There isn’t much precedent, except maybe on a college seminar evening somewhere, for the kind of program the Filipina pianist Cecile Licad is playing Sunday afternoon at Festival Miami.
Here’s the lineup: Pieces by Louis Moreau Gottschalk, Edward MacDowell, William Mason, Leo Ornstein, Ferruccio Busoni and Cecile Chaminade. No Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms or Chopin in sight.
Licad said the program was developed for the Rarities of Piano Music Festival in Husum, Germany, which since 1987 has been assembling concerts fashioned from pieces sitting on the dustiest, most ignored shelves of the immense library of music composed for the piano over the past 300 years.
This year, for example, instead of celebrating the anniversaries of Verdi and Wagner, the festival marked the 200th birthdays of the French eccentric Charles Valentin-Alkan and the Hungarian pedagogue Stephen Heller.
Licad played the program she’s doing Sunday in Miami for the Rarities festival in late August.
“I thought I’d do some obscure American composers and try to make it come alive,” Licad said earlier this week from her home in New York. “Even one piece of Gottschalk on a program is very difficult. You have to figure out how to play it, and it takes time.
“Once you figure it out, it’s very much fun. But in the beginning, it doesn’t make any sense,” she said.
Born in Manila in 1961, Licad was a child prodigy who made her debut as a soloist with orchestra at age 7. She came to the United States to study at the Curtis Institute of Music, and by 1981 had won the gold medal in the now-discontinued Leventritt Competition, at that time one of the world’s most prestigious such contests.
She has appeared with major orchestras and at major festivals around the world for decades, and has more than a dozen recordings to her credit, including a French Grand Prix du Disque in 1985 for her disc of the second Chopin and Saint-Saëns concertos with the London Philharmonic and André Previn.
One of those recordings is a disc for Naxos of the music of Gottschalk (1829-1869), a native of New Orleans who was a major celebrity in his day, and who was probably the very first American classical crossover artist, composing popular pieces beginning in the 1850s that made free use of the sounds of African-American music (The Banjo) as well as the folk styles of Puerto Rico and Cuba.
Licad has programmed five Gottschalk pieces — La Jota Aragonesa, Souvenirs d’Andalousie, Manchega, plus the Ballade No. 6 and the Grand Scherzo — and said the force of the rhythms doesn’t make itself apparent on the page, but it soon does in performance.
“It’s the kind of music where you just kind of let go and let it flow,” she said. “It has such cool rhythms, but the thing is, the fingers have to work. Mechanically, you’re mostly heart and fingers.”
Needless to say, and it’s borne out by the way she moves on the piano bench while playing Manchega (viewable on YouTube), it’s music that doesn’t deserve its low reputation.
“It was snubbed by a lot of people, because they thought, ‘It’s not real music,’” she said. “But I think it’s great.”
Another theme for Licad’s recital is that the composers represented were all major pianists, and in several cases, globally acclaimed virtuosi. Busoni (1866-1924), Italian-born but based in Germany for most of his career, was a tremendously gifted pianist and a remarkably interesting composer. The first book of his American Indian Diary, composed in 1915 (the second book is for orchestra), also presented Licad with major challenges.
“It’s kind of a wild piece. He’s very experimental,” Licad said of the four-part work. “There are many colors you have to bring out … Every piece has its own kind of groove, and this is the tricky part: How to find this. It’s kind of like jazz.”
Busoni is a departure for her, she said.
“It’s a beautiful piece, and I’ve never played anything like it. It’s the first time I’ve learned something like this, and some things are just impossible. And I’ve played the piano for many, many years,” Licad said. “Technically, he’s going his own way.”
Of the three other significant American composers besides Gottschalk on Licad’s program, MacDowell is represented by his Woodland Sketches (op. 51), Mason by his salon-like Silver Spring (Op. 6) and the long-lived Russian-American Ornstein by his Sonata No. 4; Ornstein died in 2002 at the astonishing age of 108.
The MacDowell Sketches, 10 miniatures including To a Wild Rose, are virtually the only pieces by this once hugely popular composer that are still regularly heard today, and Licad finds them “sincere,” and deceptively simple, with bare-bones textures that require the pianist to do a great deal with minimal material.
“I think he didn’t even think about it; it just came out of him,” she said. “It’s quite fresh.”
She finds Russian influence strong in the Ornstein sonata, composed in 1924, but it also has fascinating tonal departures from its Rachmaninovian orientation. “It has some different language in it. It’s kind of way out there,” she said, adding that she is closing the program with the Ornstein as a logical progression from the relative simplicity of the MacDowell that opens the recital.
Licad also will play Chaminade’s Sonata in C minor (Op. 21), composed in 1895 by a Frenchwoman who is perhaps best-known today for her flute music, including a beautiful Concertino. She was a fine and popular pianist who wrote more than 200 works for her instrument.
“It’s quite a serious work, so people who just know Chaminade as a light composer will hear something different. There’s a lot of Beethoven, Schumann and Brahms in it, and it’s difficult as hell,” said Licad, adding that she began to explore it as a request to play something by a composer who shares her first name. “It’s a beautiful sonata; it’s stormy and passionate. I think people will like it, and maybe it will get played more often as a standard piece.”
Licad was in her native Philippines earlier this month for a concert celebrating the lives and works of three major Philippine artists: Licad, prima ballerina Lisa Macuja and actress and singer Lea Salonga, best known for her breakout performance in the title role of the musical Miss Saigon. She played the Rachmaninov Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini there, and will play it again in concerts in Honolulu after her Miami appearance.
But while the standard repertoire is a reliable part of her repertory, she prefers exploring lesser-known works — she hopes to give Sunday’s program many more times — and she’s not patient with routine interpretations, either.
“I don’t like playing like a cliché: This has to sound like this, and this has to sound like this. I don’t go for that stuff,” she said. “I just work on the music and see how it sounds.”
Cecile Licad will perform at 4 p.m. Sunday at Gusman Hall on the campus of the University of Miami in Coral Gables. She’ll also be interviewed at 4 p.m. today at UM’s Clarke Recital Hall by musicologist Frank Cooper in a free Festival Miami event. Tickets for Sunday’s recital range from $20-$40; call 305-284-4940 or visit www.festivalmiami.com.