In Her Words: Cecile Licad
She has been referred to by the international music community as “the pianists’ pianist”–an artist worthy of both admiration and emulation–because of the virtuosity and passion she exudes in each and every performance. Indeed, award-winning pianist Cecile Licad doesn’t just want to leave audiences in awe, but would rather that they be inspired to become virtuosos themselves, inspired to practise by her work.
Licad was recently in the country for a slew of magnificent performances at the Manila Polo Club; at the famed Molo Church and the Nelly Garden in Iloilo; the CAP Auditorium in Baguio; and at the Gerry Roxas Foundation Auditorium in Roxas City.
Discovered as a musical prodigy at a very early age, she began her piano studies at the age of three with her mother, Rosario Buencamino-Licad, and later with the famed pedagogue Rosario Picazo. Licad also has the distinction of being the youngest woman to ever win the prestigious Leventritt Gold Medal when she was only 19. Over half a century on, she has performed with some of the world’s greatest orchestras and has earned critical acclaim for several recordings. Her most recent release, American Landscapes (the third volume of her Anthology of American Music) has received rave reviews from critics overseas.
We at Philippine Tatler recently had the honour and privilege of catching up with this living treasure of the musical industry.
You were recently in Iloilo where, as we understand, you performed at a benefit concert in 1975 when you were 14. How did it feel to come back as an established artist?
I don’t really think of myself as established; in fact, I still feel like a child when I’m playing even now that I have 50 years of experience in playing the piano. Of course, it’s different now that I’ve lived many years – I don’t even remember what I did at 14!
I just play [music], because I like to play: it is my vocation. For me, it’s like breathing or eating: it’s a natural process. The more I play, the more joy I have – like the feeling I had when I played [recently] at Molo Church which, from where I sat, seemed even bigger than the Vatican. I had this little piano, and I wondered how to project my feelings to those listening.
I’m not going to resort to any theatricality, but I have to really feel the music inside and I have to express it without caring about who else is listening. [First and foremost,] the music has to affect me. I pray that people get it; and it feels like a miracle whenever I am able to project [my emotions] without trying too hard. I just get into a zone where all I think about is the music.
Audiences have noted that, regardless of the size of the space you’re performing in, you always play with such verve and passion. How do you do it?
The thing with me with every concert and every venue – regardless of whether it’s a house, a concert hall, or a church – is that I live for the moment and the energy I put into it remains the same.
It’s about what I hear: I use my ears and my senses. It’s something – an energy – I have within me, almost like I’m on fire inside, especially when I have to play [in public.]
This is a responsibility for me. Whether you like it or not, I have to give it my all. This is me: take it or leave it – this is what I’m good at.
As an artist, it has been noted that you aren’t exactly image-centric. Would it be too much to say that, where you are concerned, what we see is what we get?
I want to inspire, not to say “I’m better than you.” I’d like to evoke some sort of joy, to see a listener’s eyes light up. I don’t want to describe it as spiritual – that’s a word I find pretentious at times – but it’s something that makes people happy.
People ask me “Where do you get the energy or the inspiration?” I don’t know! I have it inside me; I’ve had it since I was five years old.
But there have been insecurities that get in the way – and insecurity is part of being human. I talk about them with my son; and he says, “Mum, chill out! That’s what you’re good at! You’ve been playing for 50 years – what’s the problem? Just do it!”
You have been described as “the pianists’ pianist.” There are a lot of ways with which to interpret those words, but would it be all right to say that it means you’re a role model for other artists?
It could be; you could interpret it that way.
All I know is that, whenever I play, I want people to say [at the end of the performance], “Oh, I can’t wait to practice! I feel encouraged to practice!” That’s what I’d like: that people get inspired – not through talking or through explaining stuff. You just have to listen; you have to use your senses – you have to live it.
I’d like people to be able to relate to the music; [in that way, I’m like] a missionary. For me, music is like my religion – I feel like I can relate better with God through the music.
You have a number of projects and performances lined up, including one for The Phillips Collection slated for February 2019 with cellist Alban Gerhardt. Are there any recordings that musical aficionados can look forward to?
Yes, I’m doing an all-Gershwin thing for orchestra and piano in Denmark.
They asked me who I wanted to perform with, and, instinctively, I said I had a guy in mind for this. I was thinking of [conductor] Gerard Salonga. I’ve played with him before, and I felt that he was the right guy for this particular project.
[Gershwin] has everything, but I can’t really describe it yet as I don’t really know how the music is going to be [until we perform it.] But I’m going to be working on it now for several months.
Looking back over a career that has spanned over half a century, what has been the greatest lesson you’ve learned?
It’s just to persevere: to do what you believe in and don’t give up. I never give up.
There’s a fire inside me, but I preserve that energy for what’s important. I will give it my all for the two hours I’m performing, even if it hurts my hands. I save my energy for the times when I give it to the people who come to listen to me.
I’m not just going to sit there half-heartedly and leave it all to my fingers. It’s 200 per cent or nothing.
- Photography Domingo Ganaban
- Make-Up Roge Bernaldez for Laura Mercier
- Hair Kim Echavia for Phyto