By AA Patawaran
Images by Floyd Evangelista Flores
Does sunshine make a sound? Do the clouds in the sky make the softest whisper?
At world-acclaimed Filipino artist Cecile Licad’s piano concert at Nelly’s Garden, the Lopez Heritage House in Jaro, Iloilo that was built in 1928 in Beaux-Arts style, all that was beautiful in the world descended upon the sala, in which the concert was held over the ivory keys of a 1929 New York Steinway piano, and gave Frédéric Chopin’s masterpieces an emotional hook by which, casting her audience under the spell of her own interpretations, Cecile took them to places magical and mysterious.
The concert at Nelly’s Garden was only the first of her three-night engagement in Iloilo. The second was held at the Church of Saint Anne, more generally known as Molo Church, a neo-Gothic colonial structure that dates back to 1831. A third concert was held at Cinema Six at SM Iloilo.
I was with music critic and producer Pablo Tariman when he first dreamed up a Cecile Licad concert in Iloilo last year on his quest to preserve the heritage landmarks and to keep the arts alive. “Iloilo is famous for its heritage houses as much as it is synonymous with violinist Gilopez Kabayao, pianist Ma. Luisa Vito, and the Ilonggo author Stevan Javellana,” Pablo explained.
Needless to say, Pablo has had to suffer to make this dream come true, though he did get a little help from the musicians of Iloilo City, its local government, the National Commission for Culture and the Arts, and of course Cecile, who more than anyone else recognized how passionate he was about the dream and thus made it a bit more achievable for him, even if she was “absolutely freaked out over the thought of playing at this humongous Molo Church with a super baby grand,” as she put it.
And was it worth it!
Everything fell into place, despite the many logistical nightmares, such as the re-tuning and re-polishing of the ivory keys of the Steinway at Nelly’s Garden for which Pablo had to bring with him from Manila a tuner who, thankfully, doubled as a sound system specialist. As if to further reassure both Pablo and Cecile, the final arrangements for the concerts also coincided with the observance of the 169th death anniversary of Chopin, who would have been 208 years old today.
I like to experiment with sounds so that the music composed hundreds of years back will sound like it’s part of what we hear every day.
Cecile has had a lifetime’s worth of emotional connection to the revered Polish composer. Her very first competition piece, for instance, was the F minor concerto, with which she won the Manila Young Artists auditions, even though one member of the jury almost compromised her victory, thinking that the Chopin concerto was not the appropriate audition piece for an 11-year-old pianist.
As it turned out, not only did the first movement of the F minor concerto help her pass her auditions at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, where she was accepted without reservation and where she trained under Bohemian-born pianist Rudolf Serkin, American conductor Seymour Lipkin, and Polish-American pianist Mieczyslaw Horszowski, it was also her debut piece with the New York Philharmonic under the baton of Bombay-born conductor Zubin Mehta a few years later, in 1981.
Incidentally, following her first recital in Poland, Chopin’s birthplace, she has been hailed “the best Chopin interpreter in 15 years” by Polish Chopin specialists and music critics.
Cecile’s return to Iloilo, where she had once performed in 1975 at age 14, is a celebration of these connections. “I have chosen a program which represents Chopin in many ways emotionally and in various genres,” she said.
Indeed, the two-act concert, featuring a wide range of Chopin’s genres, from his nocturnes to his scherzi, berceuses, and mazurkas, is a celebration of the delicate music of Chopin, which Cecile described as highly dependent on “nuances and subtlety.” In the second act, following a brief intermission, she played the Op. 10 collection of the Études. In two of the concerts that I caught, she played three encores between ovations—yet another Chopin piece, “Minute Waltz,” Creole composer Louie Moreau Gottschalk’s “Souvenirs d’Andalousie,” and Francisco Buencamino’s “Ang Larawan.”
Cecile, as always, performed from her core and to the core of the music, as if from the depths of her soul, and yet, with every movement of her body, her fingers adroit and flexible, her shoulders hunching and relaxing, her eyes closing and opening, her feet pressing on or releasing the foot pedals to add depth to the sound, she drew the audience deeper into the music. “It’s not a performance,” she told me at a post-concert degustacion at Ilonggo chef Tibong Jardeleza’s La Cocina del Sur in Alta Sierra near Molo Church. “I go with what’s natural.”
From my standpoint as a viewer, Cecile on the piano is music gone physical, rumbling like a river or crashing like the tides, swept away in the torrents, sounding “like a calm and beautiful lake ruffled by a sudden storm and again becoming calm.” At the concert, I had my eyes going from her face that shone bright like a diamond to her fingers that flew off the keys like pearls, to her feet encased in killer heels that were crusted with shimmering crystals (she wore a Sergio Rossi + Swarovski collaboration at Nelly’s Garden), and then back again. At one point in the beginning of the recital, I closed my eyes to check how it would all sound if I focused on the notes completely, but of course it was an experience incomplete without the vision of Cecile, though the interpretation would be distinctly hers, “my version and not anybody’s,” as she once said.
By the second concert, held at the much bigger Molo Church, accommodating as many as 800 spectators as opposed to 250 the night before at Nelly’s Garden, I was more relaxed, no longer afraid that a fit of coughing would ruin the experience for me or for others or for Cecile, no longer afraid that, moved by the melody, I might, against concert etiquette, clap my hands one note too early. “I don’t mind that,” said Cecile. “If the music moves you to applaud before the end of the piece, go ahead. I don’t mind the spontaneity of it.”
So I sat back, aware of every nuance and, appreciating it all—wisps of her hair flying by the force of her passion, the eloquence of her fingers “ice-skating” on the black keys in the famous black key étude, the Op. 10 No. 5, or “flowing, jumping, crashing, falling” on Op. 10 No. 4 , or scampering across the length of the keyboard to produce the sound of cathedral bells in Op. 10 No. 1—I realized it was in the combination of all of these things that I heard the sunshine.
Catch Cecile Licad interpret Chopin on Dec. 6 at the CAP Auditorium in Baguio City and then on Dec. 8 at the Gerry Roxas Foundation Auditorium in Roxas City.