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Music for the Spirit: An Interview with Pianist Gustavo Romero

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Dr. Ilya Sandra Perlingieri

I think what I like most about the piano is that the piano takes me to a better space –always.”  Gustavo Romero

Over the past two weeks in San Diego, the brilliant international pianist Gustavo Romero gave a recital and two collaborative performances with Malashock Dance. The magnificent recital of Bach, Schubert (“The Wanderer Fantasy”), and Chopin was sold out. There was a standing ovation on Saturday March 9 for the 25th Season Malashock Benefit Concert. Yet, not one review in any local paper appeared.

Romero is a San Diego native, with heritage also from Guadalajara, Mexico. He was a child prodigy and began his piano lessons at age 5. By the time he was 10, he had played with Zubin Mehta and the New York Philharmonic. It was at Rudolf Serkin’s urging that Romero moved to New York to study at Julliard. He is a graduate of Julliard (with both bachelor’s and master’s degrees) and has won numerous international piano competitions, including the Avery Fisher Young Artist Career Grant (1983), and First Prize in the Clara Haskil International Piano Competition in Switzerland. Romero has played in Hong Kong, Mexico City, Johannesburg, Bangkok, a seven-city recital tour in Japan, and at the restored Teatro La Fenice, in Venice. But in his own hometown and the wider scope of international music, this stellar artist is so under appreciated. Why isn’t he invited to play with the San Diego Symphony, or New York Philharmonic again, or the L.A. Philharmonic with the brilliant conductor Gustavo Dudamel? What about Carnegie Hall or Covent Garden recitals?

I first heard Gustavo Romero in 1999 when he played all of Chopin’s solo piano compositions to an enraptured audience. In celebration of the 150th anniversary of Chopin’s death, and with six concerts performed over several weeks, Romero played all the Etudes, Preludes, Ballades, Impromptus, Waltzes, and Nocturnes. Romero’s bravura playing so reminded me of Arthur Rubinstein’s musicality: lyrical and sensitive pianissimos, a depth of interpretative understanding, and power and agility –all combining in magnificent performances. It was playing I had not heard since Rubinstein retired. Yes, there are some people playing today with technical brilliance, but they are missing the nuanced soul connections, the passion, that is so evident in Romero’s playing. It is electric and transformative to watch and hear him! As Romero said to me: “These days, dignity is often missing. It’s not ‘in.’ But, flashy and superficial playing is.”

A few days ago, I had the pleasure of sitting down to lunch with Gustavo Romero and discussing his music and life and visions.

Gustavo Romero divides his busy weeks between concertizing and teaching. He is Professor of Piano at the University of North Texas. Most weeks, when he isn’t teaching, he is on a plane going to perform somewhere. He also maintains residences in New York and Dallas. I asked him about how he managed dividing his time between weekly university teaching and recitals. “It’s not just a matter of time management,” he said. “There is no easy solution to these two careers. It is a challenge because it clarifies what your priorities are and you become more focused each day. I think, ultimately, it’s impossible to be two people.”

When Romero performed the cycle of Chopin’s piano solo music, he had no plans for doing the complete piano repertoire for other composers. He told me: “The Chopin recitals came about when there was an anniversary to celebrate. Then, the following year, there were other composer’s to remember. So, I wound up looking at the bigger picture of covering scores for all the piano compositions. So far, I’ve done Bach, Schumann, Schubert, Mendelssohn, Hayden, Liszt, Debussy, and Gershwin –including the complete piano sonata cycles of Beethoven and Mozart.  This year, I will perform works by Maurice Ravel and Sergei Rachmaninoff.”

Romero’s “career” in playing cycles of classical composer is unique. It has also given audiences an opportunity to see the breath and range of compositions. He notes that: “after playing such a large dose of a single composer, you then begin to see what you personally feel more drawn to, and the energy that is required to play different composers.”

I asked him what he thought the most difficult musical challenge was. He answered: “The most difficult challenge for me is having done so much especially from age 18 to 40. I am now taking youthful pizzazz to the next level, and looking for depth and wisdom, and musicality.”

On choosing a piano for a performance: “Every piano is different. I’ve been playing mostly Steinways. But sometimes that is not always possible. My audience wants to ‘hear’ the same sound from me. So this, too, is a challenge to find the very best piano, where ever I am playing.” In our conversation, I noted that Horowitz always took his Steinway wherever he played. “Yes,” Romero noted, but that was only in his later years.”

