The late Andres Segovia--the artist who almost single-handedly popularized classical guitar as a concert instrument in the 20th century--had only a few favorite guitarists; Pepe Romero was one. You can hear Romero, the man the master listened to, Thursday, August 29, at the Dallas Symphony Orchestra's opening-night gala concert at the Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center; Romero will be performing a piece of special personal resonance.
"The Concierto de Aranjuez and I, we have an incredible relationship! We love each other!" says Spanish-born Romero, 52, who has lived in Southern California since the late 1950s when his family escaped Franco's fascist regime. Romero says he was about 8 or 9 years old when he first played through the concerto's guitar part; he fell in love with it immediately. He'd heard early recordings of the piece performed by guitarist Rejino Sains de la Maza, for whom it was written in 1939 by Joaquin Rodrigo, Spain's greatest living composer. Romero also had heard it played by his father, the legendary guitarist Celedonio Romero, who passed away last May at 83.
Pepe Romero has performed the concerto hundreds of times since, throughout the world; if you ask him exactly how many times, he replies, "Not enough, not enough," and says he never tires of it. "Every time I play it, or I think of it, it's new, it's different. I always come to it with a fresh feeling of anticipation. For me, the Concierto de Aranjuez--as any great piece of music--is actually a key to a door that opens up into a different state of being, a beautiful state. It's the kind of music that is like a key to a state of grace."
Even if you don't recognize the title of the evocative second movement, you probably can hum its famous melody. The concerto has been recorded by great players in jazz and other genres, but its story is unknown to most. Tragedy came to Rodrigo and his wife, Victoria, in Aranjuez, about 30 miles from Madrid. Their first child was stillborn; Vicky was near death. The concerto's second movement, Romero says, is Rodrigo conversing with God, expressing his tender feelings for the child and the conflicting emotions of innocence, anger, and fear for his wife. The final movement conveys the peace the composer eventually finds accepting God's will.
"Since I heard this story from Rodrigo, I no longer am able to think 'notes' or 'music'; I think feelings," Romero says, "the feelings uniting my heart to the feelings that this man--whom I love so much--felt at the time." In fact, Pepe Romero virtually has become a second son to the Spanish composer, and was the featured guitarist at the official festivities commemorating Rodrigo's 90th birthday in 1993.
Why is Aranjuez so popular? "It's a phenomenal piece. It's good, genuine, inspired, and it's touched by genius. It does exactly what music should do: make people feel good. Music has a purpose in creation. [It] plays a very important role, far more than most people realize. For that reason, it's very important to use it always with respect, with compassion, and--above all--with love." This awareness is typical of the modest Romero, who never flaunts Segovia's endorsement and rarely even mentions it, especially in public.
Ties closer than a beloved work bind Rodrigo and Romero. Pepe is part of "The Royal Family of the Guitar," a clan that revolutionized classical music in the early 1960s with the world's first guitar quartet, Los Romeros, originally consisting of Pepe, his father, and Pepe's two virtuoso brothers, cngel and Celin. In 1966, Papa Romero suggested that good friend Rodrigo write something for the quartet. The result was the first piece specifically composed for four guitars and orchestra. Papa Romero named it Concierto Andaluz for its flamenco themes drawn from the family's native Andalucia, a region of southern Spain. The Romeros premiered and recorded it in 1967 with the San Antonio Symphony. That recording was reissued on CD this year.
Pepe Romero also gave the world premiere of what likely will be the final Rodrigo guitar concerto, the Concierto Para Una Fiesta ("Concerto In Honor of a Party"), dedicated to Pepe. It was commissioned by William and Carol McKay of Fort Worth on the occasion of their two daughters' debutante ball, at which Romero and the Fort Worth Symphony first performed the piece in 1983.
Rodrigo is only one of many composers whose music Romero performs and records; Romero's discography numbers more than 50 albums and ranges from baroque pieces to modern Latin-American music. His current release is an album of guitar fantasies based on opera music, and he has a guitar-and-voice album in the works with his friend, opera diva Jessye Norman. He also has added significantly to the guitar repertoire through original works written for him and his numerous transcriptions for guitar.
