Jesús María Sanromá: An American Twentieth-Century Pianist
by Alberto Hernández
Published July 2008
A few weeks ago I reviewed a new release issued by the Biddulph label featuring The Musical Art Quartet. I commented that their only recording I was familiar with is Chausson’s Concerto for Violin, Piano, and String Quartet, Op. 21, where they are joined by violinist Jascha Heifetz and pianist Jesús María Sanromá, set down in 1941. I reacquainted myself with this splendid recording and was most impressed by the pianist, whom I knew nothing about. A spot of googling revealed that in 2008 a substantial biography was published about Sanromá, written by Alberto Hernández, who had been a student of Sanromá's at the Puerto Rico Conservatory of Music in the 1970s. The book is still in print and, as it escaped Musicweb’s scrutiny with a review at the time of its publication, I thought that I would offer one now.
Jesús María Sanromá (1902-1984) was born in Carolina, Puerto Rico. He showed early talent on the piano and, aided by a supportive father, was enrolled at a music school in Fajardo. He was what you would term a ‘prodigy’; Hernández relates that he would perform blindfolded with a piece of cloth over the keyboard. Aged twelve he could play Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2, which gives us some indication of his standard. When he made his debut in San Juan, the island's capital, a certain José de Diego was sitting in the audience. Impressed by what he heard, he persuaded the government to give the young pianist a grant of 600 dollars to further his musical education in the United States. So, it was off to the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, Massachusetts to study with David Sequeira. Following his graduation, he was appointed official pianist of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the first person to receive such an honour. He went on to study with Antoinette Szumowska-Adamowska at the NEC from 1920 to 1927. He then travelled to Paris and Berlin where he took some additional tuition from Alfred Cortot and Artur Schnabel respectively.
Known to his family, friends and colleagues fondly as Chuchú, Hernández portrays Sanromá’s easy-going, warm and friendly nature throughout the book. Many of the letters, of which there’s a multitude of examples quoted throughout the text, bear witness to this. Both he and his family were devoted and practising members of the Roman Catholic Church. Despite his long absences whilst ‘on the road’ he remained close to his family back home. He and his wife had four daughters, affectionately named “Opus 1, Opus 2, Opus 3 and Opus 4”.
Sanromá did much to champion the music of twentieth century composers and premier their works. These included George Gershwin, Paul Hindemith, Walter Piston, Constant Lambert, Vladimir Dukelsky, Edward Burlingame Hill, Philip James, Charles Loeffler, John Alden Carpenter and George Newell. High on his list, understandably, were fellow Puerto Rican composers Jack Delano, Hector Campos-Parsi, and Amaury Veray. On July 1, 1935, in Symphony Hall, Boston, he made the first complete recording of Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue in the full symphonic version with Arthur Fiedler conducting the Boston Pops Orchestra. He gained the reputation as being the foremost Gershwin interpreter. A reviewer by the name of Hutshing remarked “……….Much ‘la de la’ has come out about O. Levant. But he still can’t hold a candle to Sanromá”. In some quarters he became associated with pop music rather than classical, especially among musical snobs.
His close association with Serge Koussevitzky (1874-1951) is documented in detail throughout the book. From early on in his career Sanromá became his rehearsal pianist. The older conductor became something of a mentor and advocate. Another relationship explored by Hernández is that with German composer Paul Hindemith (1895-1963). Sanromá made sterling efforts to champion and perform the composer’s music. Hindemith’s Concerto for Piano and Orchestra (1945) was written especially for the pianist and premiered by him with the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra under George Szell. Then, of course there was Arthur Fielder, closely associated with both the Boston Symphony and Boston Pops orchestras. The pair performed together many times and made several recordings.
Sanromá was considered one of the best chamber music players in the world, and many artists wanted to perform with him. One of his most outstanding gifts was as a sight reader, so contemporary composers would bring their music to him. He also had a prodigious memory. His career was lengthy and immensely fruitful - 3,000 performances in 21 different countries, 757 of these as soloist with 124 orchestras under 140 conductors playing 36 different piano concertos.
For Alberto Hernández this biography was eight years and one sabbatical in the writing, and has been a true labour of love. Presented in a very readable style, it is well-researched, illustrated with black and white photographs and commendably detailed in its rigorous scrutiny of Sanromá’s life; it held my interest throughout. Detailed notes are conveniently situated at the end of each chapter. There are two appendices: the first is a comprehensive repertoire listing, with the second offering a list of private and commercial recordings sourced from Esteban Moreno, the Sanromá family and the author. Finally, there’s a helpful bibliography. All told, this first rate study gets my full-hearted recommendation and is well worth tracking down.
Published: October 19, 2022