Gustavo Romero moves from Chula Vista and Paradise Hills to center stage

Prelude for a young pianist

Gustavo Romero. Creston and his wife Louise: ”We’d never heard playing like that. He brought tears to our eyes.”
  • Gustavo Romero. Creston and his wife Louise: ”We’d never heard playing like that. He brought tears to our eyes.”
  • Image by David Covey

Even if you don’t have the slightest interest in classical music, would you turn down the chance to meet Mozart? Say you could go back in time and talk to the young Mozart, nine years old, just beginning to shine. Even if his music bored you, wouldn’t it be a treat to sit down and chat with the little squirt, and know that he was headed straight for immortality, and realize that you could tell your kids in thirty years, “Hey, you know I met Mozart.” (You did?) “Yeah, nice kid. I could tell even then there was something special about him.” (Wow!)

With Zubin Mehta and the New York Philharmonic. Mehli Mehta, the conductor's father: "He should be studying in a conservatory." "Well, Mehli, there isn’t the money." "Get the money.”

With Zubin Mehta and the New York Philharmonic. Mehli Mehta, the conductor's father: "He should be studying in a conservatory." "Well, Mehli, there isn’t the money." "Get the money.”

Well, forget Mozart. Meet Gustavo Romero. His talent might just be of Mozartian proportions. You could sense that at the Thursday Club's clubhouse in Point Loma a few weeks ago. Young Gustavo was giving a recital on a poorly tuned piano with a malfunctioning pedal that even forced him to stop at one point, mid-sonata. No matter. The audience cheered for the fifteen-year-old, applauding him into giving three encores. Afterward, people encircled him, grinning broadly, pressing to get close to the rising star. Most were old admirers of the South Bay lad, patrons since the days when he was a little boy from Chula Vista who showed remarkable skill and expressiveness at the piano. Those days are gone. Too many of the great names in music — names like Zubin Mehta and Rudolf Serkin — have heard and judged his talent. Today Gustavo Romero is a certified child prodigy.

Ignacio and Leticia Romero. The Chula Vista teacher flew into a rage. “She yelled at my mother.”

Ignacio and Leticia Romero. The Chula Vista teacher flew into a rage. “She yelled at my mother.”

Not that Gustavo’s demeanor betrays this. He has to be one of the nicest teenagers in the county. He’s polite and soft-spoken. but when you talk to him, you know it’s not shyness. His self-possession is exceptional, but softened by flashes of boyish enthusiasm. One of his greatest admirers, Paul Creston, the renowned composer who lives in Rancho Bernardo, says Gustavo's humility is characteristic of child prodigies. “They realize that their talent comes to them not through any power that they have," Creston says. ‘it’s God-given."

How else do you account for a talent like this? Not through heredity. When the Romeros mentally examine the family genes, they come away baffled. “Gustavo’s grandmother had some brothers who lived on a ranch in Mexico. They taught themselves to play guitar and violin,” an acquaintance offers lamely. Gustavo’s father, Ignacio, adds that his father strummed on a guitar almost daily. "But there’s a guitar in most Mexican families," the father continues with a shrug. “No, I think you can really say Gustavo did this on his own." Both Ignacio and Leticia, Gustavo’s mother, were born in Guadalajara, Mexico, and from there they separately immigrated to San Diego, where they met. They married in 1960, had a son named Jaime a year later, and Gustavo was born three years later. By the time their second son was three, Ignacio and Leticia were detecting signs of the unusual.

Neither parent ever played any instrument, but Leticia always loved Mexican folk music. One of the family’s most cherished early possessions was a record player proudly installed in the Romero home in Paradise Hills, just east of National City. The mother remembers coming home from work in a local laundry, picking up her two boys from a neighbor’s home, and each day watching Gustavo run to the record collection. "He would ask me what I wanted to listen to, then he would put those records on for me.” The little boy would sit transfixed, literally for hours, circumspectly pretending to play piano on the wooden ledge of the record player cabinet.

