We talk to the world-renowned pianist, Raul M Sunico, on his love for music, tips for beginners, and much more:

World-renowned award-winning pianist Raul Sunico was the president of the Cultural Center of the Philippines from 2010 to 2017 and a former dean of the University of Santo Tomas Conservatory of Music. Today, he sits on the board of the National Commission for Culture and the Arts and is the president of the Klassikal Music Foundation.

Any tips for appreciating classical music?

To appreciate (classical) music early on, I would recommend that the listener or classical neophyte begin with some works on programme music (music that depicts visual imagery like water, animals, or objects). In this way, he can relate faster because of the strong association of the notes with what they represent. Later, as his taste grows more in sophistication, he can branch into musical works that convey emotions such as love, anger, tranquillity or sadness.

Who are the composers you’d recommend for beginners?

Beginners in classical music must start with easy listening pieces, including Antonio Vivaldi’s Four Seasons; Joseph Haydn’s London Symphonies that include his highly literal treatment of the amusing “The Clock”, “Surprise Symphony”, and “Farewell”; some ballet music of Peter I Tchaikovsky (Nutcracker, Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty) and Sergei Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet which have fairy-tale like musical segments that play to one’s imagination.

Name three essential records in a classical music collection.

It’s good to listen to a variety of compositional styles, which include Renaissance, Baroque, Classical, Romantic and Contemporary. The top three in my recommended list are: Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, for its vivid depiction of the four seasons through the use of musical devices and instrumental sounds; Wolfgang A Mozart’s “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik”, for its relaxing melodic flow with a strong tonal harmony characteristic of the period while following a traditional structure that clearly defines the Classical Period style; and Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite, ballet music at its finest, for its expressive melodies, exciting rhythmic pulses and a variety of moods that should elicit a “feel good” effect on the listener. There are many more pieces worth listening to like Ludwig van Beethoven’s 5th Symphony, Claude Debussy’s Preludes and Igor Stravinsky’s Petrushka for their structural integrity and innovative treatments.

Can the discipline of classical music be applied in life? How?

The discipline of classical music emphasises the pursuit of artistic excellence and entails many hours of practice in order to polish the so-called “loose ends” and immerse oneself in the music’s emotional and intellectual message in order to render it according to the composer’s intentions. In life, this translates into the discipline of hard work, the pursuit of excellence in one’s chosen field and the moral strength and courage to overcome the many frustrations that lie in the path of this goal.

What is your favourite pop album/artist?

I am not updated in the modern music of today, so my popular music tastes are rather dated. Nevertheless, I find those more appealing than the modern music of today. I spent my youth listening to and enjoying the music of the Ventures and the Shadows, as well as those of Nat King Cole, Carpenters, and Sergio Mendes. I would say that up to now, my favourite albums are still those of Nat King Cole, where one of them is his Christmas album. 

How do you unwind after a long day?

Before the pandemic, I usually end my day late at night, where I get home from school teaching after the usual dinner time. Since I live alone, I found it more convenient and relaxing to eat out most of the time. Of course, other than having to dig deeper into my pocket, it also afforded me the time to meditate especially when eating alone, as most of the day is spent interacting with students and people. By the time I get home, I would spend a couple of hours more updating texts and email messages, playing some sudoku, watching late news on TV, and finally a night prayer to end the day. Nowadays, being in 'house arrest' takes away the luxury of outdoor dining and its place the heretofore neglected daily exercises, file organization, and house cleaning.

Any personalities or people you draw inspiration from?

My parents, both deceased, have always been my personal inspirations until now especially when I strive for further personal and professional goals or when I gain some recognition from my various achievements. They had been supportive not only of my music career but also those of Mathematics and Statistics. They gave me a free hand in deciding my career and future while being there to support my needs whenever the occasion called for them. Outside of the family, I am thankful to Former First Lady Mrs Imelda R Marcos, my benefactor through the Young Artists Foundation fo the Philippines for my Juilliard School training. She not only supported us through financial means but recognized the talent of the Filipino artists by constantly attending our performances when her schedule allowed and lending a sympathetic ear to the artists' concerns.    

What do you consider your biggest achievement thus far?

Notwithstanding the various positions I have held at the UST Conservatory of Music and CCP as well as my experiences on the competition and concert stages, I consider my role as a supporter of young people in the arts as my biggest achievement and satisfaction. This support comes not merely through my own humble financial means but more in terms of recommendations, artistic support through accompaniments of their shows and recitals, promotion of various events, organisation of festivals, productions and concerts, or even merely some words of advice on many a confused young talent.

Tips for those who want to pursue their passion—be it music or otherwise?

Any determined individual in his/her particular goal must be strong and courageous in pursuing this passion, which means being ready to deal with frustrations and trials while translating these into stronger challenges and drives to achieve this goal. One must not treat intermittent drawbacks as failures but only as hurdles to strive harder.