Art/Style/Travel Diaries

Cecile Licad comes home for concert—her first without her dear friend Nedy Tantoco

The author revisits the renowned pianist’s growing up years—from 7 to 19— and her phenomenal rise

Cecile Licad with Nedy Tantoco after a Cavite outreach concert marred by fire in the venue.

Young Cecile Licad with mother, Rosario B. Licad

In commemoration of Women’s Month this March, world-acclaimed Filipina pianist Cecile Licad will be presented with the Philippine Philharmonic Orchestra (PPO) in a special concert on Tuesday, March 19, 2024, 7 p.m. at the Manila Metropolitan Theater.

Cecile Licad with President Corazon C. Aquino when she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Merit in 1991.

Cecile Licad with President Benigno Aquino, Jr. during the APEC opening dinner.

A recipient of the Presidential Medal of Merit from President Corazon C. Aquino and Pamana sa Pilipino Award from President Benigno Aquino, Jr. Licad was also given the Gawad CCP Para sa Sining in the field of Music.

The invitational event has a special program consisting of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-Flat Minor, Op. 23 with Licad as soloist, and Brahms Symphony No. 2 with the PPO under the baton of Maestro Grzegorz Novak. Invited to the concert are dignitaries from government, members of the diplomatic corps, business leaders, socio-civic leaders, educators from state colleges and universities, young artists, and music students from various universities.

As Licad prepares for the concert, however, she doesn’t hide the fact that it will be a sad homecoming.

“It will be strange performing in Manila without my dear friend, Nedy Tantoco,” she says. “Almost all my Manila concerts are under the auspices of the Philippine Philharmonic Orchestra Society Inc. (PPOSI), which she has headed for many years.” (Rustan’s chairman Nedy Tantoco passed away Feb. 8, 2024, at age 77.)

But Licad is determined to make the most of this visit. She remembers Nedy as a woman who acted fast and got things done without fanfare. “Everything she did for the arts had a personal touch. She was not just a music impresario. She forged friendships with the artists she promoted.”

Sen. Loren Legarda who spearheaded the Women’s Month concert of Cecile Licad.

Licad’s concert is a celebration of Women’s Month spearheaded by Sen. Loren Legarda, the Philippine Philharmonic Orchestra Society Inc., the National Commission on Culture and the Arts (NCCA), and the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP).

It’s her second performance at the Met, the last being in 1989, when she did a duo concert with Brazilian cellist Antonio Meneses, gold medalist in the cello category of the 1982 Tchaikovsky Competition.

She didn’t like the Bosendorfer piano at the time, and we had to borrow a Steinway grand from the CCP just a few hours before the performance.

The pianist’s late father, Dr. Jesus V. Licad, told me. “Pablo, it’s just a few hours before the concert. You have to do something. Cecile can’t perform on that Met piano.”

To make sure I got yes for an answer, I brought along the entire Licad family to the CCP to borrow the Steinway full grand. Then CCP president Bing Roxas said after giving us permission to use the piano, “Pablo, that’s the last time a full grand is leaving the CCP compound. Remember I said yes only because the performer is Cecile Licad.”

Cecile Licad playing with her baptismal goddaughter, Keya Tariman before Philamlife rehearsal.

Cecile Licad with the author and his granddaughter Keya after a Cavite outreach concert .

The 48 years I followed her life and music yield many memories. She even became part of my family—as baptismal godmother of my granddaughter Keya.

In 2003, she got to know my late daughter Kerima and her son Emmanuel, then just a few months old. On March 19, that baby boy will mark his 21st birthday watching a full concert of the celebrated pianist.

Educator and Philippine Daily Inquirer columnist Randy David and his granddaughter Julia will also be in that concert to mark the 78th birthday of his late wife, Karina C. David.

Over the years I have brought the pianist to different outreach destinations in the country, wanting to give my friends their first Licad experience.

In 2002, while preparing for Licad’s recital at St. Paul University in Tuguegarao City, I took a quick bus ride to Ilagan City in Isabela to ask the poet-priest Paco Albano to watch the concert. Although he had a few of her CDs, he had never seen Licad in a live performance.

God was humble that night. I imagine he followed the rules of/for concertgoers, relaxed in silence and head music outside holding centers

The good priest emailed me after the concert:

Dear Pablo,

Grace and peace!

I hope all is well with you and family.

Thank you for snatching me to experience a Cecile Licad recital.

Quite an experience, I tell you!

Surely God has consecrated her hands to play music, especially that of the classical masters.

In playing the masters, Cecile is a musician who makes one believe that the world is made of sound—sometimes as impromptu as a surprise, sometimes a waltz, sometimes nocturne, sometimes scherzo, or whatever great art rightly tells us.