He adopted a constant accessory. Some children can’t be separated from a beloved blanket or doll; wherever little Gustavo went, he clutched a small record and a table fork, using the latter as an imaginary turntable tone arm. His parents shook their heads in amazement, but his grandmother worried. Thinking of the idle young men she had seen ensnared by Mexican bars, she warned that Leticia would have problems later. “You’ll have to watch him,” the grandmother clucked. “Wherever there’s music playing, he’ll stop.”

Gustavo can’t explain his early, unbounded love for music, just as he can’t really explain what made him climb up on the bench of that first piano and start noodling around on the instrument. The Romero boys’ baby sitter, an elderly woman who lived two doors away, owned that piano. Granny, as they called her, played only church songs and she didn’t mind when little Gustavo picked away at tunes. The instrument bewitched the pre-schooler. “Wherever I went and saw a piano, I always wanted to try it,” he remembers. The San Diego Country Club (located in Chula Vista), where his father worked as a waiter, had one. When Gustavo finally entered Robert E. Lee Elementary School, he discovered another one there; he’d go to school early to play with it. He strove to reproduce by ear beloved and familiar tunes, one of which was the theme from the film Never on Sunday. About that time, around age six, he discovered something that seemed near miraculous: the system of musical notation. “When I found out that all this music [which he had been trying to teach himself] was written, I went crazy!" Feverishly, he turned to encyclopedias and dictionaries and from them quickly taught himself enough to read musical notes.

Still, he says for a long time he didn’t think of his playing as serious — not serious enough to tell his parents about his growing skill. Then one day at a parent-teacher conference at school, Gustavo’s teacher complimented the senior Romeros on their son’s playing and asked how long he had studied piano. Ignacio and Leticia were bemused and startled. But they hesitated to buy a piano; their tight budget could ill afford frivolous purchases, and they had earlier bought Jaime a guitar only to see him lose interest in it. Finally convinced by the seriousness of their second son's interest, they bought a brand-new Baldwin from a Chula Vista piano store. Gustavo was eight.

The parents soon got more assurance of Gustavo’s earnestness. Leticia, for example, recalls going into a music store right after buying the piano and purchasing a series of beginning-piano lesson books — only to have Gustavo master all the lessons in one day. The boy was then buying popular music, themes from movies and so forth, and he remembers adding flourishes to complicate the pieces, already too simple. On another visit to the music store, Leticia collared a young man named Mark Williams, who turned out to be a college student of piano. She asked if he’d be interested in teaching her son for three dollars an hour in her home. Williams agreed, and began introducing Gustavo to the works of Beethoven and Chopin. After just four months, however, the young teacher confessed he had taught the little boy everything he could. He suggested that Gustavo try studying with his (Williams’s) former teacher.

Unfortunately, she was to teach the Romeros a lesson in the kind of possessiveness that can make people see the talented young as a ticket to fame, and clutch at them. A Chula Vista resident, Gustavo’s second teacher agreed to instruct the boy for thirty dollars a month. “And she was great for me at the beginning,” Gustavo says warmly. But as the months went by, he began to fret that he wasn’t progressing; somehow word of his discontent reached Williams, the college student, who recommended that the lad audition for Ilana Mysior, a well-respected local pianist and teacher at the University of San Diego. When the Chula Vista teacher got wind of the imminent switch, she flew into a rage that still provokes a shudder in Gustavo. “She yelled at my mother,” he whispers. “She said, ‘He’s a flower and you’re stepping on him.' "

The turmoil hurt Leticia Romero but didn’t daunt her conviction that Mysior’s guidance would benefit Gustavo. Mysior in turn was thrilled to have the nine-year-old youngster. She still vividly remembers Gustavo’s audition with her. First he played a piece he’d been studying with the woman in Chula Vista. “It was very student like and nothing great,” Mysior recalls. “I was thinking, ‘Who can I recommend for a teacher?’ ” Then Gustavo offered to play another piece he’d been studying on his own, Chopin’s G Minor Ballade. “And he played it beautifully, brilliantly,” Mysior recalls. “He spent two and a half hours at my house that day.” Mysior says she normally only teaches advanced students, “but he was an adult, musically speaking.” She not only accepted him as a student; she didn’t hesitate to teach him at half her normal fee.

