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Ángel Romero: Six-String Scion

July 18, 2012

Ángel RomeroÁngel Romero, who practices his guitar in a swimsuit and a tank top on the beach near his Del Mar, California, home, seems to be, at age 65, living a timeless life. Maybe that’s part of the reason why many fans are still unaware that, for the past couple of decades, he hasn’t been part of the Romero Guitar Quartet, assembled in 1960 by his father, Celedonio Romero, with Ángel and his two older brothers Celin and Pepe, popularly pegged “The Royal Family of Guitar.” Angel’s replacement in 1990, by Celin’s son Celino, was a collateral effect of Ángel’s escalating careers, as an international performing and recording guitar soloist, and as a conductor with recurring engagements in Chicago and elsewhere.

SFCV chatted with 68-year-old brother Pepe three months ago, before the current Quartet, with Ángel’s son Lito replacing his late grandfather, played at the Marin Veterans Memorial Auditorium. Ángel Romero will have appeared twice this week, Monday and Wednesday, a bit to the north, with the Festival del Sole. Here are highlights from his lengthy discourse with SFCV about his life’s history and style, his encounters with Segovia, and his workable family values.


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Where you are right now? Is it near your brothers’ place?


I’m about 15 minutes away, in Del Mar. They’re in the house that my parents had, before they died. I’m on a cliff, very tropical, overlooking the ocean.

So it’s easy for you to have family get-togethers.

Yes. But I sort of like it when Pepe’s gone — he’s in Spain right now — because I go into his office, and I steal cigars. [Laughs]

He was my first Romero interview. It’s great to be talking with another member of the original Quartet.

I am the one who, at age 12, began the whole thing! Just to clarify: We moved to the United States [from Spain] in 1957; I was one week shy of 11. There were no plans for a quartet. My father and Pepe started teaching, in order to make ends meet, in Los Angeles, in a small duplex. Many students started to come, one of them a 10-year-old blond little boy with a $90 guitar. That was Christopher Parkening. We started playing a few concerts, as Celedonio Romero and His Three Sons. One part was Pepe playing entirely flamenco. I came out at the very end. On the first concert, I played Ballet by [SL] Weiss, and a sonata by Scarlatti.

How come you got the classical repertoire while Pepe got the flamenco?

Because I was a fanatic with the classics. I enjoyed dancing flamenco — Pepe used to accompany me for fun, at parties and stuff — but for me, the heavens consisted of Bach, Vivaldi, and all those works. … I transcribed the Cantata No. 79, by Bach, the Aria for soprano and woodwind; I took a ballpoint pen and school paper and I drew five lines and transcribed, by hand with a blue ballpoint, for four guitars. Then we had the opportunity to go to Orchestra Hall, Chicago. I was just turning 14, and I said to the family, “I want to play the Bach Chaconne.” Celin raised hell; he said, “Angel, that’s one of the most eminent pieces for any instrument.” And I, being who I am, said, “I am doing it! Or I will not play.” Celin was 10 years older than me, so he was a man.

This really sounds like big brother and little brother.

Exactly. I was playing catch-up. Already, Celin and my father had released a recording, solos and duos, and then Pepe came out, as the 15-year-old Flamenco Fenomeno. I sat down in a room with the recording of [Andrés] Segovia, playing the Chaconne, and the music (I hardly knew how to read), and I played that record over and over. I went into my father’s dressing room, right before I came out on stage at Orchestra Hall, and I said, “Papa, can I borrow the jacket of your tails? Because this is a very important piece, and I don’t want to play in a tuxedo.” [Laughs] So I came out and played the Chaconne — I didn’t even know where I was — and at the end of it, the sophisticated public of Orchestra Hall stood up for a 20-minute ovation. Celin was in the wings (laughing, because I had proved myself), and my father came out in his shirtsleeves, crying hysterically, and embraced me on stage.

I’m curious: While you were listening to Segovia, did you have any idea yet of how you’d be different?

That story comes a bit later. The technique of my father was quite different from Segovia’s, but I loved the coloration and other things Segovia would do with the guitar. Then there was an opportunity to premiere the Concierto de Aranjuez [by Joaquín Rodrigo].

The technique of my father was quite different from Segovia’s, but I loved the coloration and other things Segovia would do with the guitar.

What was your relationship with Rodrigo?

