Review by Blair Jackson

Pepe Romero
Herbst Theatre, San Francisco
February 4, 2017

What’s in a name? Well, if it happens to be “Pepe Romero,” it means you can sell out San Francisco’s gorgeous, refurbished 900-seat Herbst Theatre on a cold, damp February night, even though you don’t have a new CD to promote nor are you part of a larger festival. “Legendary” is a hopelessly overused adjective these days, but in the case of the Romero family it is apt, as three generations of the guitar-playing family have been filling concert halls around the U.S. for more than five decades, and 72-year old Pepe is still at the top of his game, as he showed on this evening.

Decked out in a tuxedo—common in the past for male classical guitarists, but increasingly rare—Romero was all smiles as walked out from backstage to rapturous applause. He would flash his famously infectious grin after every number, but once he launched into a piece, it was serious business until the last notes rang out, and he was bathed again in the crowd’s adoration. This is a man who clearly loves what he does; you can feel it in his playing, too, with the care he puts into every passage of every piece, whether  he’s squeezing out little vibrato accents, eliciting bell-like harmonics, or mellifluously rolling through fast, complex, left-hand fingerings with grace, fluidity and what looks like a reflexive ease.

Rather than a regular recital mixing works from many different eras—say, Bach and Albéniz and Villa-Lobos and Brouwer, and so forth—Romero put together a themed program called “Los Españoles de Ravel” in which, as he wrote in the concert notes, “I pay tribute to one of my favorite composers, Ravel, and through music express the personal and musical relationship between Ravel and his Spanish circle of friends— Albéniz, Granados, Falla, Malats, [Angel] Barrios, Tárrega, Turina, Rodrigo, Torroba, and Viñes. I have always been fascinated by the political and historical rivalry between France and Spain juxtaposed with the mutual love affair between Ravel and his compatriots and this group of Spanish composers.” And so, the concert started off (somewhat somberly) with Romero’s own transcription of Ravel’s Pavane pour une infant défunte (a tribute to a deceased infant), followed by another memorial piece, Manuel de Falla’s  famous Homenaje pour le Tombeau de Claude Debussy (Debussy, of course, being one of Ravel’s friends and musical compatriots).

From there it was a voyage through all sorts of different overtly Spanish textures. After Granados’ Danza Española No. 5: “Anadaluza,” Romero explained the theme of the evening and asked the audience to imagine being at a salon in Ravel’s home where these pieces were being played; easy to do, because even in the large, architecturally impressive hall, the warmth of the unamplified guitar made the place feel intimate, like it was a gathering of friends. Joaquín Malats’ Serenata Española provided the loveliest moments of the concert’s first half, while the most exciting piece was the concluding Fantasia Sevillana by Joaquín Turina, which has so many interesting layers, from the opening strums on open strings, to some more traditional Spanish motifs, rhythmic variations, and lyrical passages; it’s a wonderful work.

That Turina piece has some undeniably “modern” elements, and so does the piece that kicked off the second half of the concert, Joaquín Rodrigo’s En tierras de Jerez, written in 1960, making it the newest piece in the program. It’s easy to forget that for all his nationalist tendencies, as exemplified by the famous Concierto de Aranjuez, Rodrigo was definitely a 20th century composer with inclinations that went beyond traditional Spanish flavors. Still, En tierras de Jerez is certainly part of Rodrigo’s overtly Spanish oeuvre, discordant elements and all.

Pepe backstage
Backstage before the concert. Photo by Pepe Romero Jr.

Then Romero launched into a succession of well-known Spanish pieces, including Torroba’s Sonatina (with its sublime “Andante,” which Romero calls “a journey into Torroba’s soul, profound in its gentleness”); Tárrega’s Capricho árabe; and three of Albéniz’s most popular works: Asturias, the transcendently beautiful Granada, and Sevilla. Undoubtedly there was some curmudgeon in the audience quietly seething about having to endure yet another Asturias, but it’s truly a great piece (famous for a reason!) and it almost goes without saying that Romero artfully brought out the vibrancy of all of its many colors—and, of course, it was thematically perfect for this particular program. (In the midst of this succession of “hits” was a lovely piece that was new to me, Menuet spectral (à la memoire de Maurice Ravel) by Ricardo Viñes, another Spanish pianist and composer who was close to Ravel; the guitar transcription was by Romero.)

Before the encore, Romero saluted his son, luthier Pepe Jr., for building the guitar he played during the concert (it sounded warm and true), and also gave a shout-out to Pepe Jr.’s young children, who were also there at Herbst. And the encore selection kept the family vibe going: a dazzling piece written by Pepe’s late father (and founder of the Romero Quartet), Celedonio, called Fantasía Cubana, also perfectly in keeping with the Iberian magic that preceded it.

Also worth noting is that before the concert, in the marble lobby outside the theater entrance, a quartet of very talented young players who are private students of San Francisco Conservatory of the Arts guitar professor Scott Cmiel, performed a number of pieces for a couple of hundred early arrivers. It was a wonderful way to kick off an exceptional evening of music—another unforgettable winner in the Omni Foundation for the Performing Arts’  “Dynamite Guitars” series.

pepe and scott
Pre-concert quartet and more (L to R): Nicholas Padmanabhan, SFCA’s Scott Cmiel, Dilip Kumar, Pepe Romero, Chase Onodera, Morgan Vallat

And because we can’t resist including a video (though this not from the SF concert), here Romero plays Albéniz’s Asturias last year on one of Pepe Jr.’s guitars :