Mysior soon urged Gustavo to enter local music competitions, which he won handily. At age ten he took first prize in the Music Teachers of San Diego competition. At eleven he won first prizes in two major state competitions, and the next year he dominated the young pianists competition at Chapman College in Orange County. Under Mysior’s guidance, he won a scholarship to participate in the six-week Eastern Music Festival in North Carolina in the summer of his twelfth year. Closer to home, his appearances before San Diego audiences also multiplied. His parents say that his first public performance was before a group of lady golfers at the San Diego Country Club who had heard about Ignacio’s talented son. Soon other women’s clubs began calling the Romeros, asking if Gustavo could play at teas and other social/cultural assemblies.

Today there are probably a half dozen San Diegans who heard Gustavo during that period and who claim to be the first to have “discovered” him. Anahid Jerahian doesn’t make that boast — she thinks no single one person deserves to take such credit — but she’s probably entitled to the distinction of being Gustavo’s most devoted fan, outside his family. A Clairemont housewife, she first heard Gustavo perform when he was ten. at the Athenaeum Music and Arts Library in La Jolla. She describes her reaction to him with words that sound like an exaggeration. “I remember going up to him and telling him I had never heard anyone perform like that in my life.”

Jerahian's opinion is an educated one. Born of Armenian parents in Baghdad, she grew up in Bombay and was immersed in the cultural life of that city and the cities of Europe, to which she traveled frequently. She finally settled in Southern California, married, and had three children, whom she tried to infuse with her love of art and music. (Indeed, one son is a professional violinist.) She had been taking an interest in young musicians for many years, but after hearing that performance, Jerahian's focus narrowed. Now she says, "My loyalty is to Gustavo. There is no way I will drop him, because there is no one who comes close to him!”

Like other of Gustavo’s heartiest fans, Jerahian says the most stunning thing about Gustavo is the maturity of his musical sensitivity. To the untrained ear, it is a subtle' distinction. Even today Gustavo’s parents (who have grown to love the classical music their son plays for hours on end) say they can’t discern what it is that makes people judge his playing as great. Jerahian explains that it's something more than the ability to play all the correct notes. What distinguishes the pedestrian piano player from the matchless piano virtuoso is the ability to infuse those notes with expressiveness, emotion. Jerahian says pensively, ”I went to hear Murray Perahia and I was very taken by his sensitivity. And yet . . . I feel there are certain things he can do and certain things he cannot do, like every single artist. I heard Vladimir Ashkenazy play . . . I was very impressed by him and yet . . . I don’t know. I don’t get that excitement with these other performers that I do with Gustavo. I don’t know what it is. It’s something very, very strange.”

After that recital at the Athenaeum, Jerahian sought out every one of Gustavo’s public performances: at the Chula Vista library, at the Jewish Community Center. At first she refrained from pressing a friendship upon the Romeros, but she couldn’t restrain herself from talking up the young boy to friends and acquaintances. She began pestering Charles Ketcham, associate conductor of the San Diego Symphony, to allow Gustavo to do a young people’s concert with the Symphony. Jerahian says Ketcham brushed aside that suggestion more than once. But composer Paul Creston was one of those who took to heart Jerahian’s request that he listen to the youth.

Creston says he’ll never forget the day Gustavo first played for him. He says Jerahian hadn't explained why she wanted him to hear the boy. Creston and his wife Louise sat patiently in their elegant, off-white living room across from the Baldwin grand piano which sits in front of corner windows revealing lush greenery outside. Gustavo played Chopin’s Andante Spianato and Grand Polonaise Brillante, Op, 22. At the conclusion of the piece. Creston and his wife sprang to their feet. They went to the piano and there they hugged and kissed the small pianist. Explains Creston, ”We’d never heard playing like that. He brought tears to our eyes.”

