After a long hiatus, pianist Rowena Arrieta is ready to hit the keys again 2
Rowena Arrieta at solo recital in Merkin Hall, New York City, 2014.

After a long hiatus, pianist Rowena Arrieta is ready to hit the keys again

On the occasion of her return to the stage after 24 years of largely devoting her life to parenthood, the stunningly talented pianist helps us look back at a stunning musical life that began as early as age 2.
Barbara Mae Naredo Dacanay | Aug 10 2019

NEW YORK—This month, the legendary pianist Rowena Arrieta is ending her 24 years of a self-imposed hiatus. Arrieta, a child prodigy at two, recipient of her first award at 14, scholar in Moscow at 17, an international soloist at 18, is scheduled for a comeback recording-recital in New York in mid-August, which will be followed by several concerts in the Big Apple in 2020, and a homecoming performance in Manila the following year. 

On August 16, at the Steinway Gallery of Long Island on Walt Whitman Road, she will be performing the following pieces: “Nocturn in C-sharp minor”and “Fantasie Impromptu” by Chopin; “Fireworks” and 
“Island of Joy” by Debussy, “Elegy” and “Vocalise” by Rachmaninoff, “Etude in D-sharp minor” by Scriabin, “Dedication” by Schumann-Liszt, “Prelude and Fugue in A-Major” by Shostakovich, a medley of “Hindi Kita Malilimutan”, “Sa Yo Lamang” and “Tanging Yaman” by Jesuit composer Father Manoling Francisco arranged by Rica Arambulo and a medley of popular Jewish songs.

After a long hiatus, pianist Rowena Arrieta is ready to hit the keys again 3
Rowena Arrieta with mother Luz Arrieta at Moscow’s Red Square.


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The last four years and two decades were dedicated to raising her and husband Jonathan Policarpio’s children Josh and Isabelle in their Long Island home. “When my eldest child Josh turned five in 1995, I decided not to travel, to concertize less, and to devote my time to teaching — to give him a normal childhood.” Five years before Josh was born, she put up a music studio where she teaches. Ten years after Josh was born, Arrieta gave birth to Isabelle. 

She also obeyed the advise of her mentor Russian National Artist Yevgeny Malinin at the Moscow Conservatory not to overplay but to ripen instead as a pianist. This was after she was besieged by offers to be a soloist at 19, when she received Fifth Prize; Special Prize; the title “Laureate;” and hailed as “the youngest and most promising” among 82 contestants at the Tchaikovsky Piano Competition in 1982. She was then a second-year scholar in Moscow.

After a long hiatus, pianist Rowena Arrieta is ready to hit the keys again 4
Rowena Arrieta at the Finals of the Tchaikovsky International Piano Competition with the Moscow Radio TV Orchestra.

Critics and fans remember her performances well, how every time she plays the piano, she draws a sea and a mountain of music onstage. Her arms become weightless, her fingers agile—when they strike the keys, all her muscles unite and carefully carve, in seconds, music that is both wild and serene—sharply enhanced by fire and water, or swiftly blurred with loud and bell-like whispers of notes.

When asked for the source of her magic, she says, “I am transported to a different place and emotional state when I play the piano. I feel the music. I project my feelings. In my performances, I strive to bring listeners to a different state of mind and emotion and touch their heart and soul.”

She says she learned to tell a story with music— which allowed her to enhance her musicality even when she was just a teen-ager. “I was taught about technique – through various technical exercises. They guide me, up to now, to express myself. For me, memorizing piano pieces comes naturally. This requires good analysis of the material being played,” Arrieta adds.


Here and there

Arrieta would perform only occasionally in the last 24 years. She has had at least five reappearances after 1995.

In 2014, she was at New York’s Merkin Concert Hall of the Kaufman Music Center where she played the compositions of Nicanor Abelardo, including classical pieces by Gershwin, Debussy, Liszt, and Rachamaninoff. 

