The Life and Craft of Steinway Artist Raul SunicoMarch 27, 2019
Recently conferred Steinway Artist Dr. Raul M. Sunico shares his life’s pivotal moments, the inspiration behind his Steinway Spirio music, and his simple wish for a legacy.
Within the few hours of recording at the Steinway Hall in New York, Dr. Raul Sunico listened as the Steinway Spirio faithfully played back his music. He was listening to himself, his own performance; the piano was unmistakably performing his Filipino love song improvisations in the style of known classical pieces. Ernani Cuenco’s Bato sa Buhangin resonated in the style of Chopin’s Nocturne in E-flat. Mike Velarde’s Buhat was in Debussy’s Reverie — there was Reverie’s recognizable meditative opening, ebbing and flowing, soon being met by Buhat’s melody.
These songs were among Dr. Sunico’s contributions to the growing Steinway Spirio library of Filipino music. Through his partnership with Steinway Boutique Manila, the country’s exclusive dealer of Steinway & Sons pianos, he recorded his performance of five such improvisations for Spirio pianos to accurately reperform. To rewatch and relisten to improvisations is a marvel in itself after all, considering how unique performances are each time. It is, more aptly, a re-experiencing of a singular musical moment. “It isn’t written down. The music is in my head as an idea,” Dr. Sunico explains. “And when I record, that’s it, I play what’s in my fingers.”
His improvisations celebrate both his Filipino roots and the Western classical tradition in which he has been immersed. These are timeless Filipino love songs melding with classical music. “I got the idea from a pianist who was playing The Beatles in classical style,” he says. As he was once working on a fundraising project for the Metropolitan Theater, Dr. Sunico encountered a peculiar recording of The Beatles music. “Each song was patterned after a classical style. Let’s say, Michelle in the style of Bach, Eleanor Rigby in Chopin…so I thought that could apply to Filipino music. This eventually became my style.”
Music, Math, and Memory
Reading his biography, especially considering all his accomplishments, would give the impression that his life was well-planned, straightforward —
“It’s far from that! You won’t find my story there,” Dr. Sunico chuckles. It is no secret that he is an exemplary statistician who once worked at a bank — “My other life,” as he calls it. His life did seem set back then: he was twenty-five years old, with bachelor’s degrees in mathematics and music, and a master’s in statistics.
One day, as he was working in his office, Dr. Sunico received a call from an orchestra conductor who urgently needed a substitute pianist for an upcoming concert. He was being asked to perform a commissioned piano concerto for the birthday of former President Ferdinand Marcos. “Can you play for Mrs. Marcos tomorrow?” the conductor asked. It came as a surprise. It was already four o’clock in the afternoon.
He soon received the forty-page piece, practiced it overnight, and performed it the following day entirely from memory. This feat likely left an impression on former First Lady Imelda Romualdez-Marcos because, right after, she offered him a scholarship for a Masters of Music at the Juilliard School in New York. While he waited two years for this to be processed — he did not know how to go about it — Dr. Sunico also applied to Brown University for a doctorate in statistics. He, of course, was accepted. To him, it was already decided. Was he still considering music at that point? “No, wala na,” he says.
He was set to leave for Brown when he bumped into former First Lady Imelda Marcos at the lobby of the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) after a concert. She seemed surprised that he had not left for New York yet, and was quick to act — Dr. Sunico’s scholarship to Juilliard was hence quickly, and finally, processed. He was off: he deferred his doctorate studies at Brown and went instead to New York. This launched his stellar career as a pianist. After his studies in the U.S., he went on concertizing and competing worldwide.
Playing all four Rachmaninoff piano concertos in one concert — that is what Dr. Raul Sunico has become renowned for. It is a gargantuan program for any pianist, of any calibre, to undertake. It demands exceptional memory, technique, and musicality. He, however, believes that “Many pianists can do it if they want to.” He first attempted this in 2003 which was highly acclaimed. He did so again this year on January 26. “When I decided to do it again, I forgot that I was 15 years older. I wasn’t sure if my body could still handle it! I never tested my stamina; I never practiced all four concertos in one day,” says Dr. Sunico. “My performance was okay — at least I did not get a heart attack! But I knew that my memory could [handle it].”
Steinway & Artistic Contributions
“Without a doubt, his contributions to the local music scene has been remarkable, but of equal importance is that his recognition has helped establish a cultural presence in the international community, and a cultural identity for the Philippines in the region,” says Celine Goh, General Manager of Steinway Gallery Singapore.
Such is indeed the contribution Dr. Sunico started making upon his return to the Philippines. After twenty-seven years of studying in the U.S. and performing all over the world, he was welcomed home with what he considers as an outpour of blessings. He was offered to become the dean of the UST Conservatory of Music, and later to be the president of the Cultural Center of the Philippines. He accepted both and has since been at the helm of numerous arts programs and organizations in the country. He has been instrumental to the artistic growth of countless young musicians, too; Dr. Sunico has not only taught them music (and statistics), but also helped them acquire opportunities for further studies. It is, after all, the same generous gesture that directed him toward his lifelong path and mission that is music. When asked what his legacy would be, Dr. Sunico replies, “Maybe I can be remembered for what I do for people. It is as simple as returning the blessings that was afforded to me. I’ve had a deluge of blessings so I try, as much as possible, to do something in return — help people, schools, organizations … I think I’m doing my share.”
In recognition of both his exemplary artistry and contributions to Philippine music, Dr. Sunico was conferred the distinction of Steinway Artist in March 2019. “He is now the first locally domiciled Filipino classical Steinway Artist,” Celine Goh explains. We can also trace the beginning of Dr. Sunico’s relationship with Steinway, on a personal and musical level, to sometime in 2006 when he acquired his Steinway & Sons piano. “Steinway never fails to inspire us to bring out the highest sound quality of the music at hand,” says Dr. Sunico. “It inspires you to create a more beautiful sound, because you know that the piano is capable of producing them.” It is hence an artistic collaboration; the instrument serves as the pianist’s partner, both uncompromising throughout the creative process. It is how Steinway & Sons puts it, too: “Together, the artist and piano create music — such beautiful music that most professional pianists choose to perform only on Steinway pianos.” Now as a Steinway Artist with five recorded improvisations in the Spirio library, it has come full circle: it is a Steinway piano’s turn, the Spirio’s, to play Dr. Sunico’s music, making him, and anyone, an audience of his performance regardless of time.