At Mysior’s request, the composer eventually began teaching Gustavo music analysis, and Creston says, “Every meeting with Gustavo was a new chapter of revelation.” He tells, for example, of how he once suggested that Gustavo tackle Liszt’s etude, “La Campanella.” “He said to me. ‘Oh that’s hard,’ and I asked. ‘How do you know if you've never studied it?' " Creston says Gustavo replied that he had once heard the piece — whereupon the boy sat at the piano and began playing the extremely difficult music from that aural memory.

Another time, the composer gave Gustavo a copy of Narrative No. 2, which Creston wrote. The pages of that score are black with the ink of the congested notes, and Creston says he never expected the boy to learn the complex piece; he merely thought Gustavo might be interested in studying it. Nonetheless, a month later, the boy not only played it but also disclosed that it had taken him a mere four hours to learn and memorize it, Creston exclaims; “It took me six months to learn to play it, and I haven’t memorized it yet!” Creston saw still another example of Gustavo’s astounding audiographic memory one time after he and Gustavo separately heard the San Diego Symphony perform a brand-new orchestral work by Ned Rorem. When the teacher and pupil finally discussed that concert (three weeks later), the conversation focused on a certain passage in the piano section. Again, Creston says Gustavo simply walked over to the piano and recalled the particular section effortlessly.

Creston says he was the first person to check Gustavo’s musical ear, and he determined that the boy has “absolute pitch,” the ability to identify correctly any single anonymous note. The composer continues enthusiastically, “Once in a century do you have a memory like that and an ear! Mendelssohn had a memory like that and so did Mozart. Mendelssohn would hear an orchestral work and then go home and write the whole score out.”

Such raves for a long time came from a limited circle, but with Gustavo’s orchestral debut, that finally began to change. When Louis Campiglia, director of the San Diego Youth Symphony, finally invited the young pianist to perform with the orchestra, Gustavo chose Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat Major. The concert took place April 15, 1978, one day after his thirteenth birthday. It was an auspicious start for what would turn out to be Gustavo’s most thrilling year.

Anahid Jerahian was the catalyst for one of the first strokes of good fortune. She had brought a cake decorated with musical notes to one of the youth symphony rehearsals to celebrate Gustavo’s birthday, and not long after the concert she felt emboldened to ask the senior Romeros if she could take their son up to Los Angeles for a musical weekend. The parents gratefully agreed, so the Clairemont housewife and boy pianist packed three concerts into two days. The highlight came when Gustavo met privately with and played for Mehli Mehta, father of New York Philharmonic Orchestra director Zubin Mehta (who was then conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic) and conductor of the American Youth Symphony of Los Angeles.

Anahid knew the Mehtas from her days in Bombay; she grew up on the same street they lived on and met the musical family at the concerts to which her parents took her. She says after Gustavo finished playing, Mehli turned to her and asked why she hadn't told him Gustavo was so good. "He was terrifically impressed,” Jerahian says. “Then he demanded to know, ‘What is he doing here on the West Coast?’ He said, ‘He should be studying in a conservatory.’ I said, ‘Well, Mehli, there isn’t the money, and he said, 'Get the money.’ ”

It was a theme which was beginning to sound in Gustavo’s life. Ilana Mysior, his teacher, who today says that Gustavo was the best student she has ever taught, explains why she early was convinced that the boy would, do best to move east. “In San Diego he was, without a doubt, the best. He needed to know immediately that there are others around who are also very talented, so that he would push himself.” Like Mehli Mehta, Mysior felt that Gustavo could only benefit from constant exposure to other first-rate musicians in New York’s intense cultural atmosphere. She also adds, “Here, he was being used and abused. He was always being pushed to play for women’s clubs and so forth. . . . He never had a chance to really practice because he learns phenomenally fast. He never had a chance to study music in depth.”

The practical difficulties of getting Gustavo to New York didn’t faze Mysior in the least, although they hit Gustavo's parents like a cold slap. Ignacio, the father, says he ’ll never forget the first time Mysior said she needed to talk to him in private. Gravely she told him that the family should pull up its two decades of roots and move to New York City. Today, the father laughs at the memory of his dismay, at how the suggestion threw the family into turmoil. While Ignacio balked and maintained obstinately that he wasn’t going to move to New York, Gustavo’s mother tossed and turned at night, fretting that maybe she should go there with Gustavo for a year.