After a long hiatus, pianist Rowena Arrieta is ready to hit the keys again 5
Rowena Arrieta, then 17, during her first year at the Moscow Conservatory, fifth from left, with National Artist Yevgeny Malinin, (called Poet of the Piano), professor of Moscow Conservatory, 6th from left, flanked by five other students, in 1979.

In 2010, Arrieta had a solo piano concert at Fleur de Lis Auditorium at Manila’s St. Paul University; and a duo concert with Filipino pianist Raul Sunico in the same venue – during the 70th anniversary of St. Paul’s College of Music and the Performing Arts. It was one of the few concerts Arrieta held in Manila after the ouster of former President Ferdinand Marcos in 1986.

“Mrs. Imelda Marcos attended my 2010 concert in Manila,” Arrieta says of her famous benefactress who famously brought the young prodigy to various outreach programs when she  was a student at the Philippine High School for the Arts (PHSA) from 1977 to 1979.


Battle of the prodigies 

Piano fans are always comparing Arrieta and the equally gifted pianist Cecile Licad. They are, after all, two international caliber-pianists from the Philippines. Licad has continued performing onstage,. Her star as a legendary international performer has remained luminous and undiminished.

Both Arrieta and Licad are proteges of the Marcoses. Like rock stars, they have created a loyal following in the Philippines. Those who prefer Arrieta, they say, adore the Russian school of piano playing. Those who like Licad love the American school of piano playing. “People create the divide when there is really no divide,” says Arrieta. 

Licad, born in 1960, began playing the piano at three. She studied at Curtis Institute of Music where she was mentored by Rudolf Serkin, Seymour Lipkin and Mieczyslaw Horszowski. 

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Rowena with Prof. Yevgeny Malinin at the Moscow Conservatory

Arrieta’s life reveals a rare genius. She won first prize at the Jose Iturbi Competition in Valencia, Spain; and first prize at the Frinna Awerbuch International Competition in New York, at 24, in 1986. In a concert in Burgos, Spain, also in 1986, a critic hailed Arrieta as an “extraordinary pianist who created an ambiance achieved only by a great virtuosi”.

Talking about her unprecedented achievement at the Tchaikovsky Piano Competition in 1982, (a month-long piano marathon, held every four years), Arrieta says, “I was truly proud to be a Filipino when everybody made a big deal that a small and developing country such as the Philippines had a participant for the very first time in the prestigious competition.” 

The month-long piano marathon has three rounds. On the first round, she played for 45 minutes: “Prelude” and “Fugue in D Major” by Bach; “Sonata in D Major” (three movements) by Mozart; and “Etudes” by Chopin, Liszt, Rachmaninoff and Scriabin.

On the second round, Arrieta performed for one hour: “Prelude” and “Fugue in A Major Op. 87 No. 7” by Shoshtakovitch; “Sonata No 2” (four movements) by Prokofiev; “Venezia e Napoli: Gondoliera, Canzona, Tarantella” by Liszt; “May” from The Season by Tchaikovsky; and “Duduki” by Georgian composer Otar Taktakishvili, which was commissioned for the competition.

On the last round, Arrieta and the orchestra performed “Concerto No 2” by Saint Saens; and “Concerto No 1” by Tchaikovsky.

“It is not a bad idea,” says Arrieta when asked if she plans to digitally transfer the long-playing vinyl record of her winning performances at the Tchaikovsky Piano Competition in 1982.


Shaping a legend

Ten mentors have shaped and shepherded her victorious path in the international world of music, she says.

“I think my teacher in Moscow, Prof Yevgeny Malinin started preparing me in 1979 for the Tchaikovksy competition in 1982. He never accepted freshmen students, but  made an exception when he heard me audition in his class,” says Arrieta, adding, “I didn’t know he was grooming me for the world’s top piano competition until he asked me in 1982 if I wanted to compete. I think he was also giving me piano pieces that would satisfy the requirements of the tough competition. I practiced around six to eight hours a day.”.

