Fall 1997

Mr. Romeo's Opus

by Anne Saita
photo by Kevin Morley

Jonathan Romeo ('86) is an artist and an average Joe. He writes music for the common man, but not the general public.

He's penned big-city ballets, movie scores and a symphony, yet he still worries about meeting next month's rent. Such is life for a contemporary composer bent on becoming a classic.

It's been 13 years since a then-JMU junior, overcome with enthusiasm during a study abroad, declared on the steps of London's Tate Gallery that he was going to create music of orchestral proportions.

"And it's been a long haul since then," the 34-year-old Romeo confesses of an odyssey that has had him periodically pull up stakes to produce or promote his work throughout Virginia, Europe and now New York.

To his credit, the 1986 graduate has never abandoned his dream - or his home base, Richmond - and has survived his salad days with grants, fellowships, donations, band gigs and odd jobs, which once included raking leaves and shoveling driveway gravel. Romeo is always working, in one form or another, and has collaborated on more than 40 compositions to date.

Currently at the top of the creator's "To Do" list is recording his best music and exploring options for a piece that pays homage to the late Carl Sagan. He's also searching for professional management, having spent much of his career torn between the time needed to create classical music and the efforts required to ensure it's noticed.

Born in upstate New York and reared in Richmond since age 6, Romeo was the fourth in a musical family of six children. His parents sang in choirs, and everyone in the house played piano and guitar. Becoming a music major seemed natural for Romeo, and he quickly immersed himself in the JMU fine arts culture. He also had a high school rock band, Trivia, that stayed together through his freshman year. Then came the Out To Lunch Orchestra, which regularly worked the Harrisonburg club circuit.

After a semester in London, Romeo was asked by the university's dance department to write a percussion piece for a competition. The ensemble, dancing to Romeo's movement, went on to perform at the American College Dance Festival.

Requests began to come in from other dance troupes. "That was exciting for me, as a composer, to write music and have this incredible response. That launched me on a little career writing dance movement," he says.

That "little career" would include stints with a Florence, Italy, ballet and, closer to home, the Richmond Ballet. Two notable pieces that generated a lot of regional publicity in 1994 were the 22-minute Tandem Spaces and the shorter Ruins, which was written years earlier, in 1989, as Romeo's graduate thesis at Virginia Commonwealth University. Both pieces were performed by the Richmond Symphony.

About that time, Romeo, who also taught at VCU, was invited to help arrange and orchestrate the music for two Miramax motion pictures, The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill But Came Down a Mountain and The Journey of August King.

While financially rewarding, the young artist found his heart wasn't into the Hollywood productions. "My soul said, 'Stop!' because I felt like I was being robbed. It just didn't feel right because it wasn't music I loved."

Since his JMU days, Romeo has replaced the Lunch bunch with The Lyric Ensemble, which includes a younger sister, harpist Alicia Romeo, who is dedicated to performing Romeo's works. The chamber band's repertoire is always expanding, particularly after productive residencies at competitive artist colonies like the Ragdale Foundation in Lake Forest, Ill.

It was during a three-month residency at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts near Lynchburg in 1996 that Romeo took on his most daunting project to date: the 25-minute, four-movement Symphony No. 1. It would take a full year to finish the piece commissioned for The Richmond Symphony's 40th anniversary celebration.

"A symphony, by virtue of its title - which loosely translates to mean "sounding together" - has references to huge, incredible masterpieces, especially something like Beethoven's Ninth. He just brought everyone up to this level.

"It's one work that will maybe be 25 to 40 minutes and is supposed to have this cohesiveness to it," he says. "So that is the trick - achieving a large-scale work that makes sense."

Romeo's opus did just that, according to music critics at the February 1997 premiere. Now he's hoping to make his music more accessible with a recording. "Ideally, I would like to have some chamber music and my first symphony on it. That's what I consider my best music," he says.

Five years ago, a reporter asked Romeo about his career and his meager living. Since then, everything - and nothing - has changed.

He's received recognition at home and abroad for his dance, orchestra and chamber music. He's earned new respect for his first symphony. Yet he still lives frugally, perhaps because he gives so much to his craft.

"If I didn't have the kind of drive to do what I do, there is no way I could do it," he said in 1992, though the same sentiment applies today. "It's a huge sacrifice. You have to believe in yourself and follow through on your ideas no matter what it takes. You have to follow your dream, and that's what I am doing."

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