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Unstrung When They First Met, Cecile Licad and Antonio Meneses Now Harmonize Onstage and Off

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Lithe as a cat, she leaps onto the living room couch in her striped silk pajamas. Veronica Lake hair fanning over her right eye, she picks up the phone and dials West Germany. It’s 5 p.m. in New York, 11 p.m. in West Germany. Pianist Cecile Licad is calling her husband, cellist Antonio Meneses, in his hotel room in Berlin.

No answer. Licad slams down the phone. Nervously lighting a Dunhill cigarette, she takes a few puffs and stares at the ceiling. “Sometimes I have to practice, but I can’t until I talk to him,” she says. Cecile reaches Antonio two hours later. “I am bitter,” Licad explodes at her husband. “How could you do this to me? Where the hell were you? What did you do after the concert?” The party on the other end sighs wearily. Still wearing his tuxedo, Meneses, his 1698 Guarneri cello under his arm, has just come in from a late dinner with the Berlin Philharmonic. “Ah, Cecile,” Meneses says to his volatile young wife, curled in a tense ball on the sofa back in New York. “Don’t be like this. You know I love you.”

Such tempestuous goings-on may sound like a score for marital disaster, but that is not necessarily the case for Licad, 25, and Meneses, 29. True, “It is frustrating not seeing each other for months at a time,” Licad says in her Lauren Bacall voice. “Yes,” agrees Meneses, “but it is wonderful when we meet again.”

That two of the most sought-after soloists on the international concert circuit have formed a musical merger is noteworthy. One to a family seems all that most households can tolerate. Yet, as Lee Lamont, Meneses’ American agent observes, “If superstar actors like Sean and Madonna, Newman and Woodward can do it, why not leading musicians?”

Licad, who was born in the Philippines, and Meneses, a native of Brazil, are evenly matched on the musical scale. They lead equally demanding lives as performers, fulfilling more than 150 engagements a year between them, as well as numerous recording dates, she for CBS Masterworks, he for Deutsche Grammophon. Licad is one of the most exciting young pianists performing on the concert stage today, and Meneses has been hailed as a major new talent.

The backdrop for their romance was fairy-tale perfect. For two weeks every July, Soviet-born violinist Gidon Kremer holds an invitation-only music festival in a medieval castle in Lockenhaus, Austria. Because of schedule conflicts, Licad nearly didn’t make it to the 1985 session. “I had just broken up with somebody who was also invited,” she says. “I had decided I did not want boyfriends, but I think at Lockenhaus somehow everybody falls in love.”

At the castle Licad and Meneses practiced and performed romantic Schumann pieces together. “It was love at first sight,” reports Franz Massinger, Meneses’ German accompanist. Licad called Meneses two days after the festival, and by the end of October, Cecile and Antonio were spending all their spare time talking on the phone, a habit they still freely indulge. (Monthly phone bills regularly total more than $1,000.)

The first post-festival rendezvous for Licad and Meneses came in November at the Munich airport. Nervous about the encounter, Cecile had lost 15 pounds. She quickly relaxed, and when Meneses departed two days later for an engagement, Licad stayed on in his flat, practicing on his upright piano. “Right away it was very natural, no pretenses, no games,” she says. The peripatetic prodigies spent Christmas in New York. “Before Antonio arrived, Cecile ran around like a nut,” says her close friend Margaret Selby. “She cleaned every cabinet. I’ve never seen her work so hard. The day before he came, she was caulking the bathroom tiles because she wanted everything to be perfect. She was crazed. There she was on her hands and knees, white grout all over her fingers, with tears running down her cheeks. ‘What if he doesn’t come?’ she cried.” He came. By April they were engaged.

Both Licad and Meneses grew up in musical households. As a boy, Antonio was ordered by his father, a horn player in the Rio de Janeiro Opera Orchestra, to play the cello. “It was never my decision,” Meneses says. “I came from a family where there is no rebellion.” Meneses gave his first recital at 12, and by 14 was a cellist in the same orchestra his father played in. His musical gifts made him popular with his schoolmates. “They didn’t call me Antonio,” he remembers. “They called me…Chopin.”

At 16 Meneses moved to Germany to continue his studies. It was a grueling, lonely time. Often he didn’t have enough money for food and clothes. The hard work paid off in 1977, when he won the Munich international competition. Five years later, beating out heavy Soviet favorites, he was awarded the gold medal at the Tchaikovsky competition in Moscow.

Licad too was uprooted from her native land at a young age. Named after the patron saint of music, Cecile had gravitated instinctively to the piano. “Her talent showed quite early,” says her mother, Rosario, a professional pianist-turned-teacher. “She was always making tunes, imitating my pupils. She was better than any of the kids I was teaching.” Cecile read notes before she was 5, and at 6 she was performing with the student symphony of the University of the East in Manila. When she was 11, Cecile and her mother left her father, a surgeon, and three brothers and flew to the U.S. for an audition at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. There she played for master pianist Rudolf Serkin. “As soon as I finished he gave me a kiss,” Cecile recalls. “I saw in his face that I was accepted.”

Serkin became Licad’s mentor, and from 1973 to 1977 Cecile and her mother lived in a tiny studio apartment in Philadelphia, supported by a small stipend from Imelda Marcos. Licad continued her studies with Serkin at his Guilford, Vt. home, and in 1981 she won the Leventritt award (previous recipients: Pinchas Zukerman, Itzhak Perlman, Van Cliburn). Cecile made her New York Philharmonic debut the following year.

Licad and Meneses married last July at a small ceremony in New York. The bride stifled giggles as the groom stumbled over his marriage vows. Instead of repeating “in good times and in bad times,” Meneses said, in his heavily accented English, “in good times and in bed times.”

Since the wedding the pair have divided their time between her New York apartment, which is equipped with two Steinways (one of them a gift from Marcos), and his Munich flat. They are planning a joint tour in 1988. Another joint project will come to fruition sooner: Licad is giving birth to a child in August. “I’m not looking into the future yet,” Cecile says, “but I used to say I would have seven husbands and seven children. I may have seven children, but I think I’ll stick to one husband.”