Passions and Obsessions

Cecile Licad holds February concert: ‘I must find a way to communicate my energy’

Preparing for her first online performance, renowned pianist shares her pandemic life—lost in the sound of silence

Cecile Licad in New York with a neighbor's dog. Her audience is back. (Cecile Licad file)

Rustan’s head Nedy Tantoco, with Licad in this file photo, sponsors Cecile Licad’s February 22 concert for the benefit of the Philippine Philharmonic Orchestra Society, Inc.

The historic Lotos Club setting of the February 22 concert of Cecile Licad in New York, where in the late 19th century, writers like Mark Twain gathered. (Cecile Licad file)

The unthinkable is happening.

Pianist Cecile Licad will appear in a post-Valentine virtual solo recital in New York on February 22, for the benefit of the Philippine Philharmonic Orchestra Society, Inc., and will most likely attract music fans from the Philippines and the rest of the world.

The setting is the historic Lotos Club of New York, one of the oldest literary clubs in the US, founded on March 15, 1870 by a group of young writers, among them Mark Twain, who was an early member in 1873.

The recital was videographed by Scott Steiner, with whom the pianist has worked on the filming of the Louis Armstrong story, where she provided the live music along with trumpet icon Wynton Marsalis and his ensemble.

Cecile Licad with son Otavio in August 2021

“Scott (Steiner) is a very cool guy and a man who has good creative ideas,” Licad told this writer. “I am usually very picky about a hall’s acoustics. But because of the wooden floors of the place, my instinct tells me it would sound really good.”

Like everyone else, she was downhearted by the recent turn of events. In the middle of 2020, her Brahms concerto in Maryland was cancelled, as well as the rest of her future performances, eventually. She was down like everyone else.

Alone in her New York apartment, she found herself without her live audience. She was glued to the television all the time. She got curious and actually learned a lot about politics.

She turned to cooking rice as early as 3 in the morning and asked herself, when will this ever end?

It never occurred to her that at some point, paper towels and toilet paper would become among the most important things in life. She was sure she must have gained a lot of weight. Those months were a cycle of surviving on canned corn beef, Spam, sardines, and noodles. Out of sheer depression, she turned to cooking rice as early as 3 in the morning and asked herself, when will this ever end?

For some time, she felt her life simply frozen. She sat at her piano feeling nothing. She put her head near the music stand and heard nothing. She was lost in the sound of silence.

“I admit I was lost and kept saying to myself, I’ve have been playing since I was five years old and practised every day of my life, and suddenly all that music-making had to stop. I asked myself, ‘What the hell is happening?’”

That phase of her life during the pandemic, she described as really weird and total misery. She couldn’t stand every note she played. It was total emptiness for months.

In the middle of 2021, she got her first live audience at the Santa Fe Music Festival, playing chamber music and a solo recital, which both ended in standing ovations.

She recalled: “It was exhilarating, as I like the excitement and even the fear of what might happen. After the Santa Fe festival, I had a terrific time in Tivoli New York and I played seven Rachmaninoff preludes to a world premiere choreography. It was musically very special, but I had to learn seven of them in 10 days.

Cecile Licad with American Ballet Theater principal dancer Stella Abrera in Tivoli, New York. (Cecile Licad file)

“I have a big Rachmaninoff repertoire, but these were all new to me. I was so pleased to see the dancers dancing away to my conception, and it gave me goosebumps watching their body during rehearsals. It’s usually the other way around in such a thing. Basically, I just played, and they all were reacting to the music. These dancers were so fabulous and I won’t forget these two performances. And it was also fun being with fellow Filipina Stella Abrera, principal dancer from the American Ballet Theatre. She is such a humble human being, no airs, I just loved her. It was all outdoors, and Steinway sent me a gorgeous piano. I never knew how dancers work, and we rehearsed for hours during that week. Tivoli is a little jewel in the Hudson Valley.”

‘When one has a loving audience, one can only give back. And when work turns into pleasure, it’s pure joy’

It was in that same open-air venue in New York that she played Chopin’s Revolutionary Etude with my daughter Kerima in mind. After the concert, a music fan wrote her that it was the “fiercest” Chopin Revolution Etude he had ever heard.

Towards the end of the year, she got busy as member of the jury of a piano competition and a chamber music tilt.

Cecile Licad performing at St. Paul Church in New York

In the last month of 2021, she had a solo recital in New York’s St. Paul Church, and found real happiness connecting with an audience she hardly knew personally.

Said she: “I played on this instrument called a Grotrian-Steinweg. Last time I came across one was when I was 11 years old at my Aunt Amelita Guevarra’s house in Manila. Very interesting the sensitivity, from the pedal to each note (hard to describe), and quite rare, but as with any piano one still has to know how to play games with it. But I think the piano and I liked each other that night. I thank Corrine Samios for her help in purchasing this beautiful piano for the Piano evenings of David Dubal.”

That evening turned euphoric for both performer and audience.

Recalled the pianist: “When one has a loving audience, one can only give back. And when work turns into pleasure, it’s pure joy. I was overwhelmed by how many people showed up, and I didn’t know many of them.”

About her February 22 online concert in Manila, she is pleased that Rustan’s chairperson Nedy Tantoco asked her to do it. “It has been a rough time for performers throughout the world. I am thrilled. I think it is a wonderful way of reaching out to my countrymen during the pandemic.”

When she rehearsed her program in the historic Lotos Club of New York, she was actually nervous. She accepted that she was performing minus a live audience. In Scott Steiner, she found a way to communicate her music, without a live audience, with the help of a videographer.

“I hate it when the piano doesn’t give me pleasure. I hope this would be of a high quality that I want. As I am practising for this concert, I am already thinking of not having a live audience, which I am naturally used to. For music’s sake, I must find a way to communicate and channel my energy as a performer. One of the things that I always do is have ideas, and for each piece I have a story that inspires me, and it is intimate and personal to myself.

“Each piece may bring me to various places with different thoughts and emotions.”

(The February 22, 2022 Cecile Licad recital program includes Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, Barber’s Souvenirs Op. 28, Rachmaninoff’s Four Preludes, Chopin’s Scherzo No. 2 in B Flat Minor, Op. 31, Chopin’s Ballade No. 1 in G Minor, and Buencamino’s My Soul’s Lament. The post-Valentine concert is presented by Megaworld and Rustan’s for the benefit of the Philippine Philharmonic Orchestra Society, Inc. (PPOSI). Sponsors are SSI Group Inc., Starbucks, San Miguel Corporation, Bank of the Philippine Islands, and Mr. Danny Dolor. Ticket price is at P1500. For inquiries, call or text tel. no.0917-5708301.) 

Poster of February 22, 2022 Cecile Licad concert

About author


He’s a freelance journalist who loves the opera, classical music and concerts, and who has had the privilege of meeting many of these artists of the performing arts and forging enviable friendships with them. Recently he’s been drawing readers to his poems in Facebook, getting known as the ‘Bard of Facebook.’

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