A poignant return to Bach: Pepe Romero interviewed by William Kanengiser

William Kanengiser:  I’m sitting here with the great maestro Pepe Romero, discussing his All-Bach recital on January 10 that will kick off the 2014 New York Guitar Festival. Pepe, quite a few years ago, you did a series of All-Bach recitals; is this one at the Brookfield Place Winter Garden the first one in a long time?  

Pepe Romero: Well, I haven’t done it in a long time. It came as an idea of (festival director) David Spelman…he called me, and started sending me pictures of Bach on my phone (laughs)…  

WK:  To make you feel guilty!  

PR: Yes! At first I told him it would be difficult, because this year was completely booked with a lot of different programs, learning a bunch of new concertos, an all-Tarrega program on my Torres guitar in Tokyo, etc. But in the end, he convinced me, and I love the idea!    

WK:  Was there anything in particular that changed your mind?  

PR: I thought back to 17 years ago, when my father (Celedonio Romero, patriarch of the Romero Guitar Family) was    really sick. I stayed with him for that whole year. Every night, I would turn the lights off, and he would lie in his bed,     and every single night I would play his favorite pieces for him, including the Chaconne (final movement of the 2nd    Partita for Violin, BWV 1004).  And then on the night he died, he said:  “When you were born, I received you with the guitar, I played for you. Tonight I want you to play for me, when I die.”  And he asked me to play certain pieces, and      the Chaconne was one of those pieces.  So, after that experience, I played it a couple of times, but I kind of put it away.   

WK:  Because it brought up too many emotional memories?  

PR:  Yes. It became a very emotional piece for me. So now, this program, which will end with the Partita, is kind of a private dedication to my father, in my heart. I’ll begin with some of the Bach pieces I heard him play all his life, pieces  that were significant to him and to me. For example, when I was a child, I would always go to sleep with him playing the Gavotte (hums melody) from the Viola Pomposa Sonata (Cello Suite #6, BWV 1012). In the morning, to wake me up for school, he would sit by my bed and play the Gavotte from the Fourth Lute Suite (BWV 1006a); that was my alarm! (hums melody)   

WK:  What a great way to wake up! That’s much better than the alarm on my iPhone!  

PR:  It is!! (laughs).  So, I’m doing a set of those Bach pieces that he played all his life.  Then I’ll be doing the 3rd Cello Suite (BWV 1009), a piece that I completely love; I’ve always been enamored of the cello. This piece brings back memories of my father playing it, and my dear friend (cellist) Gabor Raito.  Every time, I saw him, I would say, “Gabor, play the 3rd Cello Suite!”  

WK:  There seems to be two schools of thought when guitarists adapt the solo violin and cello works of Bach: There’s the “pure” approach, where no extra notes are added to fill out the texture, and then there’s the “adorned” approach, where harmonies are filled out and bass notes are added.  What’s your philosophy on that?  

PR:  Well, I like to stick to what Bach wrote. It bothers me to hear notes added, because I feel that the harmonies that he wrote, and his implied harmonies, are so absolutely perfect that anything extra you do to it detracts rather than adds. For instance, in the 2nd Partita, when he wanted a chord, he wrote a chord!  He was never shy about writing bass lines when he wanted them….the Chaconne is full of notes!   

WK: You don't need to add anything to that one!  

PR:  No. And it fits in a very resonant register on the guitar.  So as a rule I don’t like to add notes.   

WK: I know exactly what you mean about adding notes to Bach.  If you add one bass note, for that moment you could say: “oh, it sounds fuller now”. But then you can paint yourself into a corner, because you have to continue the line. I think we’ve seem some published arrangements where so much is added that it doesn’t sound like Bach anymore. . . 

PR: That’s right, because you can kill the implied harmonies. I feel that ornaments, in whatever music it is, should do exactly that: adorn.  Be itself, but more beautiful.  

WK:  And sometimes Bach is almost deliberately vague; at times he gradually changes from one harmony to another in a subtle way, and you can’t say “at this moment, it’s specifically this chord”.  But when you choose to add a bass note, you clearly define it and take away the mystery.  

PR:  Exactly! But what I do like to do, instead of adding notes, is to work carefully with the fingerings.  I try to do it so that certain notes ring over other notes, to bring out the harmonies and voices that are already there. If you finger it right on the guitar, you can do a lot to keep the contrapuntal movement that even the cello has a difficult time doing.  Then you get the idea of two or three voices happening in one line.  

WK:  So, there’s no need to add anything, because it’s all there.  

PR:  Yes, it’s all already there!  

WK:  I suppose we could say that Bach’s music, maybe more than any other composer’s, seems to have complete universality, timelessness and perfection at its core.  Is there any way to explain the miracle of Bach’s music?  

PR:  I think of Bach as a “secular evangelist”.  The evangelist of all religions. I feel that Bach’s music is directly the sound of God, in which ever way you want of think of God.    

WK: For you, what’s the biggest challenge of preparing and performing a recital like this?  

PR: I don’t prepare it any different than I prepare anything else.  I think the biggest challenge in preparing anything, for a recital, for a recording, is to keep a balance.  To keep a balance between how much you practice it, and how you keep it fresh.  How you keep your interest, your desire alive, while you soothe your thoughts of “I didn’t prepare enough”.  And I think this balance is the biggest challenge. In my case, that problem takes care of itself, because I’m so busy with so many projects.  So, the big challenge for me is finding enough time.  And for me, I love to play concerts, but above all, I love to practice.  I am a born. . .   

WK: Masochist!  

PR:  Masochist! (laughs). No, I love the relationship between the music and myself when I am preparing it.  Then, when you come out on the stage and you play it, it’s the time to release all that experience that has taken place between the music and yourself.  So, if you don’t have a great time preparing it, playing the concert itself won’t be that fulfilling.  

WKIt makes me think that of those sand mandalas made by Tibetan monks:  they rub tiny bits of grain into a pattern; it takes them weeks to make this beautiful creation, they stand back and admire it, and then they sweep it away. And isn’t music-making similar in a way?  You have to spend so much time preparing it, you have to do it with concentration, and with love, and it’s there to be enjoyed. But just for a brief moment.  

PR:  I feel that I’m the mandala, itself, rather than the one making it! I was born to be a guitarist, and a musician, and when my time comes:  whhht!  They will blow it away, and there I go, off in the ether!      

 WKNot for a very long time, I hope!! This question isn’t just about this program, but any concert you play:  what is your wish for the audience to come away with after experiencing this recital?

PR:  I want them to come away feeling happy, feeling good. Having spent time away from their problems, from what troubles them.  Music makes us communicate through our soul, and if you can leave the theatre feeling that connection, that’s what I want more than anything.  

WK: That’s the highest goal of an artist, isn’t it? To bring some joy, or peace, or contentment, and to give people something to focus on that takes them away from their problems?  

PR: That’s right, and I wish that for all my listeners.

 William Kanengiser (left) and Pepe Romero in Los Angeles in November 2013.  

(photo courtesy of Scott Tennant)

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