After a long hiatus, pianist Rowena Arrieta is ready to hit the keys again 7
At the Moscow Conservatory, Rowena Arrieta with both teachers Yevgeny Malinin and Philippine teacher Carmencita Arambulo. Mrs. Arambulo traveled to Moscow in 1982 to support Rowena in the 1982 Tchaikovsky International Piano Competition.

Malinin was a phenomenal performer and a pedagogue, says Arrieta. “He was then the assistant of Heinrich Neuhaus, the father of Russian Piano School. So I can say I was mentored under the lineage of the founder of the so-called Russian Piano Technique,” says Arrieta.

“I learned a lot from Prof Malinin about tone production. He was called ‘Poet of the Piano.’ He made the piano sing. He taught students about voicing and making different sounds distinctively (or uniquely) on the piano. To do this, wrists should be relaxed, without any tension whatsoever. He also taught proper phrasing. He made us realize its utmost importance.”

Her other teachers infused the Russian spirit of playing by teaching her about the historical background of the Russian composers. She also studied non-Russian composers such as Beethoven, Mozart, Schumann, etc. “Students were required to connect the piano pieces we played to art, ballet, literature, and opera. We had a subject on piano pedagogy – because we were also trained to be teachers,” Arrieta explains.

Arrieta completed her Masters’ Degree with highest honors (summa cum laude in western schools); and a degree in pedagogy (in Russian language), in 1985. She finished her course at the Manhattan School of Music in 1989.

“In the US, Prof Mikowsky introduced me to contemporary works of American, French, and Mexican composers. That was why I was able to play the composition of 20th century Mexican composer Carlos Chavez at New York’s Alice Trully Hall, Lincoln Center in 1989,” Arrieta recalls. 

At the time, theNew York Times described Arrieta’s overall piano playing as “a fevered demonic intensity” and “a gentle sublime introspection”. The US Daily News praised her music as “a combination of purity and fire.” 

“When I teach students, I use my own technique that combines everything I have learned in Russia and the US,” says Arrieta, a faculty member of the National Piano Teachers Guild (USA) since 1990, She was inducted in the Hall of Fame of the US National Piano Teachers Guild in 2009.

But even before she went to Moscow for her scholarship, there was Mrs. Carmencita Arambulo, owner of Greenhills Music Studio, who took care of Arrieta before she went to Moscow in 1979.” She trained me for endless hours; treated me like her own child; and gave me the confidence that I needed as a musician.” It was Van Cliburn, the American pianist and frequent Manila visitor during the Marcos years, who told her during her graduation from the PHSA in ‘79 to pursue her studies in Moscow. 

After a long hiatus, pianist Rowena Arrieta is ready to hit the keys again 8
1978, Rowena Arrieta with Van Cliburn and Minister of Culture of the former USSR. This is when Rowena was encouraged to study in Moscow.

The pianists Regalado Jose (1927-2009) and Reynaldo Reyes (1934-2016) gave Arrieta piano lessons at the UP College of Music from the time she was in grade one (at six) up to grade 4 (at nine). “At age nine, I stopped doing piano exams. I was told I had fulfilled the college requirements for piano (although that did not include other music subjects at college level),” Arrieta recalls.

“Under the tutelage of Prof Jose I had my first solo recital at age nine at UP’s Abelardo Hall. Under his baton, I played the Mozart ‘Piano Concerto No. 24 in C Minor’ with an orchestra at the Cultural Center of the Philippines,” Arrieta says, adding, “Prof. Reyes was my source of inspiration and encouragement.” She rushed to Reyes’ side when he was dying at 82 in a hospice in Maryland in 2016.

Reyes was a child prodigy, a student of Baltimore’s Peabody Conservatory of Music and Paris’ Conservatoire Nationale Superieur des Musique in the 50s, and professor of music at Maryland’s Towson University. Jose earned his bachelor and masters’ degree at Baltimore’s Peabody Conservatory of Music; and became head of UP’s piano department.


