BY MARK SMALL
“I just turned 69 and I still feel like I’m 18 years old,” Angel Romero says, standing in the dining room of his home in the hills outside of San Diego, California. He flexes a bicep and tells me to squeeze his arm through the sleeve of his Tommy Bahama sweatshirt. “I’m exactly the same physically as I was back then. I can outrun anybody!” he says with characteristic bravura.
Romero may or may not be referring literally to a footrace, but for decades his musical virtuosity has placed him at the head of the pack among guitarists (although he credits his brother Pepe with running neck-and-neck with him). It’s not just the speed and accuracy of Angel’s muscular technique, but when added to the fiery and highly emotive components of his playing, it’s hard to mistake his recordings for those of any other guitarist. Our freewheeling conversation runs from technique to guitar makers, stage fright, repertoire, and more, and is punctuated frequently by Romero’s robust laugh. Age notwithstanding, the maestro is at the top of his form, enjoying a full schedule of appearances as a recitalist, orchestral soloist, conductor, and family man with wife Nefi and their 14-year-old daughter Bella.
An old photograph on a wall in his home shows the Romero family—his parents and three brothers—outdoors in Santa Barbara, California, in the summer of 1957, shortly after they arrived from Spain. Angel is ten, dressed in shorts, clutching a fishing pole. He explains how the family got to the United States. “An American, Farrington Stoddard, who was a Merchant Ma-rine, visited Malaga [Spain] with his wife, Evelyn,” Angel says. “They met my father and [brother] Celin and fell in love with Spanish culture. Celin started giving him guitar lessons.” The Stoddards sponsored the Romeros to come to America, enabling them to escape from Spanish dictator Francisco Franco’s fascism. A few years later, they formed their much-celebrated guitar quartet.
When the ensemble began performing publicly in 1960 as Los Romeros Guitar Quartet, Angel was just 14, playing alongside his father Celedonio, and older brothers Pepe and Celin. He toured the world with the group for 30 years before turning his attention to a solo career. The quartet continues to perform with Pepe and Celin in the lineup, along with Celin’s son Celino replacing the late family patriarch Celedonio, and Angel’s son Lito replacing his dad. Angel blames external forces—record labels and management—with precipitating his departure from the group.
“I am on the EMI label and Pepe is with Phillips and we have different management,” Angel says. “They started causing problems, each trying to protect their artists. Who is Pepe’s biggest rival? Me. Who is my biggest rival? Pepe. But we couldn’t be closer. We talk on the phone every night.
“There are pieces that I have recorded that he won’t touch,” Angel continues. “And the Concierto Para Una Fiesta that [Joaquín] Rodrigo wrote for him is a piece I won’t play because I’m scared! I put on his recording and think, ‘His version is so great, what am I going to do with this?’”
Living in Southern California presented unforeseen advantages for Angel Romero by fostering friendships with many of Hollywood’s “in crowd.” The week before we met for our interview, he played at an event with the Beach Boys. “Carl Wilson—God rest his soul—and I were buddies in high school,” Romero says.
“We ate lunch together and would go bowling after school. Once he was in New York and heard me playing some Scarlatti. He said, ‘That would sound great in a song!’” And thus, according to Romero, Scarlatti became the inspiration for the opening guitar figure in “Sloop John B,” a hit from the Beach Boys’ 1966 album Pet Sounds. “I am like an honorary Beach Boy,” Romero says. “I’m very good friends with Bruce Johnston, Mike Love, and the rest of them. I played ‘Sloop John B’ with them at a charity event last week.”
Hollywood connections also led to soundtrack work and the composition of multiple concertos. An enduring friendship with actor Ricardo Montalbán began in 1979 when Montalbán was spokesman for a Chrysler car commercial and Romero was featured in the underscore playing the second movement of the Concierto de Aranjuez.
Through Montalbán, Romero met Robert Redford and ultimately performed on Dave Grusin’s soundtrack for Redford’s 1988 film The Milagro Beanfield War. Romero was later featured on movie scores by Bill Conti, and made a cameo appearance as a parole board member in Taylor Hackford’s Blood In, Blood Out (1993) in addition to playing on the score.
It was through Montalbán that Romero also met film composer Lalo Schifrin. “He called me a few days later to say that he wanted to write a concerto for me,” Romero says. “After it was finished, I premiered it and recorded it with the London Philharmonic [in 1991]. I lost contact with him for a while, but he resurfaced recently. He called and said that he felt inspired to write me a second concerto. I thought it was a great idea. He titled it Concierto de la Amistad (Concerto to the Friendship). It’s a fantastic work. He finished it in just two months.”
