I believe my last precious moments with “Tita King” were at the launch of her autobiography, “Lucrecia Roces Kasilag: My Story,” when she was 79. By then, she was hard of hearing, nearly blind and always on a wheelchair.
She pulled me aside with her book and signed it: “To dear Pablo, ‘My Story’ is all yours to talk about. Love, Tita King—January 15, 2000.”
Ten years later, in 2008, she passed away at age 89, 15 days short of turning 90.
I remember rushing an obituary that was difficult to write. The country lost a National Artist. I lost a friend and a music mentor who encouraged my music festivals on the island even knowing fully I was operating on zero budget.
Last Aug. 7, Tita King’s 100th birth year was celebrated with musicians and friends giving her a big tribute at the Cultural Center of the Philippines which she headed for 17 years.
I did share her music, but more than that, I shared her life long after her CCP term and long after she became National Artist for Music.
She was my special music lecturer when I founded the 1992 Catanduanes Summer Music Festival. She did a lecture on music in Tingog Center in Bato town, and another at the Risen Christ Hall in Virac town.
She loved the island’s shorelines and the clear placid sea between Virac and Bato that she thought looked like New Zealand.
In this lecture, she talked about ethnic music instruments and called for volunteers to play chamber music with her. She wouldn’t stop until she had convinced her audience that music didn’t begin and end with Western composers.
‘Just close your eyes’
Before the lecture, backstage, I told her there was no elaborate dressing room in this island venue. “No problem, Pablo,” she said. “Just close your eyes and I will quickly change into my lecture and performance attire.”
It is a grand coincidence that I met Tita King and the then child piano prodigy, Cecile Licad, in Legazpi City, and in the same year: 1975.
Licad and Tita King stayed in the house of the late former Albay judge Jesus Rebustillo and ballet teacher Dehlia Napay Rebustillo.
Part of this family was Albay composer Everardo Napay (Dehlia Rebustillo’s brother), an architect. Napay, in consultation with Tita King, dreamed of an Albay Cultural Center, complete with the laying of a cornerstone in that part of land between the Albay barracks and a hospital.
That dream was never realized, but Tita King, then CCP president, gave Albay its first glimpse of a 14-year-old Licad as part of CCP’s outreach program.
This was 13 years before she became National Artist and five years before Licad would become the first Filipino, perhaps the first Asian, to receive the Leventritt Gold Medal in New York. (It is the same award that went to eminent pianists Van Cliburn and Gary Graffman.)
Accompanying Tita King while revisiting the Albay landmarks she had known in her youth in 1975, we visited Camalig Church. She said her family lived for a while in Albay when her father, Marcial Kasilag (then with the Department of Public Works), was assigned to oversee road and bridge construction.
Tita King recalled how the family never once used her father’s official car, conscious it was about proper decorum for government officials.
In 1975, Tita King gave the Rebustillo family in Albay tickets to the CCP concert of Licad who played three concertos in one evening. I was part of this Albay entourage.
After my first CCP exposure that year, I became a frequent theatergoer with unlimited theater passes, courtesy of Tita King.
After Licad, I saw a San Francisco Opera production of “Tosca” at CCP, with no less than Placido Domingo singing Cavaradossi.
It was then that I stopped writing about travel and crime and turned to the performing arts. My education in the arts reached a high point in 1980, when I joined the CCP’s media office as editor of its Arts Monthly.
Since I also wrote press releases for CCP shows as part of my job, I got to know the inside stories behind every engagement.
During her CCP term, I got to watch the Bolshoi Ballet, soprano Montserrat Caballe, pianist Andre Watts, conductor Henry Lewis and the great cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, among many others.
The talent fee of Rostropovich at the time (early ’80s) was $25,000. To Tita King’s surprise, after the performance, the legendary cellist returned the check as donation to CCP.
It was also during her CCP term that I would frequent her home in Perdigon, Paco, and have breakfast or lunch with her on weekends.
It was here that I would get a glimpse of the souvenirs from her youth—she played Felix Mendelssohn’s “May Breezes” in a student recital at age 12. She had her tomboyish teens, once leaping from the rooftop and falling through the kitchen roof, which left her with bleeding nose and bruised arms.
Did Tita King ever have a love life?
In her autobiography, Tita King wrote about a frequent visitor (initials DM) who owned a large printing press. His frequent visits became known to Tita King’s inner circle, and former CCP president Bing Roxas would tease her about it.
One such courtship dialogue went like this:
“I’m 80,” suitor declared, “and you are 70. Why don’t we just get together? We are made for each other, you know.”
Some cheek, she said in her mind.
“What’s more,” he continued, “I have enough money. I saved up P3 million I discovered in the safe where my wife had kept it.”
She told the poor suitor that the money belonged to his children who seemed to encourage their father’s outpouring of love.
Tall and silver-haired, Tita King’s suitor pressed his intentions right there at the CCP. As always, she would show him the door, saying she was quite busy.
Wrote Tita King: “At every threshold in my life, there seemed to be one gentleman or another wanting to enter my life.”
On this her 100th year, I remember Tita King not just for her compositions, but also for her being a persistent music educator.
On top of that, she was a warm human being able to share jokes with this islander she ushered into the CCP for the first time in 1975.
“You know, Pablo,” she would say. “Music appeals to people of varied persuasions. But sadly, many love music that appeals to the feet rather than to your heart and mind. That is why we have to constantly educate and reach out to the provinces.”
On the night CCP gave her a big tribute, I recalled Tita King, inspired and resolute as ever, making music with both teachers and students in Catanduanes. —CONTRIBUTED