Life of a child prodigy 

When Arrieta was in kindergarten at Quezon City’s Jose Abad Santos Memorial School (JASMS) at age five in 1967, she also studied piano under Leonila Celina at Manila’s Philippine Women’s University (PWU); and music theory at home under UP Professor Antonio Regalario, the husband of her sister Josefina ‘Pina’ - a pianist; PWU’s music graduate; and her first teacher.

“I was told I was two (in 1964) when I watched ‘The Eddie Duchin Story’ which featured a child who played ‘Chopsticks’ on the piano. I got inspired,” recalls Arrieta. She is referring to the 1956 biopic of American band leader Duchin, which carried a score of 12 songs. “When I went home, I dashed to the piano, imitated the child, and played ‘Chopsticks’ by ear. Since then, the piano became my constant playmate. I refused to take naps. I just played the piano the whole day. To me, that was normal.”

After a long hiatus, pianist Rowena Arrieta is ready to hit the keys again 9
Rowena Arrieta, first Row, left, then 19, when she receives from the Tchaikovsky International Piano Competition fifth prize, special prize, the title Laureate and “the youngest and most promising” among 82 contestants in 1982; flanked by four other winners.

“Nag-umpisang tumugtog ng piano by ear si Rowena nang siya ay dalawa,” recalls Arrieta’s mother Luz. “Natugtog niya ang lahat ng klase ng tunog tulad ng ubo, busina ng sasakyan, music at iba pa.”

She continues. “Si Rowena ay natutong bumasa ng nota nang siya ay tatlong taon - dahil mayruon siyang perfect pitch. Alam na alam niya ang tawag sa bawat tunog ng nota. Habang nagtuturo ng piano students sa bahay and kapatid niyang si Pina, nasusundan ni Rowena ang bawat nota na tinutugtog ng mga estudyante. Kapag nagkakamali ang mga estudyante nagagalit siya at napapasigaw.

“Natutong bumasa ng letters si Rowena nang siya ay one-year old. Si Pina ang nagturo sa kaniya. Gumigising ng maaga si Rowena kasabay ng kanyang tatay Osmundo. Lagi niyang binubuhat si Rowena sa upuan ng piano.” says Luz, Osmundo Arrieta passed away in 1997.

Describing her life as a child prodigy, Arrieta says, “I was not treated differently by my parents or siblings because of my God-given gift. I don’t feel that I missed anything as a child. My parents gave me a very normal atmosphere to grow in while encouraging me to keep on doing what I love to do.”

She knew early on her gift comes with a responsibility to work hard and hone it. “That was not hard for me to do. I was willing to do that. I practiced for long hours without being prodded by my parents,” she adds.


They’re playing her song 

Apart from being a pianist, but certainly because of it, Arrieta was able to write the music and lyrics of two Christian songs, “Thank you, Lord” and “Abba’s Song,” in 2018 and 2019, respectively. She also wrote the lyrics of  “Ewan,’” (about the confusing signals of love), a composition by Louie Ocampo, and one of the signature songs of the Apo Hiking Society. It won second prize in the Metro Pop Song Festival in the Philippines in 1979. Arrieta was then only 16. She also penned the lyrics of “Paalam,” a composition by Ocampo, which became the theme song of “Caregiver,” a 1979 film; and “Hagkan,” another Ocampo composition, and theme song of TV series “Sabel”.

When she returns to the recording studio this August, she will play on a nine-foot grand Steinway. 
Arrieta is represented by the ONQ NYTalent Agency which seeks to globalize Filipino talents and diverse people in the field of Theatre and Film.

The ripening of a genius like her, offstage and onstage, is both a work of art, and fulfilled in “God’s time,” says Arrieta, a serious reader of the Bible in Hebrew since 2014. “I think the best gift God has given me is my love for music and piano playing. All the applause I receive, I give back to God.”