“I can’t play like this,” Cecile Licad declared in her deep, raspy voice while standing on the stage propped before the altar of Iloilo’s famed Molo church. The world renowned pianist arrived at the church around noon to check on things before the scheduled performance later that night, and got disappointed with the baby grand piano that was “too small for a venue bigger than the Vatican.” To make matters worse, the sound system needed adjustments, and the piano stool lacked screws.
“I’m going to practice, put on my dress and sit on that chair?” Cecile asked someone from the set-up team.
Calmly seated nearby were Francis and Joy Onglatco, the couple who arranged Cecile’s 3-day outing in Iloilo. “We started as fans,” Joy explained, “then we started to organize her concerts in Cebu where we are based.”
The Ilonggo-born Onglatcos had long wanted to bring the pianist to their home province. Joy saw the opportunity late last year when she heard President Duterte’s tirades against then Iloilo City mayor Jed Mabilog, whom the former accused of conniving with drug lords. Realizing the imminent outcome of that very public attack, she called Jose Espinosa III. “I congratulated him,” she said laughing. “If it does come true,” Joy recalled telling the mayoral next-in-line, “please help me bring Cecile to our province.”
Mabilog’s downfall unfolded swiftly, just as Joy had predicted. But it took time for the Onglatcos to convince the new mayor to grant their wish. “Baka daw masyadong high brow or mahal yung tickets,” Joy said, “but we told him we want the concerts to be free to the public. So we raised the funds to make that happen.”
Close to the altar, Cecile continued to practice, checking on the sound system in between while the Onglatcos made some calls. The whole spectacle, though tense, was a real pleasure to watch. One of the country’s eminent musicians –in a daster (according to a photographer waiting to take her portrait), a pair of slippers, legs in an awkward variation of the manspread –playing Chopin with the Neogothic church’s 12 female saints in attendance.
It is in contrast to the gown-clad pianist—her size 9 feet shod in glittery strappy high heels—who mesmerized with a bravura performance at Nelly Garden the previous night. Gathered in that affair were classical music aficionados, some of Cecile’s loyal fans (including writer Pablo Tariman, who also acts as Cecile’s piano scout), Iloilo’s culturati, as well as Cecile’s coifed and perfumed society groupies.
An appearance by a Marcos was the subject of hushed conversations. “It was brave of Irene (Araneta) to come and watch Cecile play in a Lopez house,” said a guest. Irene seemed more bothered by the heat. “Ang bango mo pa,” she whispered to Cebu editor Jing Ramos during the intermission. “Kanina pa kami dito, ang babaho na namin.”
After an intermission, Cecile returned to Nelly Garden’s grand salon to complete her all-Chopin banquet, buoyed by the crowd’s enthusiastic response to the program’s first set. The pianist played a series of etudes that displayed Chopin’s emotional and technical range, ending with the composer’s rousing “Revolutionary.” Completed around the time of the Polish armed uprising’s defeat in the hands of the Russians in 1831, the piece took everyone to a very dark place.
Cecile’s left fingers rolled heavy on the piano’s lower register, creating an incessant din of doom. The pianist’s right hand countered with frantic, urgent movements filling the room with Chopin’s despair and anger. Revolutionary’s contrasting textures evoked a torrid moment with the composer defiantly rallying his beloved Poland’s broken spirit, a hymn apt for the battle front. Or simply Chopin’s poetic way of telling the Russians to fuck off.
The crowd erupted in applause and stood on their feet. Cecile encored with three short compositions, the last a sentimental choice. “I’m in the Philippines,” she told the audience, “so I’ll play Larawan.”
“Akala ko si Pablo Tariman yung nagsasalita,” remarked a guest who’s obviously not heard the pianist’s deep voice which had turned more mannish through the years due to smoking.
“I started smoking at age 11 or 12,” Cecile said a few days later, over lunch hosted by the Ontlatcos at Blackbird in Makati. She appeared more relaxed having just finished her Iloilo concerts. “My parents bribed me with food and cigarettes, so I’d continue to practice.”
Blackbird’s order-taker was turning to leave when Cecile asked about the restaurant’s rice portions. “Madami ba?,” she asked. “Huwag mo ko tipidin sa rice,” she commanded.
Cecile’s love for food was partly shaped by her doctor father’s patients who gave him home-cooked dishes (including exotic confections like asadong pato) in lieu of cash payments, and her “best teacher,” Prof. Rosario Picazo. “She would bring me food when I’m sick and take me to restaurants,” Cecile said.
Her childhood as a piano prodigy was, as expected, steeped in discipline. Cecile’s father—who “didn’t speak much”—woke her up at 4 in the morning and drove her to school with classical music playing on the car stereo. She was enrolled in Poveda because the school hours allowed her to practice back at home from four in the afternoon until seven in the evening.
The pianist shook her head when asked if she had fun hanging out with other girls her age. “I didn’t go to any of the school socials,” Cecile admitted. “We were middle-class, not elite. I was ashamed.”
Just like kids raised by parents of a certain era, Cecile wasn’t spared the rod when she made mistakes during performances. “Pinapalo ako,” the pianist revealed. “One time, they told me they won’t let me eat. So I threatened them. I was fourteen at that time. I said sige, hindi na ko magpia-piano. I mean, they promised me kakain sa Aristocrat tapos hindi.”
“So pinakain ka nila?” Joy asked.
“Hindi. Lalo akong sinabunutan,” was Cecile’s reply.
Contrary to popular perception, the pianist said she wasn’t close to the Marcoses during her years in Manila. She does admit her friendship with Irene. “But that was later,” Cecile added, “when she lived in London.” Though Imelda was undeniably fond of her, it was the pianist’s parents who searched for the best schools in order for Cecile to develop her skills and realize her full potential. Allowances from local foundations allowed her to study abroad on scholarships.
In short, she doesn’t call Imelda Marcos tita, or as her parents preferred, madame. “I just say Mrs. Marcos.”
On the subject of love, she said she doesn’t have time between her performances and eight hours of daily practice.
“Was Antonio the love of your life?” Joy asked, referring to Cecile’s Brazilian cellist husband, Antonio Meneses.
“That was just sex,” Cecile answered, laughing hard, “we had to have sex to have a child.”
Strange as it sounds, Cecile has a hard time expressing gratitude. “I was taught to say thank you,” she said, “but I can’t.” With her whole life devoted to playing the piano, she is better at expressing her thoughts and feelings through her music.
One of her most ardent fans, Michael Salientes, recalled a memorable experience some years back when he was tasked with styling her for a photo shoot. “I wanted to bring out the woman in her and subjected her to wearing false lashes, and pose alluringly with a tuxedo jacket and Louboutin heels,” Michael narrated. “That was definitely not one of her most fun moments.” After two hours of being glammed up, Cecile asked for a break. To Michael’s surprise, the pianist asked him what he wanted to hear. Michael froze, overcome with joy at the thought of “one of the world’s greatest musicians asking for my request.” He chose Chopin’s Balade in G minor. “The Matterhorn of all piano pieces,” Michael said, “because it speaks of triumph and power, devastation and intensity, great passion and longing. I felt all that as Cecile became all of that, conquering my senses in nine minutes or so.”
And that’s how she rolls; returning a favor with a generous performance infinitely more gratifying than a mere thank you.
Photographs by Jon Unson