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Cecile Licad in her NYC empire of music sheets & Pinoy recipes

By IGAN D'BAYAN, The Philippine Star Published Jan 24, 2022 5:00 am

New York had become a ghost town at the start of the pandemic, and this lady pianist scoured the streets not concerned with how far she progressed in mastering a Gottschalk piece, but in searching rack after rack in convenience stores for hand sanitizers.

She looked everywhere: no toilet paper, no paper towels, no Lysol. She was able to get her hands on the smallest bottle of 70% isopropyl alcohol. The Big Apple transformed into the Big Empty. Life had halted down to a slow, painful adagio.

“(I spent the time) mostly in my apartment,” says Cecile Licad, sharing how she managed to remain calm and collected during the past two years, which transpired like “a horror story but in real life.” For Licad, it felt weird and surreal and—just like everyone else—she put her mind on things that would allow her to plow on through the most difficult of days.

Acclaimed pianist Cecile Licad holed up in her New York apartment.

“During the pandemic, I started seriously studying how to make perfume, and one of these days all of you will get to buy Cecile Licad’s Eau De Parfum (laughs).” The long lockdown did not bother her much because Licad—despite being one of the world’s most acclaimed pianists—is not big on social events.

She would rather binge-watch Netflix (The Fall, Breaking Bad, Fauda, Better Call Saul, Downton Abbey) and her beloved horror movies. “And as long as I have my sack of rice, sardines, bagoong, Spam, tap water and cigarettes, I will be fine.”

All I know is I still love working and still have the sense of wonderment inside me. Right now, I like being chilled and just enjoying the work process so I can go to another level in what I can do as a musician.

Occasionally, she performed via Zoom and continued working on recording projects. Licad was able to learn new piano music as well as new works composed for her.

Holed up in her apartment in The City That Never Sleeps (which was nevertheless in hibernation), what did Cecile learn about herself as a pianist and as a person?

“As a pianist, because I learned many important works that have been neglected, I continue my development as an artist. Contemporary pianists (tend to) sadly continue on the same path of (performing) only the well-worn, familiar works, which leads to pianistic starvation.” Licad, though, likes to challenge herself. To put herself in a position of discovering the new, the unfamiliar. “As a person I am constantly learning new things about myself.”

Cecile Licad during a performance at Tarleton State University.

When talking about artists and cultural agents, the ones most affected by the pandemic and temporary closure of theaters and concert halls have been musicians and performers. We ask Cecile how she was able to endure not being able to perform for quite a spell.

She points out, “You have no idea what I go through performing live. I don’t really know if I enjoy it. But, yes, it does feel good to be appreciated, especially when I do enjoy myself and if (the performance is) going well. I am most alive onstage. But the stress I go through before performing for the public… it is hard to describe, really.” Days before a concert, the pianist is a mess: she becomes a tangle of thoughts disappearing into a rabbit hole of concerns.

“But all I know is I still love working and still have the sense of wonderment inside me. And, right now, I like being chilled and just enjoying the work process so I can go to another level in what I can do as a musician.”

But if there is a cause worth playing for, you can count Cecile in.

The classical pianist is set to perform in Amore: A Post-Valentine Hour with Cecile Licad in New York at the historical ballroom of the Lotos Club in NYC. The online show, presented by Megaworld and Rustan’s for the benefit of the Philippine Philharmonic Orchestra Society Inc. (PPOSI), will broadcast via Zoom on Feb. 22, Tuesday, 5 p.m. “Amore” is also sponsored by SSI Group Inc., Starbucks, San Miguel Corporation, BPI, and Danny Dolor.

Pianist Cecile Licad performs with the Philippine Philharmonic Orchestra in October 2017 at the CCP Main Theater.

The performance—interspersed with fellow pianist David Dubal’s conversations with Licad—focuses on pieces by Chopin, Beethoven, Rachmaninoff, as well as Filipino composer Francisco Buencamino.

In choosing pieces for the upcoming concert, the pianist reveals her criterion: the compositions must hit the listeners directly in the heart.

