Pianist Cecile Licad was a prodigy in the Philippines, a soloist by the age of seven. Trained under famed pianist Rudolf Serkin at the Curtis Institute of Music, she received the award for most outstanding student, and later won the coveted Leventritt Gold Medal while performing with such orchestras as the London Symphony, the Cleveland Orchestra, the Pittsburgh Symphony, and the Royal Philharmonic. I spoke to Ms. Licad via phone from New York.
JONATHAN LOWE: Poet Marianne Moore once said that, quote, "a writer is unfair to himself when he is unable to be hard on himself." As a musician, were you always hard on yourself, and if so, where and how do you think this drive for perfection started?
CECILE LICAD: I was five when I started, and my father used to wake me up at five in the morning to get me to practice. He was a doctor, very strict, but my mother was the pianist, although not a professional. Funny, I remember when she would try to show me something about playing, I would always say I could do that better. (laughs) Very confident for a five year old.
LOWE: So it came very naturally for you. It was just there, and you developed it very quickly.
LICAD: Yeah, I almost don't know how the process works, or how to describe it. I was never good at expressing myself articulately in words, but the piano was there, and that was definitely my medium of expression.
LOWE: Now, you're playing a big, popular romantic concerto here, Tchaikovsky's first, which you played with the Chicago Symphony and elsewhere. Does this concerto continue to challenge or inspire you, having played it so often?
LICAD: Yes, because whenever I play I always have to find something challenging about it. Sometimes, for a performer, things can almost become too easy, and you think you can do everything, but then you always have to be imaginative, too, even regarding the technical aspects. So each time you play is new, like something you discover.
LOWE: Like an emotional journey?
LICAD: Yes, and so you can't really plan exactly how you'll play it. It takes you over, and it's not something that you can make up somehow. For me, even the pacing and rhythm of it need to come naturally as a way to express what I feel in playing the music.
LOWE: What's so appealing about Tchaikovsky's 1st Concerto?
LICAD: Well, it's like a big production, a blockbuster movie or soap opera. (laughs) Like with big ranges of emotion when you see the whole work.
LOWE: Like a great story.
LICAD: Exactly, and I always relate music to telling a story, all the gradations of knowing how to build to the climax somehow. That's the difficulty of it, because most pianists who play this piece, they think it's for showing how fast or how loud you can play it. Of course there are moments like an earthquake, but that's really not the important thing.
LOWE: As in telling a story, you have to guide it, knowing what to show and when.
LICAD: Right, the mystery of it is important. And the mastery is important too because you have to be above the technical aspects in order to make it flow, and to know what kind of emotion you have to put into it.
LOWE: You've been praised for your performance of the Rachmaninoff Third Concerto, which is incredibly demanding, and also one of my favorites, since, as a teenager, I once saw Van Cliburn perform Rachmaninoff's Second at the Brevard Music Festival, which sparked my own interest in classical music. How does the Tchaikovsky 1st rate in terms of technical difficulty?
LICAD: I'm not sure, but this concerto was one I heard Van Cliburn play when I was fourteen, and I was amazed, and thought he was just incredible, too, how he delivered his sound.
LOWE: So expressive in every way.
LICAD: Yes, and that's the key to this kind of music.
LOWE: Now, you've been called a "pianist's pianist," so I'm wondering which pianists you yourself admire most. Like Rudolf Serkin, your teacher.
LICAD: Of course, and also the big Russian pianists like Richter.
LOWE: He was definitely one who made it look so effortless.
LICAD: Yes, and that's the goal of pianists, to make a simple statement with as much as you can put into it, while at the same time not looking like you're about to have a heart attack.
LOWE: How aware are you of the audience as you're playing?
LICAD: I am aware of them. Sometimes when you're practicing you may feel that you don't have enough energy, but when the audience is there, you do feel that you have to keep them with you, and you feel their own energy somehow, too.
LOWE: Are stool height and pedal softness big issues for you, like with playing Liszt as opposed to Chopin?
LICAD: Not really, but I do adjust every piano prior to playing because clarity is important, no matter how soft or loud or fast the music requires. Being clear is the important thing.
LOWE: Any horror story or amusing anecdote you'd like to share about performances or audiences?
LICAD: Well, when I was fifteen or sixteen I once played a command performance for then First Lady of the Philippines, Imelda Marcos, and she wanted me to prepare for just the last movement of the Tchaikovsky concerto. Well, for a concert like this we didn't normally play the whole concerto, and so I was waiting for the entrance of the orchestra for this last movement, and they just started playing the first movement! I didn't know that she told the conductor that she wanted to show off me playing these long passages of octaves. So I was completely shocked, but I still had to play it. (laughs) Marcos just wanted what she wanted, and then afterward it was like "I got you," but in a joking way.
LOWE: I've read that you like to learn from scratch without listening to recordings, and really exploring music that's new to you.
LICAD: Yes, I do enjoy learning new stuff, and this year I've been learning a lot of Scriabin. Works with orchestra too, where there's also a chorus, with very difficult scores that I have to learn. People tend to approach you with the idea that you have a specialty because you play something well, but in reality you give your best to the work in front of you. People associate me with Chopin, Rachmaninoff, big romantic works, but I do also play other things.
LOWE: They once gave Van Cliburn a ticker tape parade in New York after his competition win in Russia, at the height of the Cold War, but today that's something hard to imagine in our repetitive Top 40, hip hop music video era. What would you recommend for young people to listen to in order to discover this music for themselves?
LICAD: That's hard to say. Maybe Chopin, whose music is so universal, and connects to the soul.
LOWE: As opposed to, like Schoenberg.
LICAD: Right, except, you know, when I was playing Scriabin some friends of my son Ottavio, who were not into classical music, asked him, like, "wow, what's that cool music your mom is playing?"