And then there were four, and occasionally five. To quickly retrace the remarkable story of Los Romeros, the dynamic classical guitar dynasty that celebrated its 60th anniversary three years ago, the quartet’s literal birthplace was the Lobero Theatre in 1959. Patriarch Celedonio Romero, already a legend in the guitar world when he moved his family to Santa Barbara to escape Franco’s Spain, had his solo American debut at the Lobero in 1958, and soon brought his three talented guitarist sons on stage to form the world’s first great guitar quartet.
That brief backstory adds poignancy and a grand continuity to the return of the Romero clan for a special concert at the Lobero last Saturday — a return to the scene of the birth of a legacy. Notions of legacy are all abuzz these days at the Lobero, celebrating its historic status as a 150-year-old venue, a remarkable achievement for a West Coast theater.
For this Saturday night affair, presented as part of CAMA’s “Masterseries,” the family foursome consisted of eighty-something Pepe and brother Celin and sons Lito and Celino, with the fifth voice provided by original quartet member Angel. Angel, now a noted solo artist in his own right, talked about meeting his wife on Butterfly Beach and later informed the audience that when he heard about this special concert, “I canceled everything. I wouldn’t miss this.”
In keeping with the decades-deep family tradition, the program leaned mostly on Spanish and baroque repertoire. Framed by quintet pieces opening and closing each half of the concert, and with varying combinations of guitarists in between, the concert opened with the vibrant clarion call of Vivaldi’s “Allegro” from Concerto D and closed with Celedonio Romero’s famed “Noche en Málaga,” with works by Boccherini, Manuel da Falla, and Bizet’s ever-popular Carmen Suites in the quintet mix. As expected, the quintet scores were handsomely arranged and transcribed for the unique guitar quartet format.
Paterfamilia Celedonio’s all-important imprint, aside from his all-important siring and mentoring tasks, was also heard in the form of his best-known composition, “Fantasia Cubana,” as played solo by Celino, resplendent in such effects as “tapping“ — like hammer-ons, harmonics, and nods in the direction of flamenco and other Spanish guitar flavors.
Other concert highlights included the duo of Celino and Lito delivering on the wistful luminescence of Enrique Granados’s Danza Espana No. 2 “Oriental,” and Pepe’s moving solo performance of Brazilian legend Villa-Lobos’s Amazonian-impressionist jewel, “Prelude in E minor” and the Capricho árabe by another classical guitar staple, Francisco Tárrega. For a quick, happy jolt of an encore, the fab fivesome returned for a lusty run through a flamenco improvisation on Rumbas.
In all, the concert program fulfilled what Celino had earlier informed the crowd was to be a “greatest hits” night out, honoring the site-specific resonance of this “Royal Family of the Guitar.” It felt like an old home week, on both sides of the stage.