One hundred and fifty years ago this Oct. 17, a tubercular Polish pianist died in Paris. He had given relatively few public concerts, but through composing, teaching and private salon performances, Frederic Chopin forged a revolution in the idea of what piano music could be and created an enduring archetype.
Given the eagerness with which the music industry seizes on anniversaries such as this, the profusion of events worldwide marking the occasion is only to be expected. One of the most ambitious and potentially illuminating takes place this summer in La Jolla, where native son Gustavo Romero will play all of Chopin's solo piano music, in chronological order, in six recitals presented by the Athenaeum Music and Arts Library.
"Chopin had the ability to create worlds that were so rich," Romero says. "He really took the instrument to its limits and created a revolution. Listen to Chopin, and suddenly you are transported to hearing the instrument in its most capable expression. There is an irresistible quality, a charm and sweep to his music that is immediately recognizable."
There are some caveats to the completeness of this daunting labor of love. The programs cover nearly 150 pieces, large and small, focusing on the music published during Chopin's lifetime, with some of the posthumously printed works turning up in encores. Even with this limitation, two of the six programs will require two intermissions.
"I decided to do this cycle in the spirit of Nikita Magaloff," Romero says. "[The Swiss-Russian pianist] had done the cycle this way throughout his life and career. I heard some of it in Paris years ago, and he is the one I kind of modeled my cycle on.
"The cycle forms very naturally. Each concert ends with a major piece, and you get to see how the music changes. In the beginning, the passage work is very brilliant, showing off his technique, but it becomes more contrapuntal and chromatic.
"It is also a very natural byproduct of accumulated works if you are a Chopin pianist. It's not like you just wake up one morning and have to learn 64 opuses."
Gustavo Romero is indeed a Chopin pianist. He has played all-Chopin recitals regularly and released a well-received Chopin disc (the complete impromptus and other works such as the Barcarolle and the B-minor Scherzo, on Koch International) four years ago.
Carrying a lot of repertory clearly does not faze the 33-year-old pianist. He is speaking by telephone from South Africa, where his programs of the past few weeks have included not only a Chopin recital but also Beethoven's Fourth Concerto, two Mozart concertos and a program of Liszt's opera transcriptions.
Romero has made strong connections in South Africa. Continuing to think big, he plans to return there for his personal year 2000 project, playing all of the Mozart concertos in seven concerts.
"Apart from being a beautiful country--very much like Southern California--South Africa has become important to me because of a pianist I met there, Lionel Bowman. I was just passing through three years ago as a tourist, going white-water rafting in Zimbabwe. I stopped to do some practicing at his house and something just developed--he's become kind of a musical mentor. The concert in Capetown was in honor of his 80th birthday."
Romero is himself learning the art of mentoring. For the last two years he has been teaching piano at the University of Illinois at Urbana.
"It is interesting to be on the other side, after so many years playing for someone else," Romero says. "I have to say, it really has expanded my awareness of a lot of things, how to prepare and practice, even how to walk on stage. You suddenly have to be able to verbalize and articulate things you have always done, maybe without thinking consciously about them."
Romero's years of playing for others took him through the Juilliard School, an Avery Fisher Young Artists Career Grant in 1983 and victory in the 1989 Clara Haskill Piano Competition in Switzerland. It began, however, in his hometown of San Diego. Starting piano lessons in kindergarten, Romero made his public debut on the Athenaeum's noontime Mini-Concert series.
"I remember very well my first concert there," Romero says. "I was 11 years old, and it was the first time I was actually reviewed. As a kid, I used to go to the library and check out scores and recordings."
The Athenaeum--an independent membership library and arts school--is celebrating the 100th anniversary of its incorporation. Romero has remained closely associated with the Athenaeum, and the organization was quite happy to bring him home for the occasion.
"Since we specialize in art and music, we wanted to have two signature events, one in each area," Erika Torri, the Athenaeum's executive director, says. "Gustavo's Chopin cycle is the music event, and the finale of our celebration is a lecture by Philippe de Montebello [director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York] at the end of September.