Her encore was not planned that way - it was a pleasant surprise brought on when pianist Horacio Gutierrez canceled soon after the TSO announced its season last spring. But TSO Music Director George Hanson said it was a no-brainer; the audience response to Licad's performances with the TSO last April were so overwhelmingly positive that she was the obvious choice to replace Guitierrez.
"We were still getting calls days after the concerts she played with us saying how fantastic it was and could we get her back," Hanson recalled last week.
Licad is critically acclaimed for her interpretations of the Romantic literature of Brahms, Schumann and Tchaikovsky, whose Piano Concerto No. 1 she will perform in a Classics Special concert with the TSO on Saturday. But she is equally comfortable doing Chopin, Liszt and contemporary composers like Alexander Scriabin.
"I always pick different things. I'm always challenging myself and learning pieces I haven't done, like Scriabin," Licad said during a phone interview from her New York home last week. "I'm doing a lot of recitals that are really difficult and challenging both musically and technically."
The Manila-born Licad has never been one to shy from challenges. She began playing piano at 3 and by 7 had made her soloist debut with the Philharmonic Orchestra of the Philippines. Five years later she was studying at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia with Mieczyslaw Horszowski, Seymour Lipkin and Rudolf Serkin.
Not long after launching her professional career with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra in 1981, the then-20-year-old became one of the youngest musicians to snag the Leventritt Gold Medal. She celebrated by appearing in a televised concert with Georg Solti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra playing Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1 - one of the first times she ever performed the piece in concert.
"I remember playing it not so well even a week before that, but for some reason (on that day) I played it really well," Licad recalled.
In the years since, she has played the Tchaikovsky dozens of times, but it never gets old, she said. Each time she takes out the score, she discovers new things about the music.
"I always see new things, either in pedal work or the way you blend with the orchestra," she said, her voice rich with husky strains. "You have to know how to relate to the other instruments. You don't just think of your own part. You have to think how to blend with the other players."
Her performances are breathtaking and nearly always critically acclaimed. The New Yorker once dubbed her "a pianist's pianist," and the description has stuck. It could easily be amended to include her emotional and visceral impact on audiences. She plays with such intensity that she gets lost in the music. Her audiences tend to get lost in her.
"There's more to music than power," conductor Hanson said. "Cecile Licad's playing is a perfect petite package of power, poetry, precision and passion."
"I get into it," Licad allowed. "You feel the music, you know. There's this fire inside me that makes me do what I do. The aim is to really get into the music without anybody there. But you get the energy from the people. You get their energy.
"It's funny. Sometimes I play Saint Saëns and people think, 'Oh, you like French?' Then I play Chopin and people are like, 'Oh, you're Polish?' Then I'll play something from Austria, and they're like, 'Oh, you're Viennese.' You kind of get in a role. If I play Tchaikovsky, it's a certain role I get in. It's very comparable to acting."
Licad's TSO appearance comes in a year that will see the pianist, 47, taking on new challenges in repertoire. An upcoming recital, for example, has her playing Chopin's four scherzos, two sonatas by Scriabin and two pieces by Liszt.
"I figure I'm not that old yet," she said with a laugh. "I think it's unlimited what you can produce on the piano and in music. So you're always working on new technical ways . . . so that you create your own sound almost."
Pressed to define her sound, she says, "I don't really know. Somebody told me that I sound like my voice, deep, vibrating. I guess. I hate my voice. But it depends on the piece."