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One Man, Six Strings, Multiple Styles

Manuel Barrueco finds a Spanish concerto as engaging as the Beatles.

August 13, 2000|JOHN HENKEN | John Henken is a regular contributor to Calendar

Joaquin Rodrigo was hardly a musical radical. He founded no stylistic school, had no disciples and at the end of a long and productive life was regarded as something of a regressive cultural drag by younger Spanish composers.

But he left an enduring popular legacy. It is founded on the guitar--solos, songs, chamber music and concertos, above all the "Concierto de Aranjuez." That piece was an immediate success at its premiere in 1940 and became almost a theme song for the great blossoming of the classical guitar, despite the stubborn avoidance of it by the era's leading guitarist, Andres Segovia. Nearly 30 recordings of the piece are available--four by John Williams with different orchestras and conductors--and it has provided attractive grist for every medium, from jazz ensembles to television commercials.

One of the best of the recent recordings is by Cuban American guitarist Manuel Barrueco, with London's Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Placido Domingo. When the almost centenarian Rodrigo died last summer, it was Barrueco who was invited to play the composer's most famous work at the memorial concert in Valencia, Spain.

"That was a great experience," Barrueco says. "I was thrilled and honored to be asked. It was outdoors--thousands of people--and the acoustics were not good, but a beautiful location. Rodrigo's daughter was there, and it was very touching, very special."

This week Barrueco gets another chance to play it outdoors for thousands of people, returning to the Hollywood Bowl on Thursday in a collaboration with the Los Angeles Philharmonic conducted by Enrique Diemecke. Speaking by phone from Stuttgart, Germany, where he was touring, Barrueco expresses no reservations about confronting so familiar a test again.

"I'm not tired of the piece at all. It's a beautiful piece, fun and challenging to play for the guitarist and the orchestra, and the audience loves it. Seems like everybody wins," he says. "Music is about communication, and a piece like that is a great vehicle to communicate with. I try to be as honest as I can be and just play the best I can."

Barrueco, 47, is also noted for his Bach and Scarlatti, Albeniz and Granados. Lately, though, he has been looking in unusual directions.

He has turned, for instance, to the Beatles, who have long fascinated classical musicians. With guitar transcriptions available from distinguished composers such as Leo Brouwer and Toru Takemitsu, "one did not have to be a genius to see a record there," Barrueco dryly observes.

His most recent disc is "Cuba!," an immensely satisfying and affectionate musical journey home to the land he has not visited since leaving with his family in 1967. He wrote the liner notes himself and concludes with the following dedication:

"To make a recording of Cuban music has been of profound significance to me for many reasons--not all of them musical. Between Havana and Miami lies the Straits of Florida, and in these waters many Cubans have died in pursuit of their dreams. To those victims and to their dreams, I would like to dedicate this recording."

Barrueco's parents had been trying to leave Cuba for several years when they were finally given permission in September 1967. Had they stayed until Manuel turned 15 that December, he would not have been allowed to leave with them.

"We left legally, basically with the clothes on our backs," Barrueco recalls. "I can still remember, in Miami, the first thing that impressed me was the airport parking lot--I had never seen so many cars in one place."

Barrueco started playing the guitar at age 8, soon enrolling at the conservatory in Santiago de Cuba.

"It is not unusual for a Cuban to play the guitar," he understates. "It was like a disease--everyone wanted to play Latin popular music. I started by watching my older sister. You don't choose who you fall in love with, and at age 8, I just did.

"My first teacher told my father that I had talent and should study classically. Actually, classical music was not an immediate love for me. I just loved the sound of the guitar."

On arriving in the U.S., Barrueco studied at the University of Miami with Juan Mercadal. In less than a year, however, his family settled in New Jersey.

"That was where the reality of immigration hit me like a ton of bricks. I was very unhappy and hardly played at all. When I started at Peabody, in my mind I really could not believe I hated the guitar as much as I said I did."

Barrueco began studying with noted teacher Aaron Shearer at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore. The first year was catastrophic--"I was much more interested in the partying scene than in practicing," he says. Now he is back at Peabody as a professor, and living in Baltimore with his own family, including two daughters.

"At first it was kind of strange, trying to pretend my old teachers now were colleagues," Barrueco says. "The nice thing about it is, I really feel a part of it, or maybe that it is part of me."

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