My father knew him; that went back to Spain. And this was going to be a premiere on the West Coast, my father with the L.A. Phil. So my father learned it, but at the same time, I copied the score, and I started practicing it: very demanding, a lot of scales. About a month before the performance at the [Hollywood] Bowl, I played it for Celin. He was almost like a second dad to me, because I’d be afraid to talk to my dad, he was very strict. Celin looked at me, he heard me, and he said, “Oh my God, your playing is fantastic!” And I said, “Is there any chance you could talk Papa out of playing the concert?” Celin went to my dad, who just rolled his eyes, and Celin said, “Papa, it means so much to him, let him do it.” And my father said, “If they’ll accept it, fine.”

The Bowl was full, 17,000 people, I played the Aranjuez, the L.A. Phil went crazy, and the L.A. Times gave an incredible review. Then my father commissioned Rodrigo to write a concerto for the four guitars, the Concierto de Andaluz, and we recorded it in San Antonio, Texas. After lunch, I recorded, in one take, the Aranjuez, and this recording became the standard.

Did you get to meet Segovia?

There was a conversation that took place, and I don’t know if I should say it, but why not? I was in New York when I was 14 or 15, to play the Chaconne at Carnegie Hall. I found the phone number of Ramón Castroviejo, this famous eye surgeon who was a friend — like a brother — with Segovia, and I spoke with Maestro Segovia by phone. And he said, in this very high-pitched voice, “You are from the Romero Family in Los Angeles.” Because he was a personality, he would only accept the satellites around him, like [guitarist] John Williams, people who would study with him. And the Romeros were a totally different pillar. From my father’s technique, we had a very powerful sound; we were boasting that we took the guitar into passages, like a keyboard. Segovia was a more dainty, subdued player.

So I called him to ask him if he knew where I could get the music to the Fantasia para un gentilhombre, the other concerto that was written for Segovia, by Rodrigo. He said, “Ah, Nene (little boy), what are you doing here in New York?” I said, “Giving a concert tomorrow.” “Oh, what will you play?” “The Chaconne.” And he stopped, because he was very well-known for playing it. I thought he was going to say, “Good luck.” But instead, he said, “Nene, an old violinist friend of mine told me that the Chaconne should not be played until after you’re 42 years old.” And he was, of course, way older, 70 or something. So then I said, “Señor Segovia (because at that point I didn’t want to call him ‘Maestro’ anymore; I was pissed off), an old violinist friend of mine (it was Heifetz, but I didn’t mention him by name) told me that you shouldn’t play the Chaconne, or anything like that, after you’re 60. So neither you nor I can play it!”

The next day, that was the concert where I played it, and they said the highlight was this 15-year-old genius! So I couldn’t have been a happier kid! I had my suits made on Fifth Avenue; I looked like a small banker. Now I’m 65 and I walk around New York in my Hawaiian tank top and Tommy Bahama shorts.

That’s the advantage of living through to middle age.

But back then, I was on fire. And I started studying with [Eugene] Ormandy, conducting.

How did that occur to you?

My father did not want just the concept of the guitar in our heads. Every time after lunch, we’d all listen to recordings of opera, lying on the carpet. So I grew up with this passion, and I wanted to produce the Beethoven symphonies. When the Quartet was playing in Saratoga, I would watch Ormandy from the wings.

The [Hollywood] Bowl was full, 17,000 people, I played the Aranjuez, the L.A. Phil went crazy, and the L.A. Times gave an incredible review.

What did you like about him?

He was very elegant; he had that very fluid, Hungarian baton technique. Then he called me out on the stage to stand by him and share the rehearsal of El amor brujo, and to talk to the orchestra. He started taking me under his wing. I was warned by my family, “Don’t start with this thing of conducting, because conductors are not gonna like it.” So then, my career as a soloist became very prominent, even more so than with the Quartet, and it started sort of clashing. Claude Bolling, the great French jazz pianist and composer, wrote for me an extension to a concerto for classical guitar and jazz piano, and I recorded it, on EMI, with none other than George Shearing at the piano, Ray Brown on bass, and Shelly Manne on drums.

You were keeping top-drawer jazz company there.

It was my Golden Years. I established a great relationship with Frank Sinatra and Truman Capote, in Palm Springs, where I was friends with [restaurateur] Camargo; he taught me how to fly (I’m a pilot), and I became a black belt in judo. I used to fence. My mentor, like a second dad to me, was Ricardo Montalban. I had everything: fame, the greatest reviews, recordings, all things that are now next to impossible to get.