Indeed her music, like life, is about possibilities.

Who was playing that night? Cecile the piano, or the piano Cecile. I think it was the piano that brought out Cecile the music, especially in the nature of mysticism of the two legends of St. Francis (Liszt).

The music overflowed from her mouth, her eyes, her entire body, yes, into me/us. And was I myself playing Cecile and the piano?

The encores were revealing. Cecile was not only great with the big scores, but also with the ditties. She reminded me of Nobel laureate Pablo Neruda’s Odas Elementales. The poet makes yellow birds, chestnuts, tomatoes, watches look extraordinarily beautiful.

Cecile is the Pablo Neruda of Music. There is nothing prosaic in this world unless we make it so.

Unlike the God-distracted nun who gave dos palabras, I didn’t think of God in my tonal center.

God was humble that night. I imagine he followed the rules of/for concertgoers, relaxed in silence and head music outside holding centers. And it was good.


Fr. Paco

Cecile Licad during her Philamlife Theater debut at age 7 in 1969.

Rewind many years back. She started performing at age seven, in a formal debut at Philamlife Theater in 1969 as soloist in Avery’s Concertino based on Familiar Tunes. The orchestra ensemble was the University of the East Student Orchestra under the baton of National Artist for Music Antonino Buenaventura.

After the Philamlife debut, most ecstatic was the pianist’s first teacher, Prof. Rosario Picazo, who gave her a note: “To my dearest little pupil Cecile Licad, whose outstanding performance during her first serious appearance at the Philamlife Auditorium last night revealed intelligence, artistry, virtuosity, beauty of tone, control, poise, feeling—exceptional qualities for the concert stage. It was a tremendous success for one so young, only 7 years old!”

From the conductor Antonino Buenaventura: “Cecile’s kind comes only once in a hundred years.”

From critic Anthony Morli of the Manila Times, January 28, 1969 issue: “It was a most winning performance, in which Cecile B. Licad displayed a technical resource and a musicality far in advance of her years. It was a telling show of precocity and brooked no doubt, especially after she encored with three more short pieces  that here, was a true prodigy.”

Although I saw her first recital in Legazpi City in 1975, my first exposure to live classical music, I got to interview her only the year she was doing her Leventritt tour in the US—the prelude to her getting the Leventritt Gold Medal in 1981, just 10 years  after she passed the audition at Curtis at age 12.

I am recasting here, in the past tense, an interview/article I wrote in 1981 for the Celebrity Magazine.

The street where Cecile Licad grew up in was a cross-section of the haves and have-nots. On one side were the unfenced makeshift houses and the street urchins huddled at the corner store—a scene straight from Lino Brocka’s Jaguar. On the side, rows of concrete walls rose and household maids opened the gates for the master’s car.

In a strictly socio-economic sense, the street where Licad lived was a mirror of Philippine society. On one hand were the deprived who had never heard of Beethoven; on the other was the well-off whose knowledge of Bach and Stravinsky came as a matter of taste.

On a blistering afternoon that carried a hint of rain, I heard a few bars from a Chopin Etude, followed by a Polonaise. I lingered longer at the gate in the hope the music went on. But the high, bright sun put me in a daze, and with the Polonaise still unfinished, I pounded on the gate, hoping my noise didn’t cause interruption. As I approached the living room, the young lady at the piano stopped playing, gave me a shy handshake, and turned to the basket of santol brought in the same time I arrived.

She turned 19 on May 11, 1981, and had grown perceptively lovelier minus the baby fat that used to be her trademark in her early concert years. She was the same girl who, at seven, caused an uproar in the music circle with her inborn gift for interpreting the masters. At an early age, she would part with her obscurity by winning competitions for emerging artists in Manila and New York, winning assorted Beethoven competitions abroad, and getting the attention of the music giants, no less.

Before she could turn 15, Rudolf Serkin, the grand old man of the piano, took her under his wing; the close association further honed her into the fine keyboard artist that she is now.

 Early in her teens, she had no less than Philippe Entremont appearing with her in a duo concert that proved how well regarded she was even by those who had come before her.

In 1975, I first heard her tackle Rachmaninoff, Chopin, and Ravel in Legazpi City. I thought I was hearing a Gary Graffman recording. She was barely 14 then, painfully shy, and she threw her host into a panic when she tried to crack pili nuts with a kitchen knife. “What if you cut your fingers, dear child?” the host shrieked.

Her face was chubby, she loved to romp in the garden, and I don’t think she knew decorum any better than this music lover who attended concerts in rubber shoes.

