Artist Interview: Cecile Licad

By jacob on November 30, 2015

Pianist Cecil Licad returns to PCMS for her first of two appearances during the 2015-16 Season. An active soloist and chamber musician,  Ms. Licad has performed with the  Chicago Symphony, Boston Symphony, Philadelphia Orchestra, New York Philharmonic, and alongside quartets such as the Guarneri and Takács. Her performance on November 24 will explore the evolution of the American piano sonata, and she took the time to discuss this program, her years at Curtis, and her second appearance with the Lindemann and Juilliard Opera Programs in May.

Patrick Burke: Your upcoming program is entitled “First American Sonatas”. What attracted you to this idea initially, and how did you come to select these specific works?

Cecile Licad: I actually got the idea from a great friend of mine, who over the years has helped me program works which aren’t played so much these days. He ended up sending me a number of pieces by American composers, and these four sonatas in particular struck me as being rich and robust and very underappreciated. So I found it fortunate I was able to program four sonatas by American composers, and to explore a theme that maybe hasn’t been looked at too much by contemporary pianists.

I selected these works because of their quality and  diversity. I recently recorded them, and the CD will be the first one of an anthology of American piano music that I am planning to record over the next few years. I’ve realized that classical American composers are very underrated in comparison to their European contemporaries, and at one point you have to wonder why the standard repertoire of piano music includes only about two dozen composers mostly from Europe.

PB: The four works cover a span of over 150 years, with the first work being composed in 1786. Do you feel there is a common arch between the four works and what do you hope to ?

CL: I hope the program shows how American piano music began to evolve from its European models. Reinagle was born in Europe, and his music resembles, in most ways, the music of Haydn and that of Bach's sons. MacDowell and Griffes were born in America, but received most of their musical training in Europe. MacDowell sometimes uses themes in his works that are perceived as "typically American", especially in his short character pieces such as the Woodland Sketches, but otherwise he still remains deeply rooted in European romanticism. Griffes was one of the first American musicians with a truly independent spirit, but like MacDowell he didn’t strive to incorporate American folklore into his major works. His sonata is original but doesn't sound "American". And Siegmeister used yet another approach as he tried to blend popular and jazzy American themes into the form of a classical piano sonata. There’s  at least a dozen more first-rate American piano sonatas that people seem to have no interest in listening to.

PB: You were born in the Philippines where you began studying piano at age three. By the time you were twelve you moved to the United States to study with Rudolf Serkin, Seymour Lipkin, and Mieczyslaw Horszowski at the Curtis Institute. Could you tell us more about your musical upbringing and your time as a student?

CL: I started very young, I don’t have too many memories about learning how to play. I think my parents had in mind that I would be a musician since I was born for they named me after St. Cecilia who is the patron saint of Music. I remember being woken up at 4 in the morning to practice for a few hours before school, and then practicing after school until dark. I also remember my father who was a medical doctor and had a hobby of maintaining all sorts of recording equipment and would have a reel to reel playing all day long, and even when I was asleep. So I grew up listening to all the great pianists every single day of my childhood: Arthur Schnabel, Rudolf Serkin,  Horowitz, Richter, Myra Hess etc.

For my time as a student, I’ll just mention something that has stuck with me about each of my teachers. I remember being 13 and I was playing for the Curtis Piano jury, which we had to do every year. I was playing a Mozart sonata for them in Curtis hall and I screwed up a passage in the last movement. I went crying to my Mom and told her I’d probably get kicked out of the school for such a mistake. To my surprise the next day Mr. Serkin told me that that I actually had made his wife cry in the slow movement of that particular Mozart sonata, and I ended up winning some sort of student prize for it. So from that I learned that my best performances usually have nothing to do with small mistakes or with my personal feelings about how it went.

With Mr. Lipkin I’ll share a story he told me only a couple of years ago. He said while taking a lesson with him, he would ask me to do a certain interpretative idea in some piece and apparently I would just nod and say okay, but everytime he would suggest something I would do the opposite of what he had asked for and found me always super stubborn in that way.

Horszowski was the one who I learned how to listen from, for he didn’t do so much explaining. But the joy, humor and enthusiasm in the way he would play and demonstrate musical passages for me... that was unforgettable. To this day his naturality in playing still rings in me. He was very creative in pedaling as well and would always change his mind often how to do things.

PB: You’re a very active chamber musician as well, and we’re lucky enough to hear you twice this season, as you’ll be returning with members of the Met Opera Lindemann and Juilliard Opera Programs. How does your preparation change for recitals like this, and could you tell us about your friendship with Ken Noda?

CL: Ken and I have been good friends since I was around 19 or 20. He is an incredibly intelligent, creative, funny man who can turn a used dinner napkin into a work of art. Every time we get together we always end up being kids again so that kind of friendship is always a treasure.

As far as preparing for chamber music, I’ve always approached it with the same intensity as far as preparing by myself.  But I definitely feel that the opportunity for chemistry with other players during rehearsal and performance is what makes it really fun and fresh, and not quite as masochistic as preparing for a solo recital or concerto.

Pianist Cecile Licad appears on Tuesday, November 24, 2015 at the American Philosophical Society. For tickets and information, visit the concert page.