REVIEW: Thrilla from Manila

Unusual as it is for an orchestral season to open without an orchestra, that’s exactly what happened Saturday night at the Link Centre Concert Hall.

Instead, a lone woman – beautiful, dynamic, phenomenally talented – plus the Tupelo Symphony Orchestra’s grandly sonorous Steinway, WERE the orchestra. And when this beautiful Philippine pianist began to caress the Steinway’s keys with her flying fingers, no one noticed the absence of 80 symphonic musicians at all!

The backstory to this remarkable event begins in Manila, Republic of the Philippines, about 1964. Watching her mother give piano lessons, a bright little 3-year-old girl starts picking out melodies on the keyboard – not with one childish finger, but as coordinated movements involving both hands.

Her mother is astonished. The little girl’s name is Cecile Licad.

Soon sonatas and concertos were skipping from Cecile’s nimble fingers with all the prodigious ease of a young Mozart. And like Mozart, each piece of music seemed to whisper its exciting secrets directly, telling her just why and how the composer wanted it brought to life.

Before long her unique talents brought her to the U.S., where even the august Rudolf Serkin proclaimed her a miracle, made her his student, and help revive the coveted Leventritt Gold Medal, thereby launching her amazing worldwide concert and recording career in 1981.

As the most acclaimed artist of the Philippines, Licad naturally enjoys tremendous prestige and admiration among Philippine citizens everywhere. “Daily Journal” arts reporter Scott Morris has already reported on the role played by Dr. Noel Garcia and other Philippine Cultural Society members in bringing her to Tupelo.

Determined to make the occasion truly festive and memorable, Society members wore their characteristic Philippine dress-up attire, with the men in embroidered white silk shirts and the women in brilliantly colored formal dresses.

The performance itself fulfilled every expectation of Licad’s legendary musicianship. Having heard her several times over the past 30 years, I was astonished by the continuing freshness and almost childlike wonder of her musical inspiration, coupled with one of the most dazzlingly expressive sets of fingers on this planet.

In the first half, she played the Beethoven “Pathetique” sonata; two of Franz Liszt’s ethereal “Legends” based on saints named Francis; two descriptive Philippine fantasies by Francisco Buencamina; plus a totally dazzling rendition of the Chopin Scherzo No. 3 in C-sharp minor.

After intermission, Licad chose Robert Schumann’s endlessly delightful suite, “Carnaval,” graciously dedicating its performance to the beloved Spanish pianist Alicia de Larrocha, who died Friday at age 86. As further proof of her generosity, Licad also tossed off three brilliant encores, all to thunderous applause.

Whether you live in New York, London, Paris, Manila, or Tupelo, evenings with an artist of Cecile Licad’s caliber come all too rarely. One can only be profoundly grateful when they do!

Robert Bruce Smith