On creativity: “Loosing yourself, being in a space of timelessness, is at the heart of creativity. The beauty of the sound is basic to the Russian approach to music, in which I was trained. Playing the piano is a happy obsession.”

Romero looks for creative challenges that go beyond the scope of solo recitals or playing with symphonies. His collaboration with Malashock Dance this past weekend came out of an invitation from the company’s Emmy–award-winning director, John Malashock who had danced with Twyla Tharp. His company has done 75 original, innovative choreographic works, and has regular educational outreach.

At a time when the arts are being gutted all across America, his company’s vision includes working as an important partner in education. Malashock is on record saying: “The arts contribute increased self-esteem; the acquisition of job skills; and the development of much needed creative thinking, problem solving and communication skills. We see professional arts as part of integration programming. This improves student achievement by integrating grade-level standards of dance with common core curricula.” John Malashock’s dance mission “is to provide transformational experiences through creation, performance, and teaching of dance that fire the imagination and celebrate the human spirit.” This was so evident in the collaborative performance between Romero and Malashock Dance.

Romero also has explored a cross-disciplinary approach to his playing. This past weekend, Romero played Leos Janacek’s piano music to accompany the Malashock Dance company in a world premiere. “A Man Found Wanting” is a series of short intimate character stories, choreographed by Malashock to Janacek’s music. We are always searching for things we want, but are out of our reach; and we “desperately want back what we have lost.” This is our human condition; and we have to find ways to deal with this, continue our lives, and find meaning in the face of loss. It is a philosophical challenge to transcend loss in a society that neither encourages the contemplative life, nor acknowledges its essence.

Malashock’s moving and modern choreography, with Romero playing a Steinway on stage surrounded by agile and powerful dancers, all demonstrated in what new directions creativity can go. These two performances were to celebrate 25 years that Malashock Dance has been broadening the artistic scope of dance. It was an evening of the best dancers and a fabulous pianist joining together creatively.

New DVD Documentary Released

Recently a wonderful 2-disc documentary DVD was released, “Gustavo Romero. Portrait in Piano,” with the artist playing a range of composers. It was two years in the making with executive director Jonathan Bewley from the Music and Arts Foundation, Snapshots. It also includes a fascinating series of interviews with Romero where he shares his philosophical views on music:

  • “The sheer love and passion, the desire has to be there. It has to be paramount.”
  • “I literally spend as much time as possible exploring [music]. It was the only thing that put me on fire.”
  • “Its not just technical genius that is needed, but also a deep connection to it. Music gives you something that nothing else gives you.”
  • “I think it is probably unhealthy not to have music in your life.”

This DVD documentary set is a must have, not just for the performances, but also for an in-depth look at why he loves the piano so much. Romero’s discography, with Koch records, includes: Chopin, Debussy, and the five Beethoven piano concerti with the English Chamber Orchestra.

Here is Romero playing a part of the 1st movement of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3. There are great close-up of his fingers flying across the keyboard:

Although steeped in the Romantic composers, Romero’s extensive repertoire is far more than the 19th century. Here’s a link with Romero playing Turkish composer Fazil Say’s marvelous “Black Earth”. He played it as an encore at his San Diego recital:

Gustavo Romero continues to push his creative musical envelope. His vision for the future is to found a month-long music festival for children. Given that children are not regularly seen at concerts, this is a marvelous and much-needed goal to encourage a new generation of music lovers. Tanglewood has programs for children over the summer. Portland Baroque Orchestra, under the brilliant violinist Monica Huggett, has special children’s concerts every year. I have taken my grand-daughter to them since she was four. It is so terrific to see an entire audience filled with children. Well behaved, enthusiastic, all dressed up. This is the way to inspire and encourage exploring classical music at an early age.

For those not familiar with the piano genius of Gustavo Romero, I urge going to one of his concerts, or getting the new documentary, or some of his CDs. The scope of his musicality is steeped in the great Russian tradition. However, he has added new dimensions of vibrant playing that reach into the depths of not just his own creativity –but also give us extraordinary and memorable performances.

*****

NOTES:

1. For a listing of upcoming 2013 concerts, see Gustavo Romero’s website:

www.gustavoromero.com

2. For more info on the Romero  DVD documentary, check here:

www.snapshotsfoundation.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=93:gustavo-romero-film&catid=10:film&Itemid=106

 About the Author

Art historian Dr. Ilya Sandra Perlingieri is the author of the ground-breaking monograph, “Sofonisba Anguissola: The First Great Woman Artist of the Renaissance.” She has a passion for classical piano that dates to her childhood.



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