Notes From the Bo(a)rder: op. 1 no. 1 Extraordinary Individuals – Rey de la Torre

I’ve been acquainted with some truly extraordinary individuals. I first began to edge along the border of Greatness at the age of 22 when I had occasion to study privately with José Rey de La Torre, an experience that lasted for a year.

At the time, I was living on Long Island, and had been reading guitar duets with a slightly older and more accomplished guitarist than I, Don Mantell. I had just graduated from Hofstra University with a B.S. in Music Education, and I was beginning to show signs of serious improvement on the guitar, unconsciously drifting slowly toward the orbit of an esthetic that would eventually become my universe. Don saw that slow drift and gave me the push that I needed, recommending that I study with a guitarist who had concert experience and an international reputation. Living in relatively close proximity to New York City, such a teacher would not be difficult to find.

One day, Don handed me a phone number for Rey de la Torre and told me that he would be an excellent teacher for me. I was well acquainted with Rey’s reputation, and was flattered that Don felt I was ready to study with one of the most important figures on the concert stage. I called Rey and set up a session to play for him and see if he would accept me as a student. The session wound up being the first of a year of weekly lessons.

I have often wondered what it was that has lead great players such as Rey to be willing to invest their time in me. I suppose there is a quality, an evident seriousness of purpose that some students exhibit from early on that makes master artists give certain acolytes entrée to their universe. Perhaps it is a recognition that they are ultimately citizens of the same country. I’ve believed that I’ve seen that quality in a number of students during my own teaching career, and I’ve opened the borders to such individuals. I’ve been right about as many of these students as not. Still, I am glad that I’ve given the opportunity to become something greater to all of them; the ultimate decision of most of them to remain outsiders to this curious and demanding world of creativity is theirs alone, whether conscious or not, and brings them no shame.

During that year of studying with Rey I missed only one lesson – Thanksgiving Day. Interestingly, Rey was reluctant to cancel our lesson on that day. A dedicated Catholic and a dedicated artist, he believed in giving thanks to the Creator every day, and his art was an all-consuming passion. His reluctance to cancel that one day was not a demand though, but rather a suggestion that I felt unable to follow; familial obligations were and still are important to me.

There are a handful of things that could be said about Rey that could be found in a good research resource. There are many other things about him that are probably far more interesting and paint a more complete picture of the man, things that cannot be verified by documentation, things that can make this present discourse more apocrypha than verified biography. This is no scholarly document. My intention is to present the kinds of details that fill the corners of the man’s life, the places that reverberate the whispers that give dynamics to a life that is otherwise consigned to the mezzo forte of history books and encyclopedia articles.

Besides, this is more my story than Rey’s. Who is anyone, after all, other than who they are to someone else? My first impression of Rey was exactly as I had expected it to be. A fit looking man of about 60, he had a full head of silver hair crowning a handsome face that could have belonged to a Hollywood leading man, the quintessential Latin Lover – a little something of Ricardo Montalbán and a little something of Kevin Bacon. He was uncommonly intelligent and spoke flawless English with a slight Cuban accent.

Everyone who knew him professionally – his colleagues, students, business contacts – knew him as Rey. At some time in his life he adopted his father’s last name as his first, and his mother’s last name as his. His real name was José. In keeping with the Spanish tradition of using a first name – father’s surname – mother’s maiden name, he was actually José Rey de la Torre. His young wife, Marianne, would therefore have been Marianne Rey. I first met Marianne when my wife at the time, Elena, and I had the opportunity to dine at their home in Staten Island. Marianne was a lovely and gracious woman, probably a bit closer to my age than to Rey’s. Marianne called him Che, a common nickname for José. (I have no idea how Ernesto Guevara came to be called “Che.”) She often called him “schatzie.” She was of Swiss origin and doted on her older husband without seeming to be in any way subservient. Their bond had formed when she, as a physical therapist, was able to give him back his playing after having lost the responsiveness of his right middle finger.

At their home, while Marianne finished her culinary undertakings Rey entertained us by having his pet parakeet perform tricks. He explained to us a little later that he had learned how to train animals as a child growing up around horses near his home town of Gibara, Cuba.

Rey was a great story teller, and his life was interesting enough to provide a raconteur with ample grist. He told us of his time as a teenage boy studying with Miguel Llobet in Barcelona. He would appear at Llobet’s door three times each week at exactly the time that the nearby clock would chime the hours. So precise was his arrival that on the one occasion when he arrived at his door as the last stroke of the bells had already begun to decay, Llobet opened the door before he could begin to knock and in his most solemn voice intoned the words, “You are late.”

Before arriving at Barcelona, Rey had distinguished himself as a young virtuoso in Cuba. Llobet had him drop all of his repertoire and begin almost from scratch, playing nothing but simple etudes until the master deemed him ready to begin repertoire. Rey followed his teacher’s instructions unquestioningly, and moved from being a young virtuoso to being an emerging artist.

Rey may have been an open book to his teacher musically, but in matters that did not pertain directly to his art he could be as evasive as any other adolescent. Llobet would have been horrified had he known that Rey was regularly risking the physical well-being of his fingers by playing on an amateur baseball team. But despite his desire to maintain a secret life of sorts, Rey was not always able to hide personal details from the maestro. Rey was a cigarette smoker, a fact that he hid from Llobet. On one occasion Rey was invited by Llobet to play a piece for a friend of his. After his performance, Llobet, with the smile of one about to reveal that he knows your secret, invited Rey to join them for cigars.

