Persona

Cecile Licad up close and personal
—my past 45 years

I saw her human side and how she transforms life’s pains
into pieces of magnificent sounds

Cecile Licad performs at Nelly Garden in Iloilo City in 2018, with the author seated behind. (Photo by Jon Unson)
Cecile Licad performs at Nelly Garden in Iloilo City in 2018, with the author seated behind. (Photo by Jon Unson)
The author backstage with Licad after a Schumann concert at Cultural Center of the Philippines in the early ‘80s

The author backstage with Licad after a Schumann concert at Cultural Center of the Philippines in the early ‘80s (Photo by Bullit Marquez)

Cecile Licad started the first two months of 2020 on the right track, with a standing ovation in Ohio for her Mozart concerto and another for her Bach concerto in Seattle.

Before going onstage in Seattle, she learned of Kobe Bryant’s death. Temporarily she was unsettled because her son Otavio called and he was devastated.

What to do with the news of death before a performance?

As she was won’t to do, she channeled the image of the basketball star crashing down a California mountain in Bach’s larghetto movement which had a melancholy dance form associated with lament.

Then she got another standing ovation.

In the middle of the pandemic, I got in touch with Cecile to see how the country’s greatest pianist was doing.

Like everyone else, she was downhearted by the turn of events. Her Brahms concerto in Maryland was cancelled eventually as well as the rest of future performances.

She was down like everyone else.

This was one challenge she couldn’t handle easily.

She was asked to come home and perform in some private events but she said no. “I cannot perform in this state of mind,” she said.

We did not lose everything, I told her.

We still have your music.

A long pause.

Ok. I will go back to practising.

In the middle of the pandemic, I got to reflect on my life and times with Cecile Licad.

The author’s first meeting with Cecile Licad at Cagsawa Church Ruins in Albay, with Rebustillo family, in 1975

The author’s first meeting with Cecile Licad at Cagsawa Church Ruins in Albay, with Rebustillo family, in 1975

I met her at the Cagsawa Church Ruins in 1975 before her Albay recital.

In her recital at the St. Agnes Academy that followed, I saw a 14-year-old playing like a mature seasoned performer.

I remember hearing the PNR train hooting in the middle of Ravel’s Sonatina. An architect friend left the recital hall stunned by the performance. Outside, he said he thought he saw flowers in the school grounds dance during the performance.

It was my first Licad experience. A good thing I taped the performance and aired some excerpts in a radio program with my commentaries.

Before the year 1975 was over, I joined the musical Rebustillo family from Albay in watching another Licad concert, this time at the Cultural Center of the Philippines. Then CCP president Lucrecia Kasilag (“Tita King”) took care of our theater passes.

To be sure, 1975 was the year I first set foot at the CCP and it was my second Licad exposure, this time with an orchestra.

I remember writing about the event in Pilipino Express (sister publication of Daily Express) then later in Panorama magazine of Manila Bulletin.

It was then I realized there was no turning back writing about the arts.

Although I was still based in Albay in the late ‘70s, I could commute to Manila to watch concerts using my PNR train passes courtesy of PNR manager Col. Nick Jimenez, the father of journalist Letty Jimenez Magsanoc, who was then with Manila Bulletin and who would be the editor in chief of Philippine Daily Inquirer.

From 1975 to 1979, all I did was write for Manila Bulletin as correspondent and watched all the concerts at the CCP courtesy of “Tita King,” then CCP president. The turning point in 1979 was watching a San Francisco Opera production of Tosca starring no less than Placido Domingo.

In 1980, I decided to resettle in Manila as managing editor of CCP’s Arts Monthly and part of the CCP PR staff.

By then, I had easy access to all great performances not just of Licad but also of other great artists.

This was five years after I met her in Legazpi City, I was already at CCP and enjoying the best of the performing arts.

I was also silent witness to the life and times of Cecile Licad.

At the time, she won the Leventritt Gold Medal in New York, debuted with Boston Symphony Orchestra in Tanglewood under Seiji Ozawa.

In the ‘80s, she got married (to Brazilian cellist Antonio Meneses), became a mother to Otavio. Then I left CCP to do some impresario work.

(In 1984, I “debuted” as impresario at the Manila Metropolitan Theater presenting the celebrated Romanian diva Nelly Miricioiu with the Manila Symphony Orchestra under Sergio Esmilla, Jr.)

“Pablo, that’s not a baby grand. That’s a grand fetus.”

In the same decade in 1988, Licad and Meneses opened my Baguio International Music Festival, with tenor Otoniel Gonzaga closing it.

