Celedonio Romero Scholarship Concert
Alfred Newman Recital Hall
Fernando Sor: Grand Solo, Op. 14
Brian Head: Plainte
Donald Crocket: Two Preludes: “Flint,” “Guiding the Minotaur”
Joaquin Rodrigo: En Los Trigales
Eduardo Sainz de la Maza: Campanas del Alba
George Bizet (arr. Smith): from Carmen Suite: Aragonaise-Habanera-Gypsy Dance
Antonio Vivaldi: Lute Concerto in D Major
Isaac Albeniz (arr. Romero): Rumores de la Caleta, Asturias
Joaquin Malats (arr. Romero): Serenata Espanola
Francisco Tarrega: Grand Jota
Celedonio Romero: from Suite Andaluza: Alegrias-Zapateado-Fantasia
Pepe Romero (guitar)
Brian Head (guitar)
William Kanengiser (guitar)
James Smith (guitar)
Scott Tennant (guitar)
David Speltz (cello)
David Shostac (flute)
The Thornton School of Music at the University of Southern California has been a powerhouse in the training of classical guitarists for decades. Pepe Romero of the Romeros, “the Royal Family of the Guitar,” has been instrumental in creating and nurturing this western academy for the classical guitar. This extraordinary evening was a benefit and celebration for the Celedonio Romero Scholarship, named after the great teacher and “pater familias” of the Romero family of guitarists. In his speech at the reception following the concert, one of the Deans of the Thornton School described the evening as nothing less than historic. He did not exaggerate.
Headlined by the great Pepe Romero, the concert included some of the most admired classical guitarists in America, who also happen to be faculty at the Thornton School. The spectacular program was carefully designed to expand the reaches of the repertoire, while exploring some of the literature’s best and most charismatic music. The depth of musical resources was astounding. The music itself was pure enchantment.
The intimate, 300-seat fan-shaped music school concert hall was almost full. Housed in a campus building designed in 1940 by architect Samuel E. Lundeen, the Alfred Newman Recital Hall was tastefully remodeled in 1999. Joseph Myers, of the respected firm of Kirkegaard & Associates, supervised the acoustics. The renovation included a sound-reflecting shell over the stage and a retractable noise-dampening curtain system on the back and sides. With great sight lines and excellent sound throughout, the hall is almost ideal. The only minor drawback is that the exposed ductwork in the ceiling seems to emit a low rumble from the air handling system that is audible during moments of absolute silence. For an evening of classical guitar, featuring both solo works and ensemble pieces, it would be hard to imagine a more perfect setting.
William Kanengiser, one of America’s most respected guitarists and a founder of the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet, began the evening with the substantial, even daunting, “Grand Solo” of Fernando Sor. This important piece is classical, in that it relates to the northern European traditions of Haydn and Mozart. But its depth and charm are also deeply rooted in Spain. A great Spanish composer of the 18th century, Sor is known as the Beethoven of the guitar. In many concerts, this considerable opening performance would have served as a triumphant climax.
Guitarist and composer, Brian Head, also a member of the USC faculty, performed the second set of pieces. These modern pieces were decidedly contemporary and not in the Spanish classical mode, but were completely approachable. There were challenging sonorities but there were also many attractive moments of accessible beauty. These were the only “modernist” pieces on the program, and made an excellent contribution and contrast to the predominantly Spanish and classical repertory. The performer himself composed the first selection, “Plainte.” Donald Crockett, a prominent composer and the chair of the Thornton School Department of Composition, wrote the two elegant preludes, “Flint” and “Guiding the Minotaur”.
Scott Tennant, a musician of tremendous personality and also a member of the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet, took the evening further into Spanish territory. He has the look of a wise and contented Franciscan monk, and enjoys a tremendously appealing style of performance. His choice of works was excellent, instantly familiar but not at all overplayed. Rodrigo’s “En Los Trigales,” (In the Wheat Fields) and “Campanas del Alba,” (Bells at Dawn) by Eduardo Sainz, were the ideal selections for Tennant’s persona and technique, rife with atmosphere, intensely Iberian.
James Smith, chair of the Thornton School’s Guitar Department, arranged a suite of three movements from Bizet’s opera Carmen, for guitar, flute and cello. The Aragonaise, the Habanera and the Gypsy Dance were extremely well suited for this instrumentation. The guitar offered tremendous atmosphere, while the flute added a human-like voice. The cello provided the perfect instrumental color to suggest an orchestral feeling. When this music is poorly rendered it often sounds overused and hackneyed; in this presentation these familiar melodies were imbued with new charm. Rarely have the tunes from Carmen been so fresh to my ears.
After the intermission, Vivaldi’s enthralling Lute Concerto was played in an arrangement for solo guitar, accompanied by a cello and four guitars. As in the Bizet, the cello added precisely the right touch of color to fill out the instrumentation, creating a surprising orchestral sensation for so few instruments. One of Vivaldi’s most striking compositions, this arrangement carried almost all of the work’s legendary charm and atmosphere. But this was the one work on the program that was perhaps too challenging. The tempo lagged at key moments, taking the performance off course, off kilter. These were moments when a conductor would have served, or when in a recording studio there would be another take.
The rest of the concert was left to Pepe Romero alone, and in these solo guitar pieces there was not a single disappointment. These works are certainly among the greatest miniatures ever composed, some of the most atmospheric, poetic and lyrical music imaginable. As much or perhaps more than any other music, the literature of the Spanish classical guitar can be said to have “terroir,” like a great European wine; a distinct quality that is rooted in the soil, climate, and culture of the land from which it springs. And Pepe Romero must be one of our greatest interpreters of this music. His rendition of the legendary “Asturias” (one of the many Albeniz pieces originally written for piano but perhaps better known on the guitar) was superb: flawless, intimate, full of passion and strength, but most of all, personal. Like certain of Chopin’s Preludes or Schubert’s unforgettable Impromptus, “Asturias” presents a great and subtle challenge to a musician. Pepe Romero’s interpretation was utterly authentic and musical, completely individual. Each of the other pieces also portrayed the essence of the Spanish guitar, quietly igniting the stars in that brilliant Iberian night sky, that universe and sound world that is so mesmerizing.
Pepe Romero has developed a talent that is far more than virtuosic and athletic. His performance was mature and sophisticated, highly developed and quintessentially Spanish, but entirely individualist. His generosity of spirit was resplendent. It must be a great gift to be part of his family, or one of his students or colleagues. The entire evening seemed to celebrate that gift. There was an overwhelming feeling of family, of history, of love for the guitar and the beauty of the cosmos that the sound of the guitar reveals to us. This was a truly historic evening, for the Thornton School of Music and for the classical guitar itself. The evening was full of warmth, depth, beauty, and immensity. Even beneath the ceiling of that intimate recital hall, the stars shone in the sky, the family of musicians populated the earth. It was a great night to be human, to witness that community of musicians, students, and teachers, to be among those extraordinary but very human artists.
Thomas Aujero Small