(Source: By Arlene Bachanov, The Daily Telegram)
ADRIAN, Mich. — When Cecile Licad made her debut as a soloist with the Philharmonic Orchestra of the Philippines — at age 7 — she knew immediately that she’d found her passion.
“I remember coming off stage and knowing, ‘Here’s what I’m going to do all my life,’ ” she said.
From that beginning — for which she thinks she played a Haydn concerto — the Philippine-born Licad has gone on to a distinguished career as a pianist, playing with some of the world’s most renowned orchestras, conductors and chamber ensembles and as a recitalist. This Sunday, she performs the Chopin Piano Concerto No. 1 with the Adrian Symphony Orchestra.
The concert is at 3 p.m. at Adrian College’s Dawson Auditorium.
Licad’s musical career started at age 3, when her mother began teaching her to play piano. “I kept on bothering her and she finally said, ‘OK, go ahead,’ ” she said with a laugh. “But she didn’t want me to become a musician, because she knows how difficult a life it is.”
But by age 7 she’d made that fateful solo debut, and by age 9 she was already playing Chopin’s second piano concerto. “Apparently, my progress was very fast,” she said, rather understatedly.
And she quickly attracted the attention of the Philippines’ then-leader, President Ferdinand Marcos. She remembers Marcos himself holding the telephone out so that no less a pianist than Van Cliburn could hear her playing a Chopin scherzo. Cliburn was in New York. It was 2 a.m. there.
“I wish I’d had a camera,” she said, to take a picture of Marcos doing that.
She also remembers the time she was to play a command performance at the palace and broke the heel of a shoe during rehearsal. As it turned out, she wore the same shoe size as Imelda Marcos — and soon thereafter Imelda’s assistants brought her a pair of shoes from the first lady’s legendarily immense shoe collection, so she’d have something to wear for the concert.
And then there were the times she played for Imelda’s parties, which tended to go on and on.
“Marcos told me, ‘Don’t listen to my wife. Take a rest,” she said, laughing.
Because of Imelda Marcos’ interest in classical music — “She was very proud of her protégés,” Licad said — Licad was allowed to leave the Philippines with her mother, even during martial law to study in the U.S. at the famed Curtis Institute of Music, where she was taught by none other than Rudolf Serkin, Seymour Lipkin and Mieczyslaw Horszowski. She was all of 11 years old.
One of her classmates, who had come to Curtis at age 8, was the violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg.
Licad spoke English, but she was so notoriously quiet that her Curtis classmates thought she was mute. But Salerno-Sonnenberg got her to talk in a rather unique way: “She offered me a potato chip,” Licad said. The two became friends and have since recorded together.
Over her career, Licad has performed and recorded many of the staples of the classical piano repertoire, and has occasionally ventured into some rather uncharted territory too. “I like new adventures and new things,” she said.
For example, she recorded a CD of Gottschalk’s music because, as she put it, “I thought, ‘Why not?’ ” and as a result ended up collaborating with the Wynton Marsalis Septet to perform Gottschalk on a recent five-city tour of a silent movie called “Louis,” an homage to Louis Armstrong.
Accompanying a silent movie was a really different experience, she said. “It was difficult as hell.” She played 12 Gottschalk pieces in all, having to synchronize the music with the onscreen action in the tradition of the old silent-movie pianists.
“It was very exciting. I’ve never done anything like that,” she said. “And you learn from that. I can apply it to whatever I’m playing next.”
The piece Licad will perform with the ASO on Sunday, Chopin’s Piano Concerto No.1, is a work that she calls “unpredictable.”
“You can analyze it all you want, but it has to sound fresh. You have to be expressive and let (the piece) be,” she said.
To her, this concerto is one of those works that only sounds simple. “(Chopin’s) virtuosity is not loud,” she said. “It sounds easy, but the amount of work you put into such a piece is enormous. … You have to not sound like you’re suffering, but a lot of suffering has gone into it.”
And it’s a work that over time has grown on her.
“You can’t think of yourself at all. You just have to let it flow,” she said. “It’s technically difficult, but you can’t think about it. You have to bring out the simplicity and the fire within. And it’s just magic. Every note in this concerto is just very expressive. It’s like a river flowing. … I wasn’t so close to this piece (at first), but now I absolutely love it.”