Romero says a third Schifrin guitar concerto is also in the works: “This one will be for guitar and choir with four vocal soloists,” he says. “The choir will make sound effects imitating percussion and other things.”
Playing orchestral works has long been an important component of Romero’s career. He gave the American West Coast premiere of the Concierto de Aranjuez in 1966 with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, led by the late Spanish conductor Rafael Brübeck de Burgos. The anniversary of that event was commemorated in May 2015 when Gustavo Dudamel conducted the same piece with the same orchestra. The result was four sold-out concerts at LA’s famed Walt Disney Concert Hall. The Aranjuez has become Romero’s signature piece, and it’s one of many factors that endeared him to its composer Joaquín Rodrigo.
“I own that concerto,” Romero quips. “I can’t remember if it was Julian Bream or John Williams who told me that other guitarists should get a visa from me to play it,” he says with a belly laugh.
Romero considers himself the prime ambassador for bringing the guitar to the philharmonic audience—he would be to the guitar what Lang Lang is to the piano and Itzhak Perlman is to the violin. “I am putting the guitar on that platform,” Romero says. “There is an echelon in the symphonic world where the guitar has not been accepted. Other colleagues have played some concerts with big orchestras, but not to the extent that I have. I’ve played with the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Boston Symphony, the Chicago Symphony, and with Arthur Fiedler. I’ve been with everybody. This is my contribution to the guitar.”
One quality that places Romero among the top classical soloists in the symphonic world is his super-charged technique. When asked how he developed it, his response is classic. “I don’t know where the hell it came from!” he says, grinning. “It’s really unusual.” He points to an RCA recording of Vivaldi concertos he did with the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields Orchestra. “[It] has flute and violin concertos—things that were diabolical to play,” he says. “I hear them now and wonder, how did I do that?”
Among Romero’s many recordings of works demanding incendiary scale and arpeggio passages, his rendition of Bach’s “Chaconne” is a standout. “On Angel Romero Plays Bach, when I got to the scales, I wasn’t thinking about them like a guitarist,” he says. “I play them fast, like a violinist would. That requires an extra gear that many guitarists do not have.”
At a young age, Romero developed incredible speed and coordination between the hands. But possessing seemingly limitless technique can be a double-edged sword. “It makes composers like Lalo feel that they have free reign to make my life miserable!” Romero jokes. “Lalo’s second concerto is very virtuosic. I looked at it and thought, ‘Does he like me or hate me?’”
Pulling back the curtain on Romero’s technique a bit, he says, “There is a formula. The fingers have to strike the string at exactly the same angle all of the time. I don’t allow them to drift. I always plant with the fingers of the right hand. The left hand has to be in a completely natural position. My theory is not to do any body movement that is not natural. It’s like the way anyone—guitarist or not—would grab a glass to drink out of it. There is a natural way that our hands function. We were conceived to make natural movements in all that we do—forget that you are playing the guitar. My fingers are not [unusually] fast, everybody’s fingers are fast. In master classes, I tell everyone to imagine seeing someone holding a glass and tapping their fingers on it. They are tapping as fast as anyone who plays fast picados. It’s all natural.”
Asked about the rising generation of guitarists, Romero is enthusiastic—with one reservation. “I am seeing fantastic players,” he says, “but there is one thing I don’t like about the way some people are teaching them. I don’t understand why they are being taught to hold the guitar like a cello, with the neck straight up. Forget it. To me, this position makes the left hand work against gravity to move down the neck and then going up. It feels different to raise your hand than to drop it. So if you have to use a completely different force to lift up the hand and an opposite force to bring it down, you are confusing your mind. Both hands are working against gravity and that makes you tense.
“You want one movement for going up and down,” Romero continues. “That’s the way Segovia, my father, Bream, Williams, [Manuel] Barrueco, my brother Pepe, and I do it. If I saw someone getting results [with that approach] and playing the Aranjuez better than I do, then I’d ask them to show me how I should hold the guitar. You shouldn’t try to reinvent the wheel unless you’ve found a way to play better.”
What, Me Worry?
