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New York Times Magazine - "Royal Family of the Guitar"


Four decates ago, under the crystal chandeliers of Madrid's elegant Real Conservatorio Superior de la Musica auditorium, a young guitarist of regal bearing began a program of classical compositions. During a pause between numbers, a small boy in the audience escaped from his mother's arms, climbed onto the platform, removed Celedonio Romero's footstool and, without a word, sat down on it. Undaunted, Romero simply crossed his legs to support his instrument and began his next number. When the concert was over, the boy joined in the audience's enthusiastic applause. The guitarists took the child's hand and the two of them walked off together.

"How can mothers bring their children to concerts?" asked an impresario from Barcelona as he lunched with Romero at a restaurant the next day. The guitarist made no comment, but invited the impresario home to meet his family.

"I'd like you to meet me son, Celin," Romero said, bringing forward the child who had climbed onto the stage. The impresario laughed, and later that afternoon, 3-year-old Celin received a generous delivery of toys. In the 40 years since, Celin - like his brothers, Pepe and Angel - have frequently joined his father on stage, no longer as a spectator but as a performer.

By the time the Romeros immigrated to the United States, they were already being called "the royal family of the guitar." Today, one of them is probably the best classical guitarists in America. The only question is which one?

Collectively, they are the only classical guitar quartet of real stature in the world today; in fact, they virtually invented the format with their transcriptions of Vivaldi, Bach and Telemann and the original works for quartet dedicated to them by, among others, the Spanish composers Joaquin Rodrigo and Federico Moreno Torroba.

The Romeros also perform and record as soloists, in duos and with symphony orchestras. As soloists, they stand in the first rank of the post-Segovia generation that includes such artists as John Williams and Julian Break of Great Britain, Oscar Ghiglia of Italy and Alexandre Lagoya of France, Alirio Diaz of Venezuela, Narciso Yepes of Spain. The Romeros play an extraordinary number of concerts - 136 are scheduled this year, 60 of them in Europe. By way of comparison, the most popular pianists on the roster of Columbia Artists (the Romeros' management) give 90 concerts a year. Last summer, the quartet played in a virtuoso series at the 17,500-seat Hollywood Bowl. (Other guest stars included the violinist Itchak Perfman, the flutist Jean-Pierre Rampal, and the New York Philharmonic with Zubin Mehta conducting.) The Romeros' recording of Joaquin Rodrigo's "Concerto Andaluz," with Neville Marriner conducting the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields chamber orchestra, was voted 1980 Record of the Year by readers of Audio Magazine, a German publication. An earlier version of the same concerto, with the San Antonio Symphony, is the Romeros' most popular record, with sales of more than 10,000 - a repectable figure for a classical recording.

In May of this year, Celedonio Romero, now an American citizen, was awarded one of the highest honors the King of Spain can bestow on a divilian, the Cross Of The Order of Isabel la Católica. Earlier, the four Romeros were honored in their adopted country with invitations to play at two state dinners at the White House.

The Romeros' popularity is part of a general renaissance the classical guitar has experienced, beginning early in the 20th century and reaching its peak over the last two decades. Classical guitarists, and the Romeros in particular, have appeared with all the major symphony orchestras. Prominent contemporary composers, such as Morton Gould, William Wafton, Malcolm Arnold and the late Benjamin Britten, have written expressly for the instrument. When the National Assocation of Schools of Music surveyed American college guitar programs leading to a bachelor's or master's degree in 1970, they found only 15; in 1980, Guitar Player magazine reported the cound was up to 510, with the overwhelming majority emphasizing classical guitar. With a new generation of musicians emerging from these schools, the guitar may be on the verve of full acceptance as a classical instrument and not just a mainstay of folk and rock music.

Although Celedonio Romero was highly respected in Spain for his earliest years as a performer, he was virtually unknown in the rest of the world for a long time because the Franco Government refused to let him accept engagements abroad. Contracts for Paris and London concerts that might have launched an international career during the 1940's lie moldering in his desk to this day. Frustrated by the opportunities he was forced to pass up and troubled by the suffocating political climate, Celedonio decided in the early 1950's that it was time for him and his family to leave.

They quietly approached the American Embassy in Madrid in 1954, Celedonio resounds in Spanish. With the help of an American friend who signed the all-important affidavid of sponsorship, the Romeros were able to obtain a visa four years later, but they still lacked permission to leave Spain. However, through a high Government official who was a guitar lover and an acquaintance of several years, Celedonio managed to obtain a permit to his family to visit Portugal, on the pretext of visiting his wife's ailing sister. The minister seemed to suspect something, but chose to look the other way once he asked the obligatory question: You will return? "Of course," answered Celedonio.

When the family settled in Santa Barbara, Calif., in 1958, Ce;on. then 18. started thinking about a career of his own. While serving a six-month hitch in the United States Army reserve, he met a young promoter willing to underwrite an American tour. But his strong family instincts would not allow Celin to take advantage of the opportunity for himself alone. "I never wanted to pass my father," he says. "And I loved my brothers. Even then they were great guitarists. I felt it was totally unfair for one to take off artistically more than the others."

The quartet was the logical solution. In fact, admits, Celin, "the cute thing of a father and three sons" probably contributed to the Romero's initial success. Solo guitarists, other than Andres Segovia, had not yet made a niche for themselves in the American market. The popularity of folk music had just began to spart interest in the guitar, as had flamenco, the fiery, rhythmic and often improvised Spanish folk music that was often confused with the classical repertory in the American public's mind. That interest, plus the bargain appeal of four for the price of one, helped commercially. The Romeros' first American tour, in 1961, was well received. Within two months of their appearance at Town Hall, the quartet returned to New York to give another concert, this time at Carnegie Hall, and to appear of "The Ed Sullvian Show" on television. A recording contract soon followed. Their career was launched.

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