Cecile Licad receives standing ovation in Baguio City.

Cecile Licad receives standing ovation in Baguio City.

With very little experience in piano exposure, I showed Cecile the piano I found in Baguio for her first concert in the summer capital. Bluntly, she told me during a rehearsal break. “Pablo, that’s not a baby grand. That’s a grand fetus.”

When we returned to Baguio during the new millennium, a full grand piano traveled all the way from Manila to Baguio, complete with truck and piano tuner.

In the mid-‘90s, I learned about the pianist’s separation from her cellist husband. I kept quiet about it. I found the courage to write about it a year or two later.

Her famous quote after her standing ovation in Bonn and talking to her mother, Rosario: “I just realized Mama that I don’t need a husband. I need only my music and my son Otavio.”

And so, the following decades found me bringing her all over, from Manila, Tuguegarao City to Munoz, Nueva Ecija, Ilocos Norte, Bacolod,  Davao City, Legazpi City, Tagaytay City, and Dumaguete, among other places.

In 2018 when I turned 70, I realized I couldn’t go on bringing classical music to the provinces without it exacting a toll on my aging body.

It was then that I thought of doing my last concert tour with Cecile.

In 2017, I found a perfect recital venue in a heritage house called Nelly Garden in Iloilo City.

Although it seated only 200, the ambience was overwhelming and it had a 1929 New York grand piano. I brought up the recital idea to Cecile and she said yes.

It was then that all-Chopin program was conceived. That was in 2018.

The first performance was at the Nelly Garden, followed by another at the Molo Church and still another at SM Iloilo Cinema.

First time I oversaw three recitals in one place with no break.

She took time off from the concert by going to an Iloilo beach with a fan. It was then that I wrote a poem called God On the Beach:

My friend and I

Never really attempted to find God

In unlikely places.

She found Him in a hospital

Where many years back

Something that looked fatal

Was found somewhere

In her body.

 

Weeks of endless waiting

For results yielded the good news:

It was false alarm.

Her succeeding recital

Was a virtual thanksgiving concert

And she found God

looking over her shoulders.

She said:

‘I think I was meant to play

Till age 104.’

 

Two years ago,

She figured in three recitals

In the south that

Had audiences

Cheering with endless ovations.

 

At the end of the engagements,

She took a break and found herself

Wading through the sea water

Of Iloilo where she once played

As a young girl for the benefit

Of an orphanage.

 

This is one

Of her rare rendezvous

With nature.

 

She had a slice of the ocean

All to herself.

The sea was calm.

And the wind blew

At her face

As though it was her

Big moment of solitude.

 

Then she saw

What looked like

A rosary floating

In the waters

As if by design.

 

‘I found this floating in the waters

And I thought it looked good

On my wrist,’ she said.

 

I believe we have not said

Rosaries in our lifetime

Or visited churches

Or joined processions.

 

We try to find God in her music

That brought her the essential life

As she wanted it.

 

We had always figured

There must be

A touch of the divine in the audiences

Who are at once hushed

With every note touched

By her hands.

 

As we reflect on her last

Engagements in the countryside

I thank the heavens

She found God on the beach

With a good slice of sun

And cold wind blowing

On her face.

 * * *

Then we moved on to Science City of Munoz in Nueva Ecija, on to Baguio City and the last stop in Roxas City. It was in the last concert that she paid tribute to her teacher, Prof. Rosario Picazo.

In between concerts, I had time to observe the pianist at close range and realized her musical temperament had not wavered a bit. The passion intensified, limned with a newfound sense of maturity that came with age.

After those six concerts in less than two weeks, I realized my energy for concert organizing was waning and it was time to pause and do something else.

In the middle of the pandemic, I realized I have observed 45 years of the musical life of Cecile, since 1975, the year we met.

In 2019, I did my last two farewell concerts at Nelly Garden with other artists, while she did her landmark recording of all-Gershwin works with the South Danish Philharmonic Orchestra under Gerard Salonga.

It was then that the virus cancelled the rest of her remaining engagements after Mozart in Ohio and Bach in Seattle in January and February of 2020.

How did those 45 years observing the Licad life look like?

It was first-rate music-making all the way.

I saw her human side as well, her vulnerability as a mother and how she transforms life’s pains into pieces of sounds in the realm of magnificence.

This year, I turn 72 and she has turned 59.

I remember her writing to my granddaughter on the cover of her book, “Tanya, I hope you take over your Lolo and present me in a concert at age 102.”

About author

Articles

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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