In the school where I first saw her perform, the nuns were a-twitter at the sight of a plump girl who kept romping down the corridor with two other kids her age. The girl the nuns nearly reprimanded was the same playful kid who would astound them with a powerful Chopin scherzo and a rare sweep of the third movement of a popular Rachmaninoff concerto.

And now here she was, busy feasting on santol.

What was the grown-up Cecile Licad really like? The voice was a trifle husky, the face glowing with the radiance of a young woman in bloom. But she still seemed painfully shy—behavior that didn’t jibe with an artist whose concerts almost always ended up with in a rousing standing ovation.

This Filipino prodigy, who hobnobbed with musical giants, was very reserved, and the way to get her to talk, it seemed, was to start playfully, until she came up with offhand remarks you could easily tie up with her voluminous information sheets.

Which the elder Licads were very meticulous about. Reports on her performances, from the time she was seven to her recent New York Philharmonic debut—and the reviews that came with them—were conscientiously filed in scrapbooks that occupied a prominent space in the family library.

The late Dr. Jesus Licad, her father, was a fastidious librarian when it came to Cecile’s concert memorabilia. Rosario Licad, the mother, often had to think twice before tampering with clippings that all but showered hosannas on Cecile’s performances. My request for a look-see was followed by reminders of caution: “O sigue, ipapahiram ko ito pero huwag mong kalimutang isauli! Naku, iho, mahirap na.(Will lend these to you but don’t ever forget to return.)”

In the early ’80s, what were the milestones in Cecile’s phenomenal rise as a keyboard artist? The last five years before she turned 19 were all turning points.

From the Curtis Institute, where she emerged as winner in all conceivable competitions, she conquered the prestigious Marlboro Music Festival, the list of whose participants read like a who’s who of music in America and other parts of the world.

The festival site was 10 miles west of Brattleboro, Vermont, where she trained with Rudolf Serkin.

 ‘What can you say about a 17-year-old girl pianist who makes Mendelssohn sound like Mozart?’

Marlboro has always been a tough music enclave to invade. It demands the highest standard of musicianship from its participants, who are required to study more than 100 works a week. The works encompass a wide repertoire of chamber music in groups, ranging from duos to large ensembles. Participation in the festival doesn’t guarantee a performance. But Cecile Licad, the youngest pianist admitted in Marlboro, had a way of improving on old feats. She ended up performing in one Marlboro tour after another.

A Washington Post critic wrote after one such performance: “What can you say about a 17-year-old girl pianist who makes Mendelssohn sound like Mozart? She completed her second season at the Marlboro Music Festival, that astonishing conflagration of talents, with the Mendelssohn Sextet in D Major.

“Looking about 12 years old, she electrified the audience with the force of her playing, the quicksilver clarity of her finger work, the intensity and drive that not only made the often-soggy Mendelssohn crackle with energy, but charged up the rest of the group. . . “

Another turning point was her being named Leventritt Artist for the 1978-1981 season. Behind this rare honor was the Edgar M. Leventritt Foundation, which was significant in the careers of the likes of Gary Graffman and Van Cliburn. It was formed in 1939 to promote exceptionally talented musicians.

The Licad couple was silent then about what Leventritt had in store for Cecile, but they were doubly accommodating in recalling their daughter’s musical odyssey for the last 16 months.

The 1979 Leventritt spring tour came at a time when Cecile was also in demand for command performances. She and her mother accompanying her had to play skipping rope with a schedule that clashed with Leventritt and the commitments of the Philippine government.

For instance, the Leventritt tour was to begin in Arizona in March until she got notice that she was requested to perform for King Hassan II of Morocco in the same month. The performance was to coincide with the First Lady’s state visit. (Earlier, she was with the First Lady’s entourage in Vienna.)

Rattled by a last-minute cable, Cecile proceeded to Morocco, after a blizzard in New York. She recalled, “Para talagang land of fantasy. ‘Yong mga nagse-serve, may mga veil sa mukha … . Talagang parang Arabian Nights. And the food they brought in—wow! Parang Roman bacchanalian feast! Mga buong baka at kung mga anu-ano pa. We were only 20 in the group, but the reception looked like it was prepared for 400 people.”

For the king of Morocco, Cecile played a Chopin Etude and a Filipino composition, Larawan by Francisco Buencamino. And she conquered the king and his court, who called her “the girl with the golden fingers” after the concert.

King Hassan II approached her and asked her to come back in July on the occasion of his birthday. The personal greeting was followed by a gift of $1,000, plus a free shopping spree in Paris courtesy of the king. Cecile was worried about her March 10 Leventritt tour, but she enjoyed the royal experience.

