Arts & Culture Yahoo

Filipino Tchaikovsky laureate stages comeback recital



Rowena Arrieta  reflecting on the concert stage.
Rowena Arrieta reflecting on the concert stage.

THE Philippines has special connections with top winners of the Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow also known as Tchaikovsky laureates.

The first Tchaikovsky laureate (first place), Van Cliburn, has special attachment to the Philippines when he raised funds for the former first lady’s scholarship program which benefited the likes of pianist Cecile Licad, violinist Joseph Esmilla, the Bolipata brothers and tenor Noel Velasco, among others.

When Cliburn arrived in Manila in the early ’70s for the fund-raising concert, the one who gave him the welcome bouquet at the airport was no other than Cecile Licad, Imelda Marcos’ favorite prodigy.

Other Tchaikovsky laureates who have performed in the Philippines are American pianist Susan Starr (second place), Russian pianist Denis Matsuev (first place) and British pianist Peter Donohoe (second place), among others.

In 1982, Filipino pianist Rowena Arrieta made music history when she placed fifth in the seventh edition of the Tchaikovsky Competition and the youngest among the contestants.

(On that year Arrieta placed fifth in the piano category, Brazilian cellist got the gold in the cello category and he would soon be known as the once and sometime husband of pianist Cecile Licad.)

Rowena Arrieta with Nora Aunor during the Moscow Film Festival in the early 80s.
Rowena Arrieta with Nora Aunor during the Moscow Film Festival in the early 80s.

Then a student of Russian National Artist Yevgeny Malinin, Arrieta also happened to be the first Filipino music scholar at the Moscow Conservatory.

Her winning was no fluke as a couple of years later, she bagged the gold medal in the Jose Iturbi Music Competition in Valencia, Spain and the Frinna Auerbach Piano Competition in New York.

Her music career briefly interrupted by marriage and motherhood (she has two children), Arrieta performs in a comeback recital September 20 (8 p.m.) at the Merkin Hall of the Kaufmann Music Center in New York.

“I am very excited to do a solo program after a long while,” said the pianist who is now based in Long Island, New York. “For the past years, I have been doing mostly duo piano concerts with my good friend (pianist) Raul Sunico. Playing solo again is a good and welcome change.”


She was prevailed upon by her producers to offer something for general audiences and not for the dyed-in-the-wool music aficionados looking for profundities in the concert repertoire. “For this reason, I chose pieces that are more popular to the general audience. Some of these pieces are quite dear to me as they bring back wonderful memories such as my studies in Moscow or my competing in the Tchaikovsky Competition. For example, Chopin’s Heroic Polonaise was one of the pieces I played for my graduation recital at the Moscow Conservatory while Scriabin’s Prelude in D# minor was one of the pieces from the first round of the Tchaikovsky Competition. By having a more familiar program, I hope to entice non-regular classical concert goers to appreciate the classical genre more.”

Noted by the New York Times as having “fevered, demonic intensity and gentle, sublime introspection,”Arrieta will be performing an eclectic selection consisting of Liszt’s “Un Sospiro,” Chopin’s “Heroic Polonaise in Ab major,” Debussy’s “Feux d’artifice,” and Gershwin’s “Three Preludes.”

She admits marriage and motherhood have widened her outlook. “I would say that marriage and having children have given colors to my emotional palate. They are reasons enough to thank God for giving me a wonderful family which to me is a special gift from heaven.”

The memories of the competitions she won have given her a new insight on the double-bladed blessings of competing.

Poster of Rowena Arrieta's September 20 recital.She expounds: “By experiencing some of the toughest international piano competitions, I learned that that best approach in handling the pressure is by not comparing oneself with the other competitors. The Competition is really within oneself. If you consistently strive to polish your craft and emerge a better artist or person by joining the competition, then you can consider yourself a winner. After all, music is unlike sports where one wins by being the fastest runner or the highest jumper.”

In this phase of her personal and musical life, the pianist has come to terms with the things that count in her life.

Years after she worked hard to get initial recognition in the music world, she found out there is no more place in her heart to harbor selfish ambition.

She reflects: “When one is young, it is quite common to direct one’s efforts towards attaining tough personal goals. At this point of my life, the focus is no longer on me. It is the people dearest to me and most of all, our Creator, the source of all gifts and blessings. I hope to glorify God by being a faithful steward of all that He has given me and by being a positive influence and a blessing to others (especially in my teaching.) To Him, I offer the fruits of the talent that he has graciously bestowed upon me.”

For now, the September 20 New York recital is special to her for many reasons. “This concert will be like a reunion. I will be seeing childhood friends, former classmates and students whom I have not seen in a very long time.”

(The Arrieta recital is being produced by Philippine Pearl LLC, a non-profit event production company that promotes Philippine talent, tourism and youth development. A portion of all proceeds will benefit the Philippine Red Cross. For tickets, visit For sponsorship inquiries, please contact Kimberly Mende Itskov at (917) 670-6395 or