If you’re a teenager from Spain who has been in California for only a few years, and you’re a prodigy on the classical guitar, and it’s the early 1960s, whose music do you listen to? Why, the Beach Boys, of course.
Now the unusual and enduring friendship between Sir Angel Romero – recognized as one of the greatest classical guitarists of his generation – and the ultimate California surf band has led in roundabout fashion to Romero’s engagement as a soloist with the Imperial Symphony Orchestra on Tuesday.
The concert, at 7 p.m. in the Youkey Theatre at the RP Funding Center, will be a rare opportunity for music fans in Polk County to hear Romero play a masterpiece with which he is closely identified, the quintessentially Spanish “Concierto de Aranjuez” by Joaquín Rodrigo. (Ticket ino.)
“It’s very cool having him with us, someone of his stature,” said Mark Thielen, music director and conductor of the Imperial Symphony. “He belongs to the first family of classical guitar.”
That guitar dynasty began with Celedonio Romero and his three sons – Celín, Pepe, and Angel. The four performed together for many years as the guitar quartet Los Romeros. The family tradition now includes Angel’s son, Lito, and Celín’s son, Celino. In fact, Angel is the second Romero to perform with the Imperial Symphony. Older brother Pepe – an equally acclaimed artist – was a soloist with the orchestra many years ago, Thielen said.
After the family moved to the United States in 1957, Angel Romero made his American debut at 16, playing the “Concierto de Aranjuez“ at the Hollywood Bowl with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. He has performed with almost every major international orchestra, recorded numerous albums and has taken occasional turns as a conductor as well. He was knighted by the Spanish government in 2000.
Robert Phillips, guitar instructor at Harrison School for the Arts, heard Romero play about 20 years ago with the Florida Orchestra. He said his mastery of the instrument is complete.
“His technique just disappears. It’s pure interpretation. Particularly with the Spanish repertoire, he feels it down to his bones. He understands what the music is supposed to do and how it’s supposed to sound. He’s arguably the supreme interpreter of the Aranjuez concerto alive today,” Phillips said.
So how did the Beach Boys bring this distinguished artist and the Imperial Symphony together?
As a teenager, Romero attended the Hollywood Professional School, which was for children in show business. One of his classmates was Carl Wilson, who was putting together the Beach Boys with his brothers. Romero and Wilson became friends, and Romero remained a lifelong fan of the band, even after Wilson died of cancer in 1998.
Lakeland resident Scott Totten, who has been lead guitarist and music director for the surviving version of the Beach Boys for the past 18 years, met Romero after a Beach Boys concert in San Diego several years ago.
“After the show, he came up and introduced himself. As soon as he said his name, I knew who he was,” Totten said. “We exchanged numbers and kept in touch.”
About three years ago, after attending another Beach Boys concert in San Diego, Romero invited Totten to his home for dinner.
“He showed me his guitar collection, and we talked about life. He and his wife are very warm, friendly people. I had to pinch myself to realize I was in the home of Angel Romero,” Totten said.
At the time, Totten and his wife, Alyssia, were members of the Imperial Symphony’s production committee, and they suggested inviting Romero to perform with the orchestra.
“Alyssia and I for years thought, wouldn’t it be great if he could come and play here. I talked to him the last time I saw him, and he liked the idea. It’s really quite something to have an artist of his caliber come and play,” he said.
Romero has been closely identified with the “Concierto de Aranjuez,” which he has recorded three times over the decades. Composed by Rodrigo – a friend of the Romero family – in 1939, it is considered one of the last great works of Spanish romanticism. Its folksong-like melodies and rhythms seem familiar and appealing, and fit perfectly with the guitar, the instrument so associated with Spanish music.
Phillips, who has played the concerto with piano accompaniment, says it is “hard as heck to play” but has been one of the most popular classical works of the modern era.
“It speaks to people. It reaches us on so many levels. There are these bright, sunny moments, and then there is this deep, brooding second movement,” he said.
The theme of its haunting second movement is considered so evocative of Spain it has been popularized by musicians in other genres, including jazz trumpeter Miles Davis.
“The heart and soul of the concerto is the second movement,” Thielen said. “It’s one of those famous melodies you hear all the time. It’s very intimate.”
The remainder of the program in Tuesday’s concert also has a Spanish flavor, featuring three other short works. It includes the “Andalucia Suite” by Ernesto Leucona, a work originally written for piano that includes the fiery Malagueña; and the Intermezzo from “Goyescas” by Enrique Granados.
“The Intermezzo is another haunting melody,” Thielen said. “I’ve been thinking about what endears Spanish music to us. The rhythms are exciting, and there is a folksiness to the music, as well as passion.”