During the year that I studied with Rey he rarely concertized. He was beginning to have health problems and hand problems that would ultimately be diagnosed as rheumatoid arthritis. He did give an out-of-town performance of the Concierto de Aranjuez. I’ve often wondered if that were his last public performance. If it were, it would be ironic, since it was Rey who gave the American premier of that iconic masterpiece.

I had a formidable drive each Thursday to get to my lesson. Rey borrowed an empty room in the office of a dentist friend of his, Dr. John Richter, who as I recall also studied with him. My lesson came immediately after that of Fred Draper, an affable gentle man (and a gentleman) who was about eight years my senior. Each week I’d make the trip to mid-town Manhattan a few blocks from the U.N. with Elena in tow, and we would either remain in the city for a while or else go out to dinner after the lesson. Dinner was a way to kill time in order to avoid dealing with rush hour traffic, as my lesson ended at 4:00 PM.

I recall one week when at the end of my lesson I told Elena that I had a migraine and would rather just go home. We retrieved our car from the parking garage, and as I pulled out of the garage I discovered that my tire was flat. So there I was, in the middle of rush hour in mid-town Manhattan, changing a flat tire while suffering from a worsening migraine headache. Cars passed close by my crouching body as I removed that heavy assemblage of rubber and steel, now rendered useless by a small nail. The noise of traffic – tires bouncing along pot-holed macadam, imperfect mufflers on eight cylinder engines, the occasional horn blaring – as well as the smell of exhaust from inefficient combustible engines only served to exacerbate my condition. By the time the tire was changed I was in agony. And to make matters worse, I still had to drive home on the Long Island expressway at a time of day when traffic would be at a near stand-still, and the trip was sure to take at least two hours.

Rey was, indeed extraordinary. His command of the guitar was unparalleled and he had an easy way about him that brought out the best in me. Under his instruction I began the process of transitioning from being a student of my craft to being an artist. This journey was not completed under his instruction, but extended on for a number of years. I believe I would not really become an artist for another decade. But Rey did introduce me to the kind of detail oriented process without which no practitioner can truly call him or herself an artist.

I recall my first lesson with Rey, and the first assignment that he gave me. I had already studied the Fernando Sor etude opus 6 no. 8, known to all of us at the time as Sor’s Etude no. 1 because of the position it held in Andrés Segovia’s marvelous collection of Sor’s etudes. It mattered not a bit to Rey that I had studied it years earlier. He wanted me to approach it with new ears and a new mindset. It was with this piece that I first began to pay close attention to details of note duration, damping strings while plucking others, listening to the beauty of the counterpoint, and tracing the progression of multiple melodic lines as they wove in and out of each other.

The year that I worked under Rey’s tutelage I learned a great deal of music. Not only did I relearn several of the Sor etudes that I’d studied in college, but I learned some staples of the Spanish guitar literature that I’d not looked at before – La Maja de Goya by Enrique Granados, Torre Bermeja by Isaac Albéniz, Torroba’s Sonatina. I also learned a number of works that were more contemporary in their esthetic – Quatre Pieces Breves by Frank Martin, Theme, varie, et finale by Manuel Ponce, and Preludio y danza by Julián Orbón. Most significantly for the trajectory that my life would eventually take, I learned Miguel Llobet’s set of ten Catalan folk melodies that he had arranged in such creative ways that they are regarded as original compositions.

I also learned a valuable skill – I learned how to come up with good left hand fingerings. Rey was meticulous in this regard, but not doctrinaire. He had clear ideas on fingerings, but he never disregarded my own suggestions when I began to make them.

It had been almost a year of studying with Rey when he announced to me that he and Marianne were moving to San Francisco. I don’t know exactly what precipitated the decision. To say that I was disappointed would be an understatement. Still, I spent the last several weeks gleaning as much as I could from this remarkable maestro. When the time came for him to move he asked me to hold on to a few of his guitars until he could settle into his new home, and then ship them to him. I did so dutifully, and resisted all temptation to play his instruments. In retrospect, I believe I should have asked him if I could play them once in a while. I believe he would have said yes, and it would have benefitted me to be able to practice on concert quality instruments, my own guitar being a student model made in Barcelona by Juan Estruch. Some time went by; I phoned Rey a number of times, and we wrote to each other somewhat regularly. After I sent him his guitars our contact became a bit more sporadic. We eventually fell out of touch with each other.

Throughout our lives we go through many transitional periods. These are the turning points that in the young are referred to as “coming of age” but are really not limited to those embarking on some imagined final path to maturity. I believe that we have many comings of age. This was my artistic coming of age. While I still had a long way to go before I could regard myself as a master, it was during this time that I realized that I felt compelled by something bigger than myself to pursue the classical guitar, and to dedicate myself to mastering it. Rey’s impact on me has continued to resonate through my life, even inspiring my decision decades later to write my doctoral dissertation on the influence of Miguel Llobet on the direction that the guitar took in the 20th century. I’ve had several excellent guitar teachers, each who affected my life and my artistry in profound ways, but there will always be something special about Rey de la Torre. I always think of him when I play El Mestre by Llobet, a piece that I studied under him. Fittingly, the title means “The Teacher.” In my life Rey was indeed THE teacher. Here I present a video of me playing this miniature masterpiece.


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