Instrumentalist - Piano
Cecile Licad's fingers were flying so fast her hands were a blur.

Technically flawless, stunningly expressive, virtuosic to degrees that boggle the mind. This pianist took our breath away.

The audience at Thursday's Tucson Symphony Orchestra concert was not alone. The musicians were just as awe-struck, watching the Philippine-born pianist with the wonderment you imagine from a child seeing a giraffe for the first time.

This is indeed high praise because we have seen more than our share of extraordinary pianists share the stage with the TSO. But none in recent memory caused quite the stir Licad did, who last played with the orchestra in 1989.

Much of the excitement came from the piece she played, Saint-Saëns' Piano Concerto No. 2. It is a weighty, virtuosic behemoth that casts the orchestra as accompanist to the pianist.

Camille Saint-Saëns quickly composed the concerto in 1868 as a showcase in large part of his own piano genius. He allowed for long stretches of improvisational play and lightning-fast passages, balanced by mercurial and light-hearted phrases.

The piece opens with an energetic almost frenetic pace that settles down a bit in the middle then returns with more vigor in the final movement. The 46-year-old Licad, outfitted in a red gown, set the tone from the opening notes. Her gestures were grand, but not grandiose. Her play was expressive, but never boastful. She allowed herself balletic hand gestures and a few dramatic head tilts, but she never lost sight of the audience loosely filling the hall.

Licad deftly countered her muscular introduction in the first movement with a poetic grace as the piece moved to the main theme. When the orchestra entered, she wisely did not shy away. The sound of the strings behind her seemed to invigorate her to play with even more energy. She refocused her energy in the second movement to playful exuberance. At times when she shifted her weight on the piano bench, she looked like she was bobbing to the melody.

Throughout the 24-minute piece, TSO Conductor George Hanson gave Licad room to let her playing breath. In the third movement, particularly, Hanson paced the orchestra in sync with Licad then pulled back when she launched into a flashy, bravura finale.

When Licad finished playing, the audience bolted to its feet -- most were standing before Licad had a chance to rise from the bench -- with shouts of "Bravo!" and "Yeah!" A few fans even whistled, which is rare response at a symphony concert.

Licad's performance was a nice fit in the orchestra's "Musique de la France" concert, which also included Fauré's Suite from "Pelléas et Mélisande" and Debussy's "La mer." Even more exciting on the program was the world-premiere of the orchestral arrangement of Tucson composer Daniel Asia's "Why (?) Jacob."

The piece was scheduled for the concert's first half but was moved to the second, probably so that it would not get lost in the power of Licad's performance.

It was a wise move. "Why (?) Jacob," which Asia wrote in 1979 and arranged for full orchestra last year, is a nostalgic piece that reflects on a childhood friend killed in the 1973 Israel Yom Kippur War. The piece's strength lies in its melancholy as much as its nagging question of why, punctuated by a percussive blast midstream that sounded like a gunshot.

It's a powerful work that the TSO played with reverence. The orchestra's wind, percussion and brass section also deserve applause for fine turns during "La mer" (The Sea). The series of three symphonic sketches depict the sea's mood. The orchestra painted those scenes in vibrant colors including affecting a distinctive French accent in "The Play of the Waves" as the flutes and piccolo conversed with twin harps.
Arizona Daily Star
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