So they let the question stew — but it wasn’t long before other events swept them up. One of the most exciting came when Gustavo received an invitation in the fall of 1978 to audition with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, which every year selects a number of talented young musicians to perform in young people’s concerts. Gustavo’s teacher from the summer music festivals in North Carolina had recommended him as one of the sixty-five competitors.. The only problem was raising the cost of the airfare.

Airfares were becoming something of a nemesis for the Romero family. Earlier that summer Gustavo had won a scholarship to participate for a second time in the North Carolina music festival, but he had to raise the money for the plane ride. That time a San Diego woman had held a benefit in her home to raise the needed funds. After the benefit, however, Mrs. Romero and Gustavo discovered that the woman expected them to be at her beck and call; to write thank-you notes and perform other such tasks. When the Romeros balked at the cavalier treatment, the woman refused to turn over the money; even when pressured by other contributors, she ultimately released only half of it, and friends had to come through with the balance. Fortunately, in the face of the New York Philharmonic audition, no such trouble developed. Among Gustavo’s benefactors was Donald Dierks, music critic for the San Diego Union, who took up an impromptu collection at the newspaper office to help send Gustavo back to the New York audition.

When Gustavo returned, he resigned himself to a several-month-long wait for the results. But good news of a different sort came almost immediately, when associate conductor Charles Ketcham finally invited Gustavo to give a "young people’s concert” with the San Diego Symphony. The thirteen-year-old boy performed Liszt’s Hungarian Fantasy with the full orchestra in the Civic Theatre in three concerts in late January and early February of 1979. Before the memory of the applause from those performances could fade, Gustavo got a spectacular opportunity for an encore. It came courtesy of a cold virus.

That cold attacked the vocal cords of Metropolitan Opera soprano Anna Moffo on the day before she was to sing at a subscription performance of the San Diego Symphony on March 22. The night before the concert, a desperate Ketcham called Gustavo and asked if he’d be ready to perform his Liszt on a moment’s notice and to stand by. The next morning, Gustavo went to school for a few hours, then Anahid Jerahian picked him up from his eighth-grade classes and drove him downtown for the rehearsal. Gustavo recalls, “I didn’t know I would play that evening until twelve o’clock” [when word came that Moffo indeed would be muzzled that evening]. He took the news with glee.

He says when he walked onstage that night, he felt only exhilaration, inspiration. ”I was playing the same piece I had played for the young people’s concerts, so I was secure.” He reflects on the question of nerves; people ask it frequently, and Gustavo’s reply is firm. “After all, I don’t get the opportunity to play with an orchestra every day! And when the chance comes along, I think, ‘How can I spoil this by getting nervous?’ Instead it inspires me to play really well. People say, ‘But all those people are watching you,’ and I say they’re not going to come up and bite me. They’re there to listen to music! I mean, there may be some crazy people who are there just to count your mistakes, but I don’t worry about that.”

“He doesn’t realize how great he is, which is good,” says Ilana Mysior. “His attitude is, ‘Of course I play the piano. So what?’ He loves what he’s doing, so there’s no question of being nervous.” Nonetheless, the last-minute substitution and Gustavo’s performance finally made an impression on some of the city’s critics, which they conveyed lavishly. Dierks wrote, “With stage poise beyond his years, an assured technique, and a feeling for the style, he surely touched the hearts of his audience.” The Escondido Times-Advocate’s critic, Kathlyn Russell, described how Gustavo “astounded listeners with a sensitive, incredibly mature performance of the Liszt piece. He became almost a prodigious figure on stage — the child’s body and slightly pudgy fingers producing music at such an adult level.”

Again, triumph followed triumph a week or so later, when Gustavo received word that he was one of ten musicians selected as finalists from among the sixty-five competitors for the chance to perform with the New York Philharmonic. Friends once again scrambled to raise the money for the round-trip air fare. This time the suspense was mercifully brief. Almost as soon as Gustavo returned from the final audition, a Philharmonic representative called with congratulations and the news that Gustavo was one of the five winners; the Philharmonic would pay to fly him back for the performance, April 28 and 30. He had just turned fourteen.

