Interpreter, sorcerer: Cecile Licad in Manila

Pablo A. Tariman

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Sorcery and brutality as the pianist presents Liszt in her homecoming concert

SEASONED RECITALIST. Licad with conductor Gerard Salonga at a concert in 2010. Photo courtesy of Pablo Tariman

By now, standing ovations for Cecile Licad’s performances are the expected reception that is still fabulous to behold. But she remains the dedicated worker that she is, especially with the pieces she will play for the first time in Manila, at her homecoming concert at the CCP on Saturday, June 29. 

This program consists of “Totentanz” and “Piano Concerto No. 1,” both by Franz Liszt.

Despite her affinity with the Romantic Movement, Licad has never done Liszt in Manila. Hence, this pre-rehearsal “brainstorming” with conductor Gerard Salonga and the ABS-CBN Philharmonic Orchestra. She points out the highlights of the piece and how she and the orchestra should synchronize.

Acknowledging her mother, Rosario Licad, in this gathering, Licad notes, My mother is one of the good interpreters of Liszt during her time. My father [Dr. Jesus Licad] fell in love with my mother upon hearing her play Liszt.”

Death and the pianist

It happens that the Totentanz piece is one of those masterworks by Liszt that underscore his fascination with death and the afterlife.

Lisztian lore has it that the 19th-century Hungarian composer frequented hospitals, asylums and even prisons to get a feel of the dying.

Death in the family usually accompanies Licad in concert. She remembers her 2002 recital in Town Hall, New York, at the time her father was ill. “Anak, don’t cancel your concert just to be with me. See me after your concert,” went Dr. Licad’s text message.

Licad’s recital was more than well received but soon she was bound for the airport. Dr. Licad was already embalmed in his casket by the time she returned home. Despite her tears, Licad gallantly played a Chopin piece on an electric piano as her final tribute.

Another beloved relation was her aunt, Nanette Sinco, a pianist like Licad who died shortly before Licad’s arrival in Manila for her CCP concert.

Licad’s best friend, film director Marilou Diaz-Abaya, also counted as family. When Abaya died in October 2012, Licad, who was preparing for a recital at the time, sought consolation from her memories of Abaya. I will always remember Marilou as a great woman and a great artist,” she says. “I will be with her when I play the Chopin sonata.

READ: Marilou Diaz-Abaya’s limitless horizons

Licad draws praise for the enormous virtuosity and poetic imagination of that performance, as one critic wrote. When she played that same piece, Chopin’s Sonata No. 2, at the CCP recently, a controversial benefactor remarked to Licad, I am not afraid to die anymore. Cecile, you are a sorcerer of an interpreter.

Andante and lento

But there is really no secret to her touch, says Licad. “I learn the score very well, not just my part but everybody’s. Being with a chamber orchestra, you don’t just think about your music.

“When I perform, I stop thinking and analyzing and play what I feel instinctively. I never plan anything — the phrasing is here, a harmonic chord is there. I think of these things at the moment.

This thinking with one’s heart in Licad’s playing has moved not a few among her audience to tears, especially when Licad navigates the slow waters of the andante and lento. In the hands and especially the pulse of a seasoned recitalist, these movements are rendered truly heartbreaking. 

For those dark Liszt pieces she will play in Manila, Licad will rely as always on the value of musical integrity. “You have to put forward an expression of yourself. It’s important that you give expression and happiness and joy in what you’re doing.”

Yet despite this assertion of confidence, Licad at times feels otherwise. “I can never guarantee what happens — that’s the exciting part — I just get into the music.”

One looks forward to the “brutality and delicacy” of Licad’s Totentanz, to quote a review of that performance abroad on which Licad will now render a distinct variation for us here.

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