Friday, June 30, 2006 | Fresh from Juilliard, Gustavo Romero, a skinny 22-year-old kid from Chula Vista, made his New York debut on the piano in 1987. A New York Times reviewer wrote, “Mr. Romero’s ability to make us pay attention to some very tired repertory on Wednesday spoke well for his future in the concert world.”

The future is now, and the still-skinny Romero, hunched over a small table at Peet’s in Hillcrest, was adamant. “The music is not tired. The music is there ready to be seized,” he said.

Romero believes that listeners and even artists are tired. Listeners’ senses have been dulled. With 20 different versions of a Beethoven sonata at Tower or wherever, people grow up thinking that impersonal recordings represent how music is played. The music itself becomes “nebulized, neutralized, almost neutered,” he said. “It takes the vision of a probing artist who is willing to take musical risks within a composer’s style and period to create something distinctive.”

Romero seizes live music and composers by the lapels. Over the past seven summers, Romero has offered San Diego audiences close encounters with titans of the keyboard – Bach, Mozart, Chopin, Beethoven and Schubert. For four successive Sundays in July, Romero performs the works of a single composer at the Neurosciences Institute.

This summer, Romero will tackle the complex and passionate work of Robert Schumann. The recitals are sponsored by La Jolla’s Athenaeum, where Romero made his first public appearance at the age of 11 in a noontime concert, and they generally sell out. The music mini-marathon brings him home after a year of performing – he has recently returned from a tour in Italy – and teaching piano students at the University of North Texas; he shuttles between homes in New York and Dallas. Romero supplements the recitals with lectures every Wednesday morning, at University of California San Diego’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute.

At a concert at last year’s Schubert series, an audience member voiced an occasionally-heard criticism of Romero, that he is too much the technician and not enough the soul-meister. Still, Schubert is hardly a Romantic composer; for all their emotion, his compositions are still Classical, tightly structured, almost architectural. Schumann, however, is another story – singing, clear, passionate, fluid. Judith Oishei, the Athenaeum’s music director, describes his music as “taffy.”

Romero might be cool and austere at the piano, yet he can hardly contain himself when he talks about Schumann. To make points he slams his fingers down on the bistro table or “plays” on it, as if it were a keyboard; sometimes he waves his hands in the air, his fingers waving not randomly but, again, precisely in the configuration of a pianist racing up and down invisible keys.

The challenge of Schumann is the composer’s extraordinary and original voice, Romero said. Listeners tend to want to stay in one mood, one idea. Schumann, however, never sits still. He might follow a poetic moment with something stormy and stressful into which he carves out an oasis of calm.

“He reminds us that in one moment we have a myriad of things we go through in terms of feelings,” Romero said.

Romero described Schumann as “a quintessential Romantic figure, so attuned to nature and drawing from so much in his everyday life.” Pointing to a glass of iced coffee on the table, Romero said that Schumann would have created a piece of music for the coffee if he had never tasted it.

Schumann understood that life is ephemeral, and he built its mystery into his music. He sometimes left a work unresolved, ending on what seems like a loose note. In “Fantastiestucke” (Fantasy Pieces), one piece is titled “Why?” And in “Kinderszenen” (Scenes from Childhood), Schumann included a short piece called “Pleading Child,” that finishes on an unresolved chord. Romero said it’s a perfect picture of a child always asking and never satisfied.

Some of Schumann’s pieces are full of seemingly disparate elements, but he always gives listeners “strong musical totem poles that keep us grounded in the midst of juxtaposed music moods.” “Carnival” includes sound portraits of Chopin, his past girl friend, his wife, and the violinist Paganini. Schumann ties the piece together with patterns of notes and related keys.

Immersing himself in the work of one composer allows Romero to get inside a composer’s head, to see how his musical ideas overlap. The process also prepares him and the listener to hear Schumann’s “secret tones.” Romero described a line of music in “Humoresque” that is on the page but is not supposed to be played. Only the performer knows the notes are there. Despite the silence, the music emerges, like overtones.

Romero will perform 14 of Schumann’s piano works over the four Sundays – using no scores. Romero denies that he has a photographic memory, although he said he has “a strong combination of ear and finger memory.” Romero also said he retains works he has already learned and can learn pieces practically overnight. “The idea of playing a large body of a composer’s work is just a great pleasure, a challenge no matter what it is,” he said.

Schumann’s music grew directly out of his volatile being, where opposing passions co-existed, and his creative energies were complex and unsettling, Romero said. Schumann had years where he focused on just one kind of music – his songs, symphonies, or chamber music. For Romero what counts is “the first magical decade of so much incredible piano music.”

Schumann’s music is firmly autobiographical, Romero said. Central to his life and music was his marriage to Clara Wieck, one of the nineteenth century’s greatest pianists. In 1830, Robert moved in with her family, when he began piano studies with her father, Friedrich. The “magical decade” that Romero talked about began at about that time.

Robert and Clara fell in love, and in 1837, Robert asked Herr Wieck for permission to marry her. Wieck refused and separated them in part because of the age difference; Robert was 27, Clara 17. Although he was often depressed during their separation, Robert composed numerous works for her. The couple filed and won a lawsuit to override her father’s wishes, and they married in 1840. To spite Wieck, they married on the day before her 21st birthday.

During their life together, Clara was famous, not only as a performer but also as a composer; her image later appeared on a Deutschmark 100 bill. Robert was less famous, and his works often met with disfavor. The Schumanns, Felix Mendelssohn, and his sister Fanny were active in the new music movement, and Robert founded, edited and wrote most of the articles for a magazine that became one of the most important music publications of the century. Clara performed 21 concerts where Mendelssohn conducted, and Robert and Felix resurrected Schubert’s forgotten music. Schumann also befriended a 20-year-old composer named Johannes Brahms, who moved in with the family for awhile and most certainly fell in love with Clara. Over their 16-year marriage, Robert and Clara Schumann also managed to have eight children.

Schumann’s life is a rich field of study for psychiatrists and musicologists who might connect his genius to mental illness. He had a nervous breakdown, at the age of 34. Although he recovered, he began to hear voices and auditory hallucinations in 1854. After Schumann was rescued in an attempted suicide, he asked to be placed in an asylum, where he spent the last two years of life. Doctors kept Clara away, saying she would upset him. He was 46 when he starved himself to death in 1856.

Contributing to Robert’s insanity and death was probably the mercury used to treat his syphilis. Clara lived on without him for 40 years, performing and editing his works. Brahms was often at her side, although no evidence exists that they had anything more than a close friendship; he died less than a year after her.

Romero said he doesn’t perform much new music. He remains wrapped up in the standard repertory, because its store of piano works is vast. “It’s easy to stay with it and be quite nourished and content,” he said. In short, the music isn’t tired; neither is he, nor, it seems, is his audience.

CONCERT INFORMATION

The Athenaeum Music and Arts Library presents Gustavo Romero performing the major piano works of Robert Schumann. Sundays, July 9, 16, 23, 30, all at 4 p.m. At the Neurosciences Institute, 10640 John Jay Hopkins Drive, La Jolla. Individual tickets: $24-29; Series tickets: $84-104. Four concerts with dinner: $500; Individual tickets with dinner: $135. Call 858-454-5872 or go to www.ljathenaeum.org.

LECTURE DATA

Romero supplements the recitals with lectures every Wednesday morning, at UCSD’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (this summer’s lectures are already full).

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