So how did you happen to separate from the Quartet?

Truth be known, I probably have too big of a mouth.

Don’t worry, I try to keep my interviewees from getting into trouble.

A little trouble is always fun! [Laughs] The way I left the Quartet was sad; I didn’t want to. And it wasn’t between Pepe and I; we adore each other. I tell him, “You are the greatest, I am number two,” and Pepe says, “I am Avis, you’re Hertz, there’s no comparison,” and I say, “Pepe, please, you’re a genius!” Then Celin comes out from the back of the room and goes, “Will you both shut up? You’re making me sick.” [Laughs]

You guys could have been the Three Stooges.

We were. Celin was Mo, Pepe was Larry, and I was Curly! But anyway, I was in London, playing and recording all the time, and in Paris, and there was an unpleasant call from my father and Pepe, telling me I was supposed to be in Idaho, playing with the Quartet. I said, “It’s been 35 happy years in the Quartet, we established something that’s never been before, but I’m out.” My father came, all outraged, to my house, and I said, “Papa, I’m losing my relation with my beloved brothers, not because of us personally, but because of our management and the record companies. They are ruthless!” … They started with the new Quartet, and people were not accepting it, but then things got better.

I had everything: fame, the greatest reviews, recordings, all things that are now next to impossible to get.

Have most of the wounds healed?

Oh God, yes! As a matter of fact, the Quartet did a Christmas recording with Deutsche Grammophon this last year, and they called me. They needed a few extra things, and it became a beautiful Christmas reunion, the five of us.

And you’ve been keeping otherwise busy. Still transcribing lots of classical repertoire for the guitar?

Very much. And about 10 years ago, I started conducting very heavily.

Did you take on that elegance you admired in Ormandy?

I’ll let you be the judge. Somebody called me and told me I’m on YouTube. I’m very fiery. When I get into the Allegretto in the [Beethoven Symphony] No. 7, I bow my head and just cry. I’m very emotional, very powerful, like my personality. I’m very out there.

I’m glad you are, because classical music needs that sort of infusion.

Yeah. We’re gonna be still for eternity, but while I’m here, I like to kick around, laugh every day. I married a gal half my age, [his third wife] Nefretiri; her short name is Nefy, she’s sung with the Quartet, and when I conducted with the NDR, she sang El amor brujo. We have a just-turned-11-years-old Isabella — Bella, we call her. She’s gorgeous and she wants to be a pop singer. We met Lady Gaga. I gravitate to a lot of people in pop.

What guitars are you playing?

I’ve been very associated with a Steve Connor; he’s from the Boston area. And my other incredible maker is my nephew Pepe Romero Jr. I went to see Segovia’s [1937 Hermann Hauser] guitar at the Metropolitan [Museum of Art], and they let me play it.

Before I forget: Remember I told you I lost my relationship with Segovia, when I was 14? Well, years later, I flew to New York, to play with the New York Philharmonic at Lincoln Center, and the night before my concert I had a free night, and Segovia was at Carnegie Hall, so I went to see him. I was almost afraid, because the last time I had almost hanged up on him, but I went to the dressing room afterwards. He could hardly see. I said, “Maestro, you were fantastic!” and I gave him my program and said, “Will you sign it for me?” He said, “Ah, what is your name?” and at first I wanted to say, “Fred Smith,” ’cause I didn’t know what he was gonna say, in front of everybody, who were also my public. But I said, “Angel Romero.”

You could have heard a pin drop in that dressing room. All of a sudden he turns to me and pushes up his glasses and says, “So, you are Angelito Romero. Show me those hands that are so fantastic.” So I put my hands out, and he looked at my hands and said, “They look just like mine!” He took my hands, kissed them, and put them on his cheek. I was in tears by then. Everybody was applauding. Then he quieted everybody down and said, “When you love the guitar as much as I do, this is what you do with a master like him.”

You got the blessing.

And eight years later [on June 2, 1987], when I got the news that he died, I have to confess, I cried like a baby.

Jeff Kaliss has featured and reviewed classical, jazz, rock, and world musics and other entertainment for the San Francisco Chronicle and a host of other regional, national, international, and web-based publications. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from San Francisco State University, and is the author of I Want to Take You Higher: The Life and Times of Sly & the Family Stone (Backbeat Books) and numerous textbook and encyclopedia entries, album liner notes, and festival program notes.