By PABLO A. TARIMAN
BLUES and country music in Tupelo, Mississippi took a backseat Saturday night last week when world-acclaimed Filipino pianist Cecile Licad performed for the first time with the Tupelo Symphony Orchestra under Steven Byess as soloist in Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in E-flat Major and Totentanz: Paraphrase on Dies Irae to tumultuous ovation.
Tupelo — the county seat and the largest city of Lee County, Mississippi – happens to be the hometown of rock and roll icon Elvis Presley.
The Filipino pianist was close to tears when she saw the overwhelming response of her countrymen in the audience among them the Tupelo-based doctor Noel Garcia and Deedee Cantrell who are all native of Davao City.
Dr. Garcia, who works at the North Mississippi Medical Center, said that Licad’s performance of the twin Liszt pieces was to him a signal that the pianist was at her best.
“The opening chords — which most artist tend to play too fast to show off I guess! — was played in grand manner like she was declaring the opening of a great story. And what a story in music making she did. She worked in close collaboration with the orchestra but on top of that she managed to coax the musicians to deliver a great performance.”
The good doctor noted that in the orchestra’s 41 years of existence, this was the first time they were performing the Liszt E Flat Major Concerto.
“She was simply electrifying,” added the Filipino doctor who first saw Licad in 2008 in a recital also in Mississippi. “You feel the energy in her performance. Several people from the audience told me they were on the ‘edge’ of their seat during the performance. I was transfixed and so was the audience. She had power, compelling forward momentum, and achingly tender lyrical passages in the second movement.”
Another Filipino in the audience, Deedee Cantrell, said Licad’s debut with the Tupelo Symphony, was simply breath-taking. “There is no doubt that our own Cecile Licad conquered Tupelo for the second time. I like to think she is the best cultural ambassador of the country. Tupelo is identified with the music of Elvis Presley and Carrie Underwood but lovers of classical music made a strong impact when they all showed up in the Licad concert.”
When Licad performed for the first time in Tupelo in a recital at the height of Typhoon Ondoy in Manila, Cantrell was ecstatic. She said Elvis Presley might have helped make the concert possible. By coincidence, Cantrell lives on Elvis Presley Boulevard, which Licad’s manager noticed in an e-mail.
Interviewed by the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal, Licad added the Liszt orchestral pieces she played with Tupelo Symphony are exciting pieces but it didn’t mean anyone could predict the outcome.” It really is a moment thing – it’s not like you can plan everything. I feel with his work you have to be very spontaneous in feeling, like do what you feel at the moment.”
Among those effusive about Licad’s performance was the president and CEO of the Tupelo Symphony, Margaret Ann Murphy, a veteran of the Tupelo Symphony since its inception in 1971. She has been to the Van Cliburn and Cleveland Piano competition festivals
Dr. Garcia said Ms. Murphy told him that no one has played the Liszt Totentanz that well and with so much power.” For me, the opening bars of Totentanz were done with a feeling of foreboding of dark unknown danger. Licad understands the nature of the piece and she gives that quality to that music with her own personal stamp all her own and not from any other artist.”
Licad pointed out playing Liszt pieces always posed a challenge. “Nowadays, where people base (your performance) on CDs, and how CDs can be all perfect, you just kind of have to play your heart out with this kind of music and wish for all the best and pray.”
In the same interview, she said another important aspect of the performance is finding a way to let one’s personality shine through the music.
“You have to play well, but you have to put an expression of yourself,” she said. “For me, it’s important that I give expression and happiness and joy in what I’m doing.”
Licad, who is again soloist of the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra in New York on March 2 and 3 in the same Liszt orchestra pieces, said she didn’t want to feel too confident about those works. “I can never guarantee what happens – that’s the exciting part,” she said. “I just get into the music.”