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Friday July 6, 2007 | Why do photos and statues of composer Johannes Brahms invariably show him as a portly, rumpled old man, with a flowing beard and handlebar moustache — a dead white European?

A photo taken in 1853, when he was 20, reveals another Brahms: slim, long-haired, nattily dressed. Brahms crosses his arms across his chest, fixes his fierce light eyes directly into the camera, and allows a slight smile to curl the corners of his mouth.

Like Brahms, we all make the journey from smooth-faced youth to wrinkled age, but few make it as spectacularly as he did. Over the next four Sundays, Gustavo Romero will play some of the music Brahms made out of his life. This is Romero’s eighth return visit to the Athenaeum and his hometown of San Diego for a month of concerts devoted to a single composer. In previous summers, he has celebrated Schubert and Schumann, among others.

Today, 110 years after his death, we still hear Brahms’s music not only in concert halls but also in popular venues. With a thick portfolio of solo piano pieces, art songs, chamber music, symphonies, and a Requiem, he joins Bach and Beethoven as the third of the great German “Bs.” Brahms’s music — especially for smaller ensembles — has legions of fans today. Among his admirers was the 20th-century’s Arnold Schoenberg, who shattered conventional tonalities.

Outside the “classical” museum, Brahms has also provided fodder for movies like “The Great Dictator” and “Dracula: Dead and Loving It,” and episodes of “Star Trek” and “Fawlty Towers.” Dave Mathews, Alicia Keys, and Billy Joel are among those who have borrowed his themes. (Brahms wouldn’t have minded, since he also produced music for the commercial marketplace.)

Despite his success as both a concert pianist and a composer, Brahms was so insecure that by the age of 18, he had already burned hundreds of scores, before he finally let himself hold on to one. Over the years, he continued to destroy hundreds of works he felt were inadequate and early drafts of others. This perfectionist kept a notebook in which he listed compositional “mistakes” made by the masters, including Mozart.

This summer’s series will barely dip into Brahms’s output, as Romero performs a roiling sonata composed at age 20, free-flowing ballades (age 21), and the final other-worldly piano works (in his 60s). Works from the intervening years include the Paganini variations, the Piano Quartet in G minor and the Piano Quintet in F minor.

Unlike Schumann, whose music Romero described as “autobiographical,” Brahms insisted on writing only absolute or “pure” music. Indeed, he guarded his private life, burning letters and other personal documents, yet his financial records and contemporary accounts offer some tantalizing crumbs. Brahms scrupulously noted the amounts spent for visits to prostitutes. Cranky, tactless and aloof, he was also generous to a fault and recorded gifts he sent anonymously when he learned of a friend in trouble. Brahms schmoozed at his favorite tavern daily and carried candy in his pockets for children.

In his pursuit of the absolute and pure, Brahms doggedly followed the tracks laid down by Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert with classical sonatas, symphonies and other forms. Considered old-fashioned even in his own time, he bucked the Romantic currents of the time, especially “storybook” music intended to provoke images, ideas and emotions.

Some of Brahms’s music looks well beyond the 19th century. Romero said that the moments of the avant garde in Brahms’s music reflect Beethoven’s searing late quartets but maintain his own strong personality. He noted that Schoenberg admired Brahms for staying with traditional and within this cage to be so innovative, especially rhythmically. As Romero put it, when it was time for Schoenberg “to inevitably light the atom bomb of musical language and free tonality from its restrictions, he does it within musical forms that are very structured.”

Brahms’s life simmers underneath his music’s old-fashioned and meticulous structures which nonetheless threaten to fly apart. The drama that informs his music began in the year that the photo of the young Schumann was taken, when he met his beloved mentor, Robert Schumann — and the love of his life, Clara, Robert’s wife and a brilliant concert pianist.

Romero said that Brahms’s “great love for Clara is the most poignant message” in many of his compositions. The music reflects the tension between what Romero described as the “inner rapture he had with Clara” and the respectable distance he had to keep from her first as Robert’s wife — he lived with the Schumanns for a time — and then his widow. Although other women entered his life, Brahms never married, and after Robert succumbed to the ravages of syphilis at the age of 46, Brahms and Clara maintained a somewhat muddled relationship for 40 years. “It was fulfilling but it cost a kind of limitation for the rest of his life,” Romero said.

The Clara effect is especially apparent in the late piano works, some of which Brahms described as “lullabies to my sorrows.” They are as short as just three or four minutes, and Romero said he can imagine Brahms sitting down at the piano and just rolling them off his fingers, as spontaneous as jazz improvisations but with Brahms’s precise architecture. They were so intimate and private that Brahms himself said, ” an audience of even one is too many.”

Contrasting sharply with these free-style pieces are the Paganini variations and the piano quartet and quintet — all written between the ages of 28 and 31. Brahms deliberately wrote the variations for their technical difficulty, and this is the only one of his piano works Brahms never performed himself; Romero, however, described them as “fun” to play, to take apart.

For the first time in the series, Romero is including chamber music, because, he said, “Of all the composers to represent chamber music, Brahms’s should be included more than any other in a solo keyboard cycle.”

The G minor is Romero’s favorite piano quartet. With a purely classical form that might have some out of the 18th century, it soars to another realm and by the third movement, themes move along the keyboard, among shifting keys, especially in bass. Like late Beethoven music, it is dramatic and grand.

The F minor quintet is symphonic in its thick textures and breadth. Full-blooded in the first movement, it teems with longing and tenderness in the second and relentless energy in the third. The last movement is so intense, it threatens to explode, and as it begins, Romero said, “you have that sense of a modern sounding piece by simple means.”

Sipping an iced green tea at Bread & Cie. in Hillcrest, Romero is relaxing after a tour that took him to Hong Kong, Shenzhen and Taiwan; he’s headed to South Africa and later to Japan. Romero is also on break from teaching in his studio at North Texas State.

Romero’s conversation suggests that he has a particular affinity for Brahms. He can barely sit still as he speaks about the composer and his music, yet in concert, Romero is a meticulous performer, nearly immobile at the piano. A clue to his method comes from his comment on Brahms’s intimate last works. As Romero put it, “you can sense the pianist part of him sitting down and finding musical ideas.”

CONCERT INFO

Athenaeum Summer Festival presents Gustavo Romero playing works of Johannes Brahms. Sundays, July 8, 15, 22 and 29; at 4 p.m., at the Neurosciences Institute, 10640 John Jay Hopkins Drive, La Jolla. For the complete schedule, go to http://www.ljathenaeum.org/musicfest.html. Series tickets $100-$120, with four dinner $500; individual tickets $24-$34, with individual dinner $135. Tickets at (858) 454-5872 or in person at the Athenaeum, 1008 Wall Street, La Jolla.

Cathy Robbins is a writer and the author of “All Indians Do Not Live in Teepees (or Casinos)”, to be published by the University of Nebraska Press.

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