Filipino Pianist Credits Success to Imelda Marcos


It is not every young musician who can claim as her sponsor one of the world’s most controversial political figures, but pianist Cecile Licad freely acknowledges that her flourishing career can be attributed directly to the help of Imelda Marcos.

The Manila-born Licad--who performs with Sir Peter Maxwell Davies and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra tonight at UCLA’s Royce Hall and Sunday at the Orange County Performing Arts Center--was 11 in 1972 when she requested permission to leave the Philippines, then under martial law, to study in the United States.

First Lady Marcos granted Licad’s request and named her First Piano Scholar of the Philippines Young Artists’ Foundation, which sponsored Licad’s 8 years of study at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia.


Marcos also arranged for the child prodigy to play--over the telephone--for a Marcos acquaintance, Van Cliburn. And much later, when the pianist broke her shoe heel before a command performance, Marcos provided her with a pair of her own now-notorious shoes. Other gifts from Marcos have included concert dresses and a black Steinway grand piano, one of two that Licad keeps in the living room of her Manhattan apartment.

While acknowledging the importance of this assistance to her career, Licad disassociates herself from any extramusical involvement with Marcos.

“We were never personal friends, and we never talked about politics, but I would not have studied in America if she hadn’t helped me,” said Licad by phone from San Francisco, the first stop on her 21-day, 18-concert tour with Davies. “I haven’t had much contact since they left the Philippines. I told her I got married, had a baby, things like this.”

Licad, 27, was born into a musical family: Her mother is a concert pianist-turned-teacher, and her great-uncle is a composer-pianist. As might be expected from one named for the patron saint of music, she began reading music at 4, performed with a Manila university student symphony at 6 and made her professional debut at 19, at the 1980 Tanglewood Festival with Seiji Ozawa and the Boston Symphony.

The following year, as the protege of Rudolf Serkin, she became the first musician in 10 years to win the prestigious Leventritt Foundation Gold Medal, whose previous winners include Cliburn, Pinchas Zukerman and Itzhak Perlman.

That award, with its guaranteed 3 years of international concert bookings and recordings, quickly brought her keyboard stardom.

“I was very grateful for it, but it also made my life difficult because of the pressure,” she recalled. “Here I’d been in the country in Vermont (studying with Serkin at the Institute for Young Performing Musicians), and suddenly I was doing 70 concerts a year.”

Her tour through the United States and Canada marks her first collaboration with Davies, often considered Britain’s foremost living composer.

“It’s interesting to be working with a conductor who’s a composer,” she observed. “The approach to the music is more fresh. If I have new ideas, something to say, he’s more open. We’re trying to put effort more into what the composers would like.”

Licad’s concert program lists Mozart’s D-minor Piano Concerto No. 20, K. 466 at Royce Hall and Beethoven’s First Piano Concerto in C at the Orange County Center.

“I love those composers,” she said. “It’s a new experience every time I play them. The Beethoven is a very young, lively piece, not at all like his late ones. The Mozart is very dramatic, and somehow frightening for me.”

With every work, the pianist’s first concern is remaining true to the composer’s intent.

“I learn the score very well, not just my part but everybody’s--being with a chamber orchestra, you don’t just think about your music. But when I perform I stop thinking and analyzing and play what I feel instinctively. I never plan anything--the phrasing is here, a harmonic chord is there. I think of it at the moment.”

Having given solo recitals, in addition to performances with almost every major conductor and orchestra, throughout North America, Europe, the Far East and Australia, Licad has found that geography can affect her performance.

“When you’re still not kind of comfortable in a country, your playing is not as free. I feel very comfortable in America, where I play the most, and I’m starting to enjoy playing in Germany very much. The American audiences are very warm, though sometimes they tend to make lots of noise, like with candy wrappers. But you get used to this.”

Licad’s pleasure at performing in Germany is due in no small part to the fact that her husband, Brazilian cellist Antonio Meneses, maintains a home in Munich. His own demanding concert schedule frequently keeps them apart; their 13-month-old son Otavio travels with Licad. “Sometimes he (Meneses) is in America 4 days to see us,” she said. “On this tour, he’ll be here 10 days. Then I’ll meet him in Japan for his tour.”

Licad will also soon play again in Japan, as well as in Europe and the United States. Her recording with violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg will be released soon, and next spring she will record a solo album. She has reduced her performance schedule to 45 or 50 concerts a year.

“Playing too many concerts, you lose your fresh feeling for the music. It becomes a job. I want time to lead my own life, get to know myself and feel whole. I like to do family things too, like cook.

“I don’t set goals,” she added. “I want to be better, but I can’t push. I take it day by day. When I play, I try now to be honest about how I really feel. My way in music has always been related somehow to my personal life. Right now, I’m really happy. I have a beautiful son. I’m enjoying everything.”

The Scottish Chamber Orchestra, with Cecile Licad (piano) and Neil Mackie (tenor), under conductor Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, will play Sunday at 2 p.m. at the Orange County Performing Arts Center in Costa Mesa. Tickets: $11-$32. Information: (714) 740-2000.