It follows that, with formidable technique and much confidence, Romero doesn’t experience stage fright. “When I’m going to play with the New York or LA Philharmonic, five days before I’ll be a little nervous,” he says. “But when I’m in the dressing room and there’s ten minutes before I go on, I am so tranquil. When they open up the door and I walk through the violin section, it’s like I’m going to Disneyland. I’m ready, and to play is nothing.”
In 1992 Romero played the Aranjuez with Raphael Frübeck de Burgos before the United Nations General Assembly. The performance was telecast to 81 countries. Shortly afterward, Romero got a call from Manuel Barrueco. “He said that during the humongous scales in triplets at the end of the first movement, I looked into the camera and laughed,” Romero remembers. “He said, ‘It was like you were laughing at all of us [guitarists].’
“That was the furthest thing from my mind!” Romero continues. “I was laughing because I looked at my hand and it was just doing it. I wink twice and the scale is over. [That movement has] two scales that are very difficult for all guitarists. After the first one, I am just waiting for the second one. It’s my love for the guitar and the music. I am not afraid of the guitar; it’s my friend.”
Romero is comfortable on either end of the baton. He showed an interest in conducting as a four-year-old in Spain when his mother took him to outdoor concerts to see Ataúlfo Argenta conduct the Spanish National Orchestra. It became a focal point after his performances of the Aranjuez with Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra. “I used to observe his baton technique from the wings,” Romero recalls. “Catching me, Ormandy said, ‘I should charge you for lessons!’” What started as a joke turned into unofficial mentoring sessions with the great conductor.
Romero has since led numerous orchestras worldwide, including the Pittsburgh Symphony, the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, the Royal Philharmonic, the Berlin Symphoniker, the Beijing Philharmonic, the Shanghai Symphony, the Bogotá Philharmonic, the Chicago Sinfonietta, the Orquesta de Baja California, the San Diego Symphony, and others. He has a fondness for the Germanic repertoire, especially the symphonies of Beethoven.
The night after our interview, he conducted a concert featuring music by British composers Edward Elgar and Ralph Vaughan Williams, plus Romero’s signature piece Joaquín Turina’s string orchestra work, La Oracíon del Torreo (The Bullfighter’s Prayer). “I always conduct from memory,” Romero says. “I don’t like to read a score in a performance. That’s like an actor reading cue cards.”
The Tools of His Trade
When it comes to Romero’s preferences for guitar makers, he says, “I admire Stephen Connor personally and professionally. He created an Angel Romero model and I took part in the design and choosing of the wood.” Connor made a limited run of just ten of these very expensive guitars; each went to wealthy buyers. “The sound of these guitars is outrageous,” Romero says. He played that model for years, but doesn’t tour with it any more, wanting to preserve it. Connor also built another guitar for Angel and named it “Mini Me”—its label bears a small picture of Angel. “I play that one a lot and it looks like it’s been through a war,” Angel says, “but it sounds great.” He also loves a guitar made to his specifications for him by his nephew, Pepe Romero Jr. Among its features is a sound port like those in Connor’s guitars.
“Every once in a while I will play guitars by other makers,” Angel says. “A maker named Erez Perelman from Israel made a fantastic instrument for me, and Thomas Malapanis, who is Greek and lives in Alaska, also built me a great guitar.” Angel is not a purist when it comes to traditional bracing versus alternative guitar-top construction. “I am open to playing anything that sounds great,” he says. “It’s like asking if you like saffron in your rice. Just put it in front of me, I’ll taste it. If I love [the guitar’s sound], I don’t care how it’s made.”
While he does not have a guitar collection as extensive as Pepe’s, among Angel’s instruments is a 19th-century guitar built by Manuel Martinez de Málaga that belonged to Fernando Sor. “In an old article I read,” Angel tells me, “Sor was asked what his favorite guitar was. He said it was the Manuel Martinez rather than his Lacote.”
Before I left Angel’s home, he showed me some mementos hanging on his living room wall. One was a framed letter from a grateful Joaquín Rodrigo written after Angel and Pepe premiered his duo guitar work, Concierto Madrigal, in Spain in 1970. Next to it is an official document from Juan Carlos, the King of Spain, dated 1999, knighting Angel and bestowing upon him the Grand Cross of the Order of Isabella the Catholic. I drove away with thoughts of Angel Romero’s many accomplishments flooding my mind. He’s had a singular career with extraordinary highlights. Given his youthful vigor, there are more to come.
(Photo at beginning of article by Felix Salazar)
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