By March 8, Mrs. Licad was waiting miserably in New York, nagging Mrs. Vilma Santiago of the Philippine Consulate. “Sabi ko kay Vilma, naku, March 8 na, saan na si Cecile? Talagang taranta na ako. Dumating siya March 9, walang boses, inuubo at hinihika pa. Unang tanong ko kung nakapag-practice ng 12 Etudes niya. Hindi raw. Wala daw pianong available outside of the palace of the king. Punta kaagad kami sa Philippine Center para mag-practice pero wala pang one hour sabi sa akin, ‘Mama, hindi ko na kaya.’ Sabi ko, ‘Subukan mo pa, anak. Nakakahiya sa Leventritt. Ano ang mangyayari sa future mo?'”

The poor girl asked for a postponement, but the mother ruled against it. The Leventritt tour was prepared way ahead of time, and a cancellation would surely jeopardize her relationship with the sponsoring foundation. Mrs. Licad suggested that they proceed to Arizona just the same and Cecile could play whatever repertoire she could come up with. They left March 9 for Arizona, with Cecile left dazed by memories of the Arabian Nights and buzzing with a cold and asthma.

Cecile slept on the plane, and the next day, they were greeted by a bright Arizona sun. Wickenburg, Arizona was a fine city, and their arrival was highlighted by people bearing placards saying Welcome in quaintly translated Pilipino.

Recalled Mrs. Licad, “We were surprised by the warm reception. Imagine, may mga placards pa at nagpakahirap ng pag-translate ng ‘Mabuhay!’ Sabi ko kay Cecile, kung kinancel natin ang concert because of her cold and lack of practice, siguradong mumurahin kami.”

 ‘Sabi ko kay Cecile, kung kinancel natin ang concert because of her cold and lack of practice, siguradong mumurahin kami’

A few hours before the concert, revved up by the fine Arizona sun, Cecile went through her 12 Etudes (Chopin), but could only finish nine in the actual concert. The mother’s advice was for Cecile to stop at a completed etude in case her memory threatened to fail her, and to come up with a ballade or a scherzo instead.

“But Cecile’s performance turned out beautiful. Standing ovation na naman!” They proceeded to Sun City the following day to find Cecile’s name ablaze in neon lights.

The Wickenburg Sun critic noted the Arizona concert: “Cecile Licad played for the king of Morocco one Wednesday, then for the Wicken-burgers on Sunday…If the joyous enthusiasm was the mood in the palace, as it was here, Cecile had a week of unqualified adulation…”

Mother and daughter had remained close. In Chicago, for instance, a thick fog prevented welcomers from seeing Cecile at the airport. She ended up in a downtown hotel she described as “creepy.” She spent the night calling her mom by long distance and telling her she couldn’t sleep.

In between stops on her Leventritt tour, she flew back to the Philippines to perform for the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) delegates and the Australian prime minister on the latter’s state visit.

A teenage Cecile Licad after performing for the first lady of France Madame Valery Giscard d’Estaing at St. Jean de Luz, France.

In Holland, she accompanied Evelyn Mandac (one of the rare times she accompanied anyone) in the Independence Day concert arranged by then Ambassador J.V. Cruz. Her memories of her Holland visit were of the beautiful castle where she performed along with Filipino violinist Carmencita Lozada. From Holland, she took the sleeper train to Nice, France, on her way to Menton, where she was to perform for the delegates to the International Music Forum.

Her return command performance in Morocco on the occasion of the birthday of King Hassan II again clashed with her Marlboro schedule. Mother and daughter had to invoke Philippine diplomatic commitment in order not to displease the Marlboro people.

In October, Cecile was featured in a solo recital sponsored by the Women’s Committee of the Philadelphia Orchestra. The tour covering Boston and Philadelphia, ending with a concert at Alice Tully, was enthusiastically received.

In Hawaii, the Leventritt officials briefed Cecile that this leg of her tour had one purpose: to spread the gospel of classical music in the hinterlands of Hawaii. She was advised that she should be prepared to play on any piano, however inferior. The Hawaii concerts—all 12—were all successful, except for one engagement which ran haywire due to a wrong announcement in the papers. For a concert which was supposed to start at 12 noon at the University of Hawaii, Cecile begged for a 15-minute delay to be able to rehearse for at least 15 minutes. The piano tuner, for one, was able to finish his work at the same time Cecile’s concert was about to start, which was 12 noon sharp. After 15 minutes, she asked the program coordinator to open the hall and let the crowd in.

