Etude on a Life

Cecile Licad with ABS-CBN Philharmonic acknowledging standing ovation in Glorietta Mall

In casual blouse and pants, a young looking Cecile Licad greets the lady of the house and the few musicians invited to a quiet dinner. Last May 11 was her special day and it’s one milestone she’d rather not celebrate–if she had a choice.

Perhaps the word is not “celebrate” but “fuss.” She doesn’t want people fussing over her birthday, which she always observes quietly with her son, Otavio, and some few close friends. In between puffs of cigarettes, she may be quietly reflecting on her life.

A day earlier, Licad was given a standing ovation in one of her rare mall concerts in Manila with the newly born ABS-CBN Philharmonic Orchestra under conductor Gerard Salonga.

Blowing the ceremonial candles on her birthday cake, she is probably surprised that she has actually spent a good 47 out of her 52 years in music. She fell in love with music when she was barely five at which age she was already intently listening to piano lessons her mother, Rosario Buencamino Licad, was giving her advanced students.

Cecile Licad with cellist Willi Pasamba and prima ballerina Lisa Macuja-Elizalde doing the famous "Dying Swan."

She would meet her first teacher, Rosario Picazo, a couple of years later, and with just a few lessons, she made her orchestral debut at the Philamlife Theater when she was barely eight. The ensemble was the UE Student Orchestra under Antonino Buenaventura, now a National Artist for Music. At age 11 in 1972, she became the youngest music student to be accepted at Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia.

Over generous servings of salad and kare-kare (oxtail stew), Licad is happy to see friends still linked to her musical life many years after she has outgrown the piano prodigy label.

She has musical genes from both the Buencamino and Licad lineage. On her father side (Dr. Jesus Licad), she has a piano teacher aunt (Mrs. Gloria Lanot, mother of poet Marra Lanot) and granduncles who play wind instruments. On her mother side she has the genes of her granduncle Francisco Buencamino whose “Mayon Fantasy” and “Larawan” are her frequent concert encore pieces.

Cecile Licad with son Otavio and the late filmmaker, Marilou Diaz Abaya, at Banaue rice terraces

Moreover, the Facebook world may be wondering why the pianist reacted so sadly to the deaths of movie icons, from Dolphy to FPJ, and recently, screen villain Bella Flores. What most music lovers don’t know is that Licad has showbiz connections, starting with film composer Willie Cruz, actor Nonie Buencamino, film director Mike de Leon and LVN matriarch Donya Sisang de Leon. One way or another, they all descended from the musically oriented Buencamino clan that originated in San Miguel, Bulacan, and later branched out in Metro Manila and other parts of the country.

Willie Cruz, Mike de Leon, Nonie and Nonong Buencamino are cousins, and the great grandmother of Senator Chiz Escudero is her mother’s grandaunt.

When her Otavio turned ten, Cecile realized her marriage was over. She confirmed the breakup on the eve of a recital in Bonn.

To be precise, Licad’s maternal grandfather – Gumersindo Buencamino–worked in the administrative section of LVN pictures while her mother’s sister was finance person in the same studio. For many years before her marriage, Rosario Buencamino  lived in the LVN compound and understandably, the  family was close to the famous stars of that time. Licad grew up watching the early films of Dolphy, Leopoldo Salcedo and other stars of LVN. Television and movies were her only respite from piano playing.

After that birthday celebration, Licad’s busy professional life beckons. She is soloist of Nashville Symphony on June 21 playing Tchaikovsky No. 1. She comes back to Manila on June 29 for Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 1 and Totentanz for Piano and Orchestra. The she flies to Frankfurt for a solo recital in a program totally different and challenging from her previous repertoire.

Cecile Licad with one of her famous teachers, piano icon Mieczyslaw Horszowski.

To be sure, she has had a life outside of music, most of it happy, but by turns sad and at times jolting. She fell in love and enjoyed marriage for ten years, which produced her now grown son, Otavio. She had her years as a dedicated wife and a doting mother. 

Her life and music often intertwined. The year she was preparing for a Tchaikovsky concerto, she reported promptly to the rehearsal at the Cultural Center of the Philippines lugging feeding bottles and a stroller. She was deep into a Brahms concerto when her then young son, Otavio, was bothered by asthma. Her close fans noticed that every time she agonized over her son's condition, the more deeply she interpreted her music.

When her Otavio turned ten, Cecile realized her marriage was over. She confirmed the breakup on the eve of a recital in Bonn. In deep emotional turmoil, she called her mom. 

Cecile Licad with Lea Salonga in the latter's latest show in New York

"Should I cancel this concert, Mama? I may not be up to it in this condition."

"Don't cancel," the mother advised. "Just do your best."

After the recital, which got her a standing ovation, she called her mother. "Mama, my concert went very well. I just realized I don't need a husband. I just need my music."

Now it can be revealed: Licad had a life-threatening episode. The scary news on Christmas of 2004 was that she had signs of cancer, and an operation would reveal whether it was for real or a false alarm. During the two critical weeks her doctor was examining her, she had two concerts in Columbus, Ohio, and Norfolk, Virginia, in a program of Ravel and Chopin concertos. 

When she confided to her friend about her condition, they both sounded like characters on death row. Filmmaker Marilou Diaz-Abaya heard the news in the receiving room of her film school and broke into tears. When she recovered, Abaya said wryly: “Let's just pray and trust the Lord."

Cecile Licad's birthday

Licad performed at the time as though it were her last presence on the concert stage. A Norfolk music critic wrote: "The Saturday evening concert at Chrysler Hall was not just another 'on' night. For whatever reason, it was the orchestra's best performance in recent memory capped by the stunning performance of Cecile Licad. With the orchestra's equally nuanced support, this was a concerto experience of the highest order."

A month after the operation, the surgeon told her the cancer symptom was a false alarm. She remembered blurting out to her friend: “I think I will still be alive for God knows how many years. But I can still play till I am 90. My art and my music are my real wealth."

Ironically, it was her filmmaker friend, Marilou Diaz-Abaya, who actually succumbed to cancer. Licad was by her side during the filmmaker’s first chemotherapy sessions at St. Luke’s Hospital.

At age 52, Cecile Licad has gone through trials in her art and life and remains an artist of the highest order.


Tchaikowsky - Piano Concerto no. 1 


Buencamino - Larawan (The Portrait)


Gottschalk - Manchega

Pablo A. Tariman (Photo by George Tapan)

Pablo A. Tariman (Photo by George Tapan)

Pablo A. Tariman writes regularly on the arts in Philippine Daily Inquirer, Philippine Star and Vera Files. Born in Baras, Catanduanes, he has three daughters and three grandchildren.