“I had this great orchestra behind me, with a great conductor, a great piano, a great hall. It was wonderful,” Gustavo says of that experience. And this time the exhilaration of being in New York was intensified — by the realization that Gustavo would be returning yet again. On his second trip back for the audition, Gustavo had played for a faculty member of the Juilliard School and had been accepted for enrollment in the fall, a decision with which Gustavo’s parents had finally made their peace.

It came only with considerable agony; the Romeros worried about their son’s safety in the crowded, dangerous city. They grieved over the imminent loss of close contact with him. But Leticia says, "From the start, Gustavo wanted to go,” and she says it with such feeling that you can hear the longing, the conviction the parents must have confronted in their offspring. “Gustavo knew that New York was the place for him to be, so he didn't care if he had to leave his family, or how hard it is,” says the mother. The thought reminds her of how Gustavo once forgot his lunch money when he was very small; she was amazed that he wasn’t upset, but the child replied that he had simply gone off and played the piano. The mother still marvels at her son’s ability to let the music block out everything, every strife, every pain. In making the school decision, the parents finally sought the advice of Andre Watts, a renowned pianist and one of Gustavo’s great admirers. Watts gave his opinion (he was ambivalent) but also arranged for the Romeros to drive up to Los Angeles and get yet another, from virtuoso pianist Rudolf Serkin. “He [Serkin] told us he was nine when he went away to school.” The example seemed to give the Romeros courage.

Gustavo’s face saddens when he says, “For my parents and my family it was terribly hard.” But he grins with pleasure when he thinks about his first visit to New York. “The very first thing I did was to go to Carnegie Hall and the Music Center and Juilliard, just to look at them. Then I went to Patelson’s. It’s a music store in back of Carnegie Hall which has everything!” He smiles at his own excesses. “It has a lot. There was so much music! You’d go by Carnegie Hall, and there was so much music, all these people coming to play. And you’d think, my God! Why aren’t they coming to San Diego?” Since they in fact come to San Diego only rarely; and they cluster around New York like bees at the hive, Gustavo ached to go to New York. He finally moved there a year and a half ago, in September.

He settled in with a family who lives on West Ninety-third Street. The father emigrated from Poland; the eight-year-old child also plays piano. “It’s a very musical neighborhood,” Gustavo says, “Ruth Laredo, the pianist, lives in the same building and so does one of the college-division teachers at Juilliard. Garrick Ohlsson, another pianist, lives across the street. And I heard that the Pinchas Zukermans and the Itzhak Perlmans go to the same bank that I do.”

Weekdays he takes the bus down to West Sixty-third Street, where he attends the private Professional Children’s School, where he studies ordinary subjects like Western Civilization, French, and algebra, alongside extraordinary teenagers: ballet dancers, one of the current stars of Annie, the Broadway musical. He studies in Juilliard’s “pre-college” division on Saturdays, a gruelingly long day which often stretches to more than ten hours of chorus, musical theory, chamber music, performance, and more. He studies with his current Juilliard teacher, Herbert Stessin, on Tuesday afternoons, sandwiching in his practicing with his high school homework, a thorn in his life because of the time it robs from his music. “You hear about how people like Rudolf Serkin and Isaac Stern never went to school after the time they were eight,” he says with a wistful sigh. “What would be incredibly perfect to me is if I went to school in the morning and they didn't give us anything else to do outside.”

Attending concerts takes up any spare time; a Boy’s Club foundation grant pays for all Gustavo’s tickets. The rest of his expenses — which came to about $10,000 last year, according to Jerahian — have been covered by an educational fund set up through the Thursday Club, a Point Loma women's philanthropic organization. It was to express his gratitude to the Thursday Club that Gustavo gave the recent recital during the two weeks he had home at Christmas.