But Cecile finished the story: “The crowd consisted of two persons: one of them was the piano tuner. I asked my one-man audience if he could listen to the entire repertoire alone. The funny part of this concert was that there was still this post-concert reception attended diligently by four people!”

At least one Hawaii engagement left two music critics bubbling with excitement in one review: “Those who did not attend the piano recital of Cecile Licad in the Kaui War Memorial Convention Hall missed a truly exciting experience. This exceptionally talented 18-year-old presented a program that would have challenged the best efforts of a pianist twice her age and experience. We, in turn, are grateful to Miss Licad for an inspiring performance which evoked a spontaneous standing ovation from her enthralled audience. Thank you, Miss Licad, and please come back.”

Two significant events made 1980 doubly exciting for Cecile: Her performance was seen by New York Philharmonic’s Zubin Mehta, and she met Seiji Ozawa who, upon listening to her, told her in a fit of excitement, “I must get you right away.”

Cecile recalled her meeting with the eminent Japanese conductor: “We met at the Boston Symphony Hall where he and his manager agreed to see me. Ozawa was seated in the middle part of the hall. After my playing Pathetique, pumunta sa stage, kumuha ng silya, lumapit sa akin at tiningnan ako nang husto. ‘How old are you?’ he asked. I said 18. ‘Only? Then I must get you right away.’”

Seiji Ozawa told her, ‘How old are you? Only 18? Then I must get you right away’

At the end of a long story, mother and daughter looked at each other, confronted with a question on how they related to each other now that the child prodigy had come of age.

When Cecile returned to her Vermont home to fulfill her Boston engagement with Ozawa, her mother wouldn’t be around to see her reap new laurels.

The move signaled a shift of roles for the mother and daughter, who literally were at each other’s beck and call at the start of the daughter’s phenomenal rise in the musical firmament.

At 19, Cecile drove a car and had the final word on rehearsal hours, contracts, and concert engagements. She drove often to New York with friends, eating out and going to the movies.

What new role had Mrs. Licad taken in the coming of age of her daughter? Mother took it all in stride, unmindful of the limitations of her maternal concern. “Actually,” Mrs. Licad demurred, “wala na akong power when she starts and stops practicing. I’ve adjusted to the fact that she’s old enough and experienced enough to know the intricacies of her career and personal life. Kung minsan talaga, nasasabihan ako ni Cecile, ‘Mama, huwag mo na akong sasabihan ng ganyan. Alam ko na.’ Things like that. But I still come in by way of reminders and talking to people. Many agents who want to manage her career come with assorted offers and she’s mahiyain, she just can’t talk to them. At saka ang batang ito, pagkatapos ng concert, ni program walang dala, ni write-up walang dala. Tatanungin ko kung saan, ang sagot niyan, ‘Ewan.’ Who will collect all those papers for her? At saka I help in her correspondence and l have to have a duplicate of her work contract. If she forgets, I can always remind her.”

Cecile was quiet when asked about her private life and her newfound independence.

Mrs. Licad said her daughter’s finding a boyfriend one of these days was not bad news at all. “Gusto ko talagang magkaroon ng boyfriend ‘yan.” Whether she really meant that from the bottom of her heart was anybody’s guess.

But boyfriend or no boyfriend, Cecile would surely go down in the country’s history as the youngest pianist to enthrall Philippe Entremont, Rudolf Serkin, Alexander Schneider, and Seiji Ozawa—without trying too hard.

The street where Cecile Licad lived will surely be remembered for that, too.

The Women’s Month concert is spearheaded by Senate President Pro Tempore Loren Legarda, Chairperson of the Senate Committee on Culture and the Arts, in collaboration with the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA) with its Chairman Ino Manalo, the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) headed by Chairman Jaime Laya, and the Philippine Philharmonic Orchestra Society, Inc. led by the late president Zenaida Tantoco.

Licad is teaming up for the first time with the new music director of the PPO,

Maestro Grzegorz Nowak, a first prize winner of the Ernest Ansermet International Conducting Competition in Geneva.

The March 19 PPO concert at the Met is invitational.

About author


He’s a freelance journalist who loves film, theater and classical music. Known as the Bard of Facebook for his poems that have gone viral on the internet, he is author of a first book of poetry, Love, Life and Loss – Poems During the Pandemic and was one of 160 Asian poets in the Singapore-published anthology, The Best Asian Poetry 2021-22. An impresario on the side, he is one of the Salute awardees of Philippines Graphic Magazine during this year’s Nick Joaquin Literary Awards. His poem, Ode to Frontliners, is now a marker at Plaza Familia in Pasig City unveiled by Mayor Vico Sotto December 30, 2020.

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