Classical guitar recitals in Baton Rouge performed by major practitioners of the art may be as rare as a once-in-a-generation occasion.
Baton Rouge finally got a world-class guitar recital Saturday night. Pepe Romero, the 68-year-old, Spanish-born middle son of the late patriarch of the Romero family of guitarists, Celedonio Romero, performed for a full house at the Manship Theatre.
Despite his instrument’s quiet nature, and in the time-honored tradition of guitar recitals, Romero used no amplification.
A guitarist who has excellent technique and a fine instrument can be heard in even a large concert hall, if that the hall has good acoustics. In decades past, such masters of the instrument as Andrés Segovia and Julian Bream made regular appearances in the world’s great concert halls, including, for example, 2,446-capacity Kennedy Center Concert Hall.
It’s likely that Saturday’s concert at the Manship Theatre, featuring only Romero and his guitar, is the most intimate concert ever held there. The guitarist, dressed in formal concert black, including tails, sat center stage on a piano stool. As he played, often with great delicacy, whatever other sounds that occurred in the theater could be easily heard.
As listeners literally hung on every note plucked from the guitar, occasional coughs from the audience assumed the magnitude of explosions. The squeak of a door or a chair, too, cut through Romero’s reveries.
And one lady turned to this critic, complaining that the sound my pen made on the paper in my reporter’s notebook reminded her of “a mouse running through straw.” She was a row ahead of me and three seats over.
Fortunately, Romero didn’t let the inevitable coughs and other non-musical sounds that an audience of 325 people can produce sidetrack him. A gracious performer, he bowed after his selections, smiling a grateful, ingratiating smile. His old-world courteousness informed his performance, too. He plays with a warm Romanticism, elegantly caressing notes, adding quivering vibrato to emphasize the music’s emotion.
The guitarist’s program consisted almost completely of familiar standards from the guitar repertoire. Such a program could easily have been performed in the 1950s or ’60s by Segovia. Like the Romero family, Segovia came from Spain’s southern-most region, the once Moorish-ruled Andalucia.
Romero’s program surveyed five centuries of Spanish music, beginning with a fantasy by 16th-century vihuelist Luis de Milán. The vihuela was a guitar-like instrument tuned like a lute.
The concert’s first half included a set of 10 dances by Gaspar Sanz, a guitarist-composer whose life spanned the 17th and 18th centuries. Sanz’s short works contain both rhythmic dynamism and melodic charm. His music fell easily beneath Romero’s fingers. True to the Baroque period, Romero often decorated the melodies with trills.
Most impressive of all was the concluding dance in the Sanz set, “Canarios.” Romero played the elaborate adaptation of “Canarios” that 20th-century Spanish composer Joaquin Rodrigo made for “Fantasia Para una Gentilhombre,” one of Rodrigo’s concertos for guitar and orchestra.
Romero was on more familiar ground with Francisco Tárrega’s ultra-Romantic “Capricho Árabe.” The guitarist contrasted the largely tragic “Capricho Árabe” with another Tárrega composition, a joyful dance called “Gran Jota.”
The latter piece exploited what seemed to be every effect a guitar is capable of, including quivering tremolo, percussive tambora and muted pizzicato.
Moving into the 20th century, two pieces composed by Federico M. Torroba and Joaquin Turina featured Romero’s expressive performances of works that are both examples of Spanish nationalist composers conversely influenced by the French impressionism that was so important during their formative years. Turina’s fiery “Fantasia Sevillana,” especially, also owes much to Spain’s national folk music, flamenco.
Romero is honoring his father, Celedonio Romero, throughout the 2012-13 season. His Baton Rouge concert, he told the audience, was the first concert he has performed in this 100th anniversary year of his father’s birth.
Romero’s performance of his father’s composition, a happy, playful piece titled “Fantasia Cubana,” was another of the night’s tour-de-force exhibitions of the guitar’s vast sonic capabilities.
Romero will perform Rodrigo’s “Concerto de Aranjuez” with the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra on Thursday in New Orleans and Friday in Covington.