These days the Romero home is located in a trim Chula Vista housing tract that bears an uncanny resemblance to University City. The dwellings here are colored cream and green and shades of brown, with shake roofs, and surrounded by meticulous landscaping. Mr. Romero still works as head waiter at the country club, and he moonlights with gardening jobs; Mrs. Romero earns minimum wage working at her laundry job and cleans offices at night. But their home is a middle-class palace, furnished tastefully and filled with beautiful appurtenances.

Gustavo also dresses nattily: the day after the recital he wore khaki pants, a new sport shirt, and a gold chain around his neck. He’s almost sixteen, and now it’s easier to envision what he’ll look like in college than it is to picture what he looked like in grade school, though his cheeks still have more than a hint of childish roundness. His body is stocky, his skin almost milky white, his hair luxuriant and dark. As he talks, his right hand strays over the chair arm, relentlessly and unconsciously fingering invisible piano keys.

He relishes this interval in his life, this opportunity to concentrate intensely on studying music. He says he wants to work on technical things such as building the independence of each hand; he’s working now on really listening to himself, to catch the mistakes. And he’s working to improve that gift his admirers say he has in such abundance, the ability to make the notes express emotion. “I know when I go to a concert to hear somebody play, I want to sit there and feel something. People go to hear music for enjoyment, to respond to an emotion, to feel happy or sad or to sit on the edge of their seats.” He wants most to give them that and he says doing so comes very naturally. It surprises him to hear people think of this as difficult, and yet it is also something he wants to develop further.

In this interval of time, he can do so without worrying about the pressures of career development. First, he’ll finish high school. Then he’ll either proceed to Juilliard’s upper division or study with some other conservatory or master teacher — but by that time the competition will have begun to build. Gustavo says he already hears talk of tension between the pianists in the upper division, tension which he says is blissfully absent among the younger students. "With my friends now, we’re just all working pianists. And you’re not thinking, 'Oh, this one’s playing here and this one got this review and so on and so on.”’ he adds, “If it was competitive, I would try not to think of it, because if music is like a sport, the only thing you can say is how fast someone plays, which is ridiculous! How can you say one pianist is better than another?” he asks heatedly. “That’s like comparing Horowitz and Rubenstein. Each one is great. They each have something to say.”

Yet Gustavo’s life is hardly free from pressure, something which troubles his closest mentors like Ilana Mysior and Anahid Jerahian. Mysior says, “There are a lot of people who forget that he’s just a young boy and who expect a lot of him. They want him to write every week, and that’s a bit unrealistic. He doesn’t know what play is. If someone came up to him and said, ‘Hey, let’s go swimming.’ He’d say, ‘No, I’ve got to write a letter.’ That’s a shame.” And then there’s the pressure of living up to the staggering expectations, the Mozartian comparisons, something Gustavo admits he cannot ignore.

He fears that if he really thought a lot about those expectations, he might relax, not work so hard. His mother drums the contrary into him. He smiles broadly and says every time his mother calls; she repeats a message, which seems long ago to have become internalized. He says the hype may tell others that his talent is an incredible thing, “but it’s telling me if it is true, you’d better work at it. Keep on remembering that so many people have confidence in you. And they really think that something's going to come out of all this that’s happening now.”

And will it? Anahid Jerahian bites her lip and says with apprehension, “There’s such politics in it. You don’t necessarily need to be good to make it. There are more mediocre artists than there are really top-notch artists,” she asserts. “It’s a lot of luck — being in the right place at the right time, having the right connections. Getting into the Mafia, as it were. But I know that he has a good chance of making it. He has that chance!”

Gustavo says he’s never thought twice about taking that chance, not since the days when he picked out tunes at Granny’s. “Right from then, I thought the piano was for me. I thought about being a pianist then. I just like to play the piano, period.” Right from the beginning he thought that if he couldn’t work as a pianist, he’d at least play the piano, and be happy.

His mother doubts that would sustain him now. “I get scared. I get very scared for Gustavo and very upset sometimes, because I know his hopes are so high.” She knows that little boys who love music can be happy just playing piano. But not child prodigies. She knows if he doesn’t climb to the heights, he’ll be hurt. So he’d better go up. Everyone is counting on it.

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