Amore: A Post-Valentine Hour with Cecile Licad in New York is one of PPOSI’s fund-raising efforts to promote local talent and support the organization to be at par with other world-class orchestras. Its efforts include provision of quality instruments and uniforms, promotion of performances abroad, support for students through music scholarships, and retirement funds for the members.

Licad shares, “(All) I can say is Tita Nedy (Tantoco) is a great woman who does not procrastinate. She finds a way to achieve her goal and, at the same time, is always thinking of new challenges for me as an artist. Like this virtual thing… She was able to convince me what a great idea it is—especially when it can help and support the PPO musicians. It is a great cause and I am happy to be a part of it. I must say her continuous and devoted support for the PPO is truly admirable. Tita Nedy is a rare and remarkable person. Her advocacy of me as an artist touches me deeply.”

The pianist with long-time art patron Nedy Tantoco

For her part, Tantoco says “Cecile was born a musical genius. Even as a young girl, she already knew she would be a great pianist. She would show off her hands with those long, pliable fingers. They are pianist’s hands, indeed. She is totally dedicated to her craft and knows what she wants. She demands a lot of herself in every performance. That’s what makes her great.

“My fondest memory of Cecile is the year she came to the Philippines to perform at the CCP with her son Ottavio. It must have been in the mid-’80s. They played on two pianos. It was quite a performance! I have never seen Cecile so happy.”

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A post shared by Cecile Licad (@licadc)

In choosing pieces for the upcoming concert, the pianist reveals her criterion: the compositions must hit the listeners directly in the heart. “In hearing these masterpieces, they can relate to them in their daily lives—whether they feel sad, joyful, victorious, plus if they are super, intensely romantic. For me, great music and love are a perfect mixture.”

Since her debut at age seven, all Cecile Licad wanted to be is “the most complete pianist I can be—in the realm of the great classical tradition.”

She does what she must: play on. To turn the ghosts of the great composers into living, resounding voices for our contemporary times. Whether it is in the world’s most beautiful concert halls amid a throng of admirers, or alone in an apartment in New York City—Heisenberg on the telly, sinigang in the stove—as the world outside curls into a dreamy nocturne.

Musings in the key of C

We ask Cecile Licad her thoughts on a variety of subjects. The virtuoso pianist answers with aplomb:

How do you listen to music—stereo, mobile phone, Spotify?

My laptop and a good set of earphones. 

Favorite composer?

My favorite composer—as it should be—is whomever I am working on at the moment. 

Best young talent you have seen the past few years?

Unfortunately, no one comes to mind. 

The artist or musician you most admire?

Too many to mention. May they keep coming. 

When you hear a piano piece on the radio or on TV, do you pick apart the piece, transcribe it in your head?

If it’s a great performance, I listen intently. 

How do you keep in shape?

I don’t know about keeping in shape but I guess my exercise is at the keyboard. And I do know I love my pork belly and pork knuckles in all forms of Filipino recipes—like adobo, sinigang… Let’s hope I don’t gain too much weight (laughs). 

When cooking, what is your go-to Filipino dish, your masterpiece?

Well, for the moment I like sinigang na pata na maraming sili with mustard greens, radish, tomato, at—siyempre—patis. I also love bulalo with utak.

What is your message to Filipino artists and cultural agents who have been badly hit by the pandemic and the closure of performance places?

Well, (these are) very difficult times for sure but (we should all have) patience, patience, and just keep at it for this will all pass. I think having a pause in life is not such a bad thing. After all this, I think one can even be more imaginative, creative, stronger. To have more enthusiasm in one’s work and to not stick to boring, old routines. But, first and foremost, we all have to try to stay healthy. 

Among the celebrity deaths the past two years, which one hit you the most?

Exactly right before I played a Bach concerto in Seattle, I heard about the tragic death of basketball star Kobe Bryant with his daughter, Gianna. I remembered seeing him on video as he played the beginning of the Moonlight Sonata. And it was a very moving moment. 

For tickets, visit https://bit.ly/3I6r2Qy or call Lulu Casas at 0917-5708301 or Maricar Alamodin at 0917-5384508. Tickets are priced at P1,500 each or buy 10 and get two complimentary passes.