How is it different playing a piece of music when he knows the composer personally? "For me, it's separate. I feel I can know a composer who has been dead for 100 or 200 or whatever years, because through the music you transcend time and space and you get to know a composer intimately or--at least--what he was feeling, the state of bliss, grace, love, or whatever the feelings and passions or inspirations were that were touching that composer at that time. Playing a work by a composer whom you know, he can tell you about the piece. But even when you have spoken with a composer, it is the music itself that has to speak to the player. You almost have to forget any preconceived idea [and] come with an empty mind so the piece can speak to you each time for the first time."
Last February at the Majestic Theatre, Romero played a recital of music from his Noches de Espana, tracing five centuries of Spanish guitar music. He repeated the concert in New York the next day as part of the New York Philhamonic's Spanish music festival. He also played the Meyerson's inaugural guitar concert in 1989, a DSO concert with the quartet, as well as an appearance at the Majestic with the Guitar Summit that featured Romero along with the late jazz guitarist Joe Pass, flamenco guitarist Paco Pena, and folk guitarist Leo Kottke.
In addition to his classical recordings, Romero is unique in that he also has been recording albums of flamenco music--both as a soloist and with the quartet--since he was 9, when he was captured on a pirate recording. This is not the bastardized, Gipsy Kings pop-rock flamenco, but the real thing: flamenco puro, learned listening to the gypsies of his native Mediterranean city of Malaga and modern flamenco masters like the late Sabicas.
Thursday's Dallas Symphony concert is an all-Spanish music program. It also includes a performance by pianist Philippe Entremont of another gigantic piece from the Spanish literature, Manuel de Falla's Nights in the Gardens of Spain, along with the Chabrier Espana rhapsody and Ravel's dreaded Bolero.
Does Romero have a special feeling playing Spanish music, and how does he feel about non-Spaniards playing it?
"When we say 'Spanish music' and are talking about the nationalistic period and...somebody like Rodrigo who glorifies his love for Spain in his music," Romero explains, "the more you can experience that passion and that love for the country, its history and people, [the more] you can have a real affinity, and it cannot help but come out in the playing. If you're not from Spain, it doesn't mean you cannot play Spanish music. It just means perhaps you'll have to eat extra Spanish food, drink extra Spanish wine, watch more flamenco, and read more Lorca and Cervantes! If your heart is touched by music, that's what counts."
Romero's performance schedule was severely curtailed because of the sudden illness of his beloved father, Celedonio, Pepe's performing partner for most of his life and his only teacher. The elder Romero--also a prolific composer and poet--passed away in May. On August 17 Pepe gave the world premiere of his father's composition for guitar and orchestra, El Cortijo de don Sancho, a musical fantasy about Don Quixote's sidekick, Sancho Panza.
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Romero spent the summer with his mother and family "letting my heart heal," but he did manage to squeeze in some European performances with the Stuttgart Philharmonic doing Aranjuez and his father's composition, Concierto de Malaga, and he gave some solo recitals in Holland. He also was in Atlanta with Los Romeros quartet for the Cultural Olympiad that ran concurrently with the Olympics. The performance took place in Spivey Hall, the site of his premiere of a previously unpublished masterpiece by the Spanish guitarist-composer Fernando Sor (1778-1839).
What was it like being in Atlanta again? "The concerts were great, but I felt very sad walking through Centennial Park thinking about the terrorist act, seeing the incredible amounts of police and trying to comprehend how some people can do such terrible things to other human beings. That, to me, is the antithesis of what music does." The Atlanta recital was the quartet's first since Celedonio's death, and "it was very emotional for me--for all of us." In place of his father was Pepe's nephew, Lito Romero. Lito is cngel's son and a third-generation virtuoso like his cousin Celino. Celino is Celin's son and the fourth member of the quartet.
Shortly after his Dallas concert, Romero will be traveling to Denmark to play the Rodrigo four-guitar concerto. He has several recordings in the works, including duets with brother Celin. In the meantime, he will "keep doing that which I love to do for as long as God graces me with the ability to do it!"
Pepe Romero performs at the Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center August 29.