “The Next Generation” concert of the PPO in March 2007.
The mother-son repertoire included “Adam’s Short Ride in a Fast Machine,” “Ravel’s Concert in G Major,” “Faure’s Pelleas Et Melisande, suite op. 80” and “Poulenc’s Concert for Two Pianos.”
Licad said she never imposed anything on her son’s musical career. In fact, she is happy for Octavio who is currently working as a bartender, revealing how he refused the demands of a serious concert pianist who has to go through the required practice time of eight to 10 hours a day.
Despite her success, Licad said she long realized that while many musicians of her stature have become very wealthy, she is one artist who cannot mix her music with business.
“Some artists are very good at that—being a good musician and a good investor [or businessman at the same time]. It’s not that I don’t need money in this career, 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,” she explained.
She then joked she would be “poor again by February,” even as she has a full concert calendar until April 2018.
Already, Licad’s calendar is full until April 2018. She just performed on November 12 in Montreal, Canada with cellist Alban Gerhardt and on November 17 at Portland State University, Oregon. After the holidays, her concert schedule is as follows: January 18, 2018 – Carnegie Hall, New York; January 28 – with the Vallejo Symphony, Vallejo, California; February 24 – with the North Mississippi Symphony Orchestra, Tupelo, Mississippi; and April 15 – with the Vallejo Symphony, Vallejo, California.
Filipino fans and classical music enthusiasts will see her back in April at a PPO concert in Davao City, and her fellow Bicolanos hope she can join the PPO in its outreach concert in Albay in May.
A Taiwanese music teacher, Irene Huang, shared an anecdote about the Philippines’ National Treasure for Music after Licad’s recital in Portland on November 17.
“I took three of my young students to a piano recital performed by the wonderful pianist Cecile Licad. The program consisted of a delectable pairing of Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight Sonata’ and Liszts’s ‘Sonata in B Minor’ topped off by Ravel’s ‘Gaspard de la nuit’ (with its fiendish third movement ‘Scarbo’ [which]is considered by some as one of the most difficult solo piano pieces ever written),” she said.
“One of my students asked, ‘Is Cecile Licad a Level 10? (referring to the 10 levels OMTA Syllabus program my students participate in) I said, ‘No! She is not just Level 10, she is world-class!”