updated 11/15/1982 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/15/1982 AT 01:00 AM EST

Cecile Licad only seems young to be a soloist with such premier orchestras as the New York and London Philharmonics or to be making an LP with André Previn and the Pittsburgh Symphony. A world-class pianist who stands to make some $250,000 next year, Cecile is just 21, but she has been working her way to the top for 17 years. Her breakthrough was winning the Leventritt Medal last year, a prize that is given only to musicians of stratospheric potential. (Some past winners: Van Cliburn, Itzhak Perlman, Kyung-Wha Chung and Pinchas Zukerman.) Leventritt hopefuls are not judged in one mass playoff as in The Competition but are observed in concert and in private auditions over a period of years. Licad's medal was the first to be awarded in a decade. It meant, says the Leventritt Foundation's T. Roland Berner, that she is "obviously going to be one of the greatest pianists."

Born in Manila, the daughter of a surgeon and a concert pianist turned teacher, Cecile debuted at 7 with Manila's University of the East orchestra. She soon caught the eye of Philippines First Lady Imelda Marcos, who sent her to study at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia and with the celebrated Rudolf Serkin when she was 11. Suffering from the cold climate and her own shyness, Licad practiced five hours a day after school and gorged on street-vendor hot dogs, "one from one corner, then one from the next." Life was even lonelier in Vermont, where she went at 16 to study with Serkin and to play at his festival in Marlboro.

Mrs. Marcos flew to Washington last year to hear her protégée play at the Kennedy Center (bearing an embroidered gown for Cecile), then tossed her a big reception. "If I'd known Mar-got Fonteyn and Van Cliburn were going to be there, I really would have been nervous," says Licad. But she reserves her highest reverence for Serkin. "He taught me to think about the music itself, but he insists I play like me, not him." Serkin returns the compliment. "Cecile has an incredible instinct for all kinds of music. Nobody could teach her that. It's her own."

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