JESUS MARIA SANROMA
Sanromá’s father was a Catalonian church musician. The boy’s first piano lessons were with a local teacher Dolores de la Plaza, and by the age of eleven he had made his first public appearance at the Teatro Municipal in Fajardo, the town in which he spent most of his childhood. Up to the age of fourteen Sanromá played throughout Puerto Rico including a concert in San Juan at the Ateneo Puertorriqueno. He received a government grant to study abroad, and although Europe would have been the first choice of destination, World War I prevented this. Instead, Sanromá went to New York, arriving in January 1917 and auditioning a few days later at the New England Conservatory of Music. He was immediately accepted, studying piano with David Sequeira and harmony with Harry Redman. He graduated three years later and in the same year won the Mason & Hamlin piano competition, the prize being a grand piano.
After graduating at the age of eighteen, Sanromá began a seven year period of study with Antoinette Szumowska, a teacher at the New England Conservatory and former pupil of Paderewski. Near the end of these studies with Szumowska, Sanromá was appointed pianist of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, a post he held for the next eighteen years. During this period he had the chance to play concertos with this world-class orchestra, making his official debut in this capacity in 1926 when he played Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor Op. 18 with Serge Koussevitzky conducting. After completing his studies with Szumowska, Sanromá decided to go to Europe to study with Alfred Cortot in Paris and Artur Schnabel in Berlin. In order to do this he was granted a leave of absence from the Boston Symphony Orchestra; he was also able to give concerts in Europe during this further period of study there.
A keen proponent of modern composition, Sanromá played under Sergei Prokofiev and Igor Stravinsky. With the Boston Symphony Orchestra he had the opportunity to give first performances in the United States of works for piano and orchestra by Ernst Bloch, Edward Hill, Vladimir Dukelsky, Arthur Honegger, Maurice Ravel, Bohuslav Martinů and Igor Stravinsky. A performance of Stravinsky’s Capriccio in Carnegie Hall prompted Olin Downes of the New York Times to write, ‘As for Mr Sanromá, he has grown, by an industry and talent as remarkable as his modesty, from a student of a few years ago to a modern pianist whose performance yesterday could be equalled by a very few and out-rivalled by no one.’
Sanromá played the music of Ravel, Debussy, Prokofiev and Poulenc, but also included in his repertoire Schoenberg, Copland, Loeffler, Bloch, Piston, Villa-Lobos, Malipiero, Krenek, Hill, Chadwick, Ballentine and Toch. In 1937, when Hindemith visited America for the first time, Sanromá began a lifelong artistic and personal friendship with the composer. He gave the first performance of Hindemith’s Piano Sonata No. 3 in 1936, and of his Piano Concerto in 1947 with the Cleveland Orchestra and George Szell. Sanromá and Hindemith toured together promoting the composer’s works, and Hindemith wrote a Sonata for Piano Duet for himself and Sanromá to perform, which they also recorded.
After World War II, Sanromá was appointed chairman of the music department of the University of Puerto Rico; he moved back to his homeland the following year and remained there where he became head of the piano department of the Puerto Rico Conservatory of Music a few years later.
Sanromá’s first recordings were made for Victor in 1924 when he accompanied French violinist Jacques Thibaud in the Frenchman’s only recordings made in America. In 1935 he recorded Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue with the Boston Pops and Arthur Fiedler; this was such a success that Gershwin asked them to record his Piano Concerto in F, which they did five years later. Other recordings with the same forces include the first recordings of Edward MacDowell’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in D minor Op. 23, Liszt’s Totentanz and Paderewski’s Piano Concerto in A minor, which Sanromá and the orchestra played to the composer a few days before recording it. The recording of Totentanz is one of the best on disc; Sanromá displays an uncommon virtuosity, and makes interesting tempo relationships between the variations. The only recording he made with the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Serge Koussevitzky was of Stravinsky’s Capriccio. It was the first performance of this work that so impressed Olin Downes in 1940, and Sanromá recorded it that same year.
All of Sanromá’s chamber music recordings are excellent, particularly Schumann’s Piano Quintet in E flat Op. 44 with the Primrose Quartet from 1940, and Chausson’s Concerto for Violin and Piano with String Quartet with Jascha Heifetz and the Musical Art Quartet made the following year, although the piano is rather distant in the recording. Victor released an enterprising collection entitled Album of 20th Century Piano Music in 1939. It contained Schoenberg’s Sechs kleine Klavierstücke Op. 19, Krenek’s Little Suite Op. 13a and five of Prokofiev’s Visions Fugitives Op. 22. Perhaps Sanromá’s most important recordings are those he made with his friend Paul Hindemith in the late 1930s. On the same day in April 1939 they recorded the Sonata for Piano Duet and the Sonata No. 3 for Viola and Piano. The previous year Sanromá had recorded the Sonata in F for Viola and Piano with William Primrose. A disc which shows Sanromá’s subtlety and refinement of style is his 1941 Victor recording of Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2. It is the opposite of the overblown, vulgar showpiece it so often becomes, with Sanromá’s scrupulous use of the sustaining pedal having noticeable effect.
After returning to Puerto Rico Sanromá only recorded intermittently for small labels including the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture, Balsiero, Polymusic and Cook. He did, however, make a few more recordings in America. Another fine chamber music recording comes from a live performance given at the Library of Congress in October 1957 with the renowned Budapest String Quartet and issued on LP by Columbia: they play Fauré’s Piano Quartet in C minor Op. 15. Also for Columbia, in 1952, Sanromá again recorded MacDowell’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in D minor Op. 23, this time with the Eastman Orchestra conducted by Howard Hanson. In 1960 he made another recording of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, this time with the Pittsburgh Philharmonic Orchestra and William Steinberg, for Everest. For the same company he recorded a piano concerto written for him by Ferde Grofé with the composer conducting the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra. Many of Sanromá’s recordings have been reissued on compact disc by Biddulph and Pearl.
Sanromá was an exceptionally fine pianist who did not have a headlining career, yet worked with some of the world’s finest musicians. His playing was acutely musical and refined.
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — Jonathan Summers (A–Z of Pianists, Naxos 8.558107–10).
Role: Classical Artist