Gustavo Romero, who played the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1 in three concerts with the San Diego Symphony last week, is a child prodigy. Now 15, he is an accomplished pianist. What the interview with young Romero on KFSD-FM revealed was an amiable adolescent, mild-mannered, respectful, with no unusual traits of personality and nothing interesting to say about his music making. He sounded exactly like any other nice kid of his age: a person who has not experienced very much and whose character, pleasant as it is, has not yet acquired any distinctive contours.
The difference between Gustavo, the individual in society, and Romero, the pianist engaged in his art, could not be more striking. What is astounding about this young musician is not his technique, brilliant though it may be. A fine technique is, of course, something to be admired, and it is the result of a fairly rare degree of nerve-muscle coordination along with an amount of hard work most people would not undertake. Still, there are a great many professional pianists nowadays, both young and not so young, who command a technique of comparable quality. Gustavo Romero's uniqueness is in the subtlety and profundity of his musical understanding, his power of shaping phrases and of integrating them so as to convey the full meaning of the the score. Here a high order of intelligence reveals itself, as well as a remarkably distinct musical personality. There is not the slightest touch of the mechanical about this playing, and no display that is external to the music. Both the rhythmic pulse and the dynamic shading have the flexibility and spontaneity of nature itself, with a sureness of judgment and emotional sensitivity that seem the result of decades of thought and experience. It is the playing not of a brilliant, precocious child but of a wise and mature adult. Even the impressive elements of technique — the resounding power, for example, or the floating tone — seem to be the outward expressions of a fully developed inward life: the power is the power of passion, and the tone is the meditative spirit reflecting upon itself.
It is impossible not to be curious about where all this may come from. If a cheerful, sheltered, quite ordinary boy of fifteen can embody so convincingly the intense, conflicted emotions of a composer more than twice his age (Tchaikovsky was in his early thirties when he composed this concerto), one begins to wonder what exactly musical emotion is. An actor of the Stanislavsky school will look into his own past to find the emotional equivalent of the fictional experiences he is portraying; but there is certainly nothing to indicate that Gustavo Romero does anything of the kind. Are those musical sensations we perceive as "feelings" really that, or something else entirely? And if they are indeed feelings and if the pianist is in some sense undergoing them himself as he transforms the score into sound, can we say perhaps that me really accomplished musical performer has access to an emotional source beyond anything he can have experienced in the actual events of his life?
The notion that Gustavo Romero is just especially clever at calculating effects will not satisfy anyone who has listened to him play. What we hear is not calculation but a complex, living reality far more intricate and nuanced than anything even the most artful performer could intentionally plan. Nor is it satisfactory to say that the emotions in this music are merely subjective interpretations made by the listeners, and that all that is actually there to be heard is a series of musical devices — the shaping of phrases, dynamic contrasts, stretchings and compressions of rhythm — that follow their own laws and have nothing fundamentally to do with human feelings. And even if this were so, the question would remain as to how a young performer can have learned to deploy those musical devices in such a sensitive and expressive way that we are convinced of their emotional immediacy and truth, whatever the "facts" of the matter may be.
In any case, there was nothing in this grand performance of the Tchaikovsky to suggest in any way the youth of its performer and his relative inexperience of life. "A few bars only were needed to show that here was a boy of unusual gifts. His confident attack, his round, full tone, the massive, yet delicate beauty of his touch stamped him at once as a born virtuoso.... He has musical grasp and remarkable technical capacity." "What strikes me most in this artist is the fact that, in spite of his youth, he knows how to go beyond the details of the work he is playing in order to show it in its totality. His understanding is comprehensive and his playing is comprehensive. He does not lose himself in the details where other performers are content to remain, for in his playing the technical difficulties are automatically overcome. this serenity allows him to surrender himself entirely to the interpretation of the masters, and that is why he is already to be classed among the greats." The subject of these laudatory remarks is not Gustavo Romero, but Artur Rubinstein; nevertheless, the unchanging characteristics of good piano playing being what they are, the words could just as well apply to the young San Diego pianist. Admittedly, it may be a trifle premature to class Gustavo Romero among the greats — but then Rubinstein was being reviewed at the mature ages of 17 and 18, which leaves Gustavo a couple of years to catch up. Few people who heard his recent performances can have any doubts as to whether he will do it.
A few words about the rest of the concert. I heard the orchestra at UCSD, where it played in a manner varying from routine to bad (other Tchaikovsky pieces filled up the program). The stage, peculiarly, is placed at the top of a slope, so that one has to look up at it, and the amplification system is such that one could hear more authentic orchestra and piano sounds from a 1935 Victrola. It should also be noted that this was virtually the only program of the summer season devoted entirely (or even substantially) to serious orchestra music. The other summer fare consists mainly of Chet Atkins, Patti Page, Henry Mancini ("Mr. Hollywood"), Walt Disney music, "Golden 30s to the Fabulous 50s," and the like — nice enough, but is that what a symphony orchestra is all about? The audience's appreciation of the all-Tchaikovsky concert, in spite of the defects of execution, suggests that the San Diego Symphony is gravely underestimating the taste and musical maturity of the San Diego community. Respectable programming, adequate rehearsal time, accurate and idiomatic performances, good sound, and a bit of rationality in providing moderate comfort to teh audience will in the long run succeed far better in attracting listeners than this willful insistence on proclaiming that San Diego cannot — and need not — have a decent summer concert series of real symphonic music.