A master looks back in sorrow

Classical guitarist Manuel Barrueco is at the top of his game. and now the Peabody artist is exploring his roots and his heart.

April 04, 1999|By Larry Harris | Larry Harris,Special to the Sun

Going to a party at Manuel Barrueco's spacious, comfortable home in Lutherville is much like attending a session of the United Nations.

On one side of the room three young Asian men, obviously students, are in deep, subdued conversation.

A beautiful Russian girl from Siberia, with hints of the steppes in her cheekbones, enters, laughing along with her escort.

In a corner, a Spanish composer, his arms flapping wildly, talks animatedly with an assistant conductor of the BSO. Down the hall a young Indian girl has a tug of war with the energetic beagle of the house, Heidi.

Through the hullabaloo glides Asgerdur Sigurdardottir, the native of Iceland who helps to hold it all together for Barrueco as business manager, publicist, travel agent and significant other. She freshens a drink here, replenishes a food table there, gratefully accepts a gift of homemade sushi from a Japanese piano student who has just come from the snowy outside.

And in the kitchen, perched on a stool above a huge iron pot, contentedly stirring and sampling a hot Icelandic punch whose pungency would bring a Viking warrior to his knees, is the maestro himself -- acclaimed by many critics as the outstanding classical guitarist in the world today.

Barrueco plays between 40 and 50 concerts each year on four continents and will appear in recital April 17 at the Peabody Institute's Friedberg Hall. He is the reason for this international gathering, this melting pot of young and old, of so many heritages.

In Baltimore's world of the classical guitar, it is considered an honor to be among the invitees at Barrueco's house, to be close to greatness, although he himself would scoff at such a suggestion.

A Cuban-born child prodigy, Barrueco, 46, escaped Fidel Castro's regime with some members of his family in 1967. The story has been told many times now how the teen-ager, who spoke little English, survived a turbulent boyhood in Florida and New Jersey and was welcomed in a place like the Peabody Institute. There, from 1970 to 1974, he studied with the renowned guitar teacher Aaron Shearer and first began to attract attention in the musical world.

Barrueco won several important competitions in the mid-'70s and made his New York debut in 1975. When he played a key international concert in London's Wigmore Hall in 1979, many of the world's finest guitarists -- including another prodigy of a preceding generation, John Williams -- were in attendance and pleasantly stunned.

He has spent the years since then recording, concertizing and establishing that his early success was no fluke.

Many young guitarists rise to the top, are praised as the next coming of the great Andres Segovia, then falter, felled by hand injury, travel fatigue or the sheer weight of expectations. Not Barrueco, whose stamina over the years has been a good match for his ability.

The repertoire for classical guitarists is not vast. Thus, after Barrueco proved year after year his command of the works of composers who are considered mandatory for the expert guitarist, he realized he needed to grow musically and emotionally while still paying homage to the old masters. Williams had already dared to go in that direction when, some years before, he ventured from the classical path to play with various ethnic groups in a variety of styles.

Still, some purists were indignant when in 1994 Barrueco, who has a long-term contract with EMI Classics, recorded a CD titled "Sometime Ago," which turned the contemporary music of Chick Corea, Lou Harrison, Keith Jarrett and Paul Simon into guitar solos. A few months later, a recording of Beatles songs leapt from Barrueco's strings.

"I have been surrounded by Beatles music all my life," Barrueco said at the time. "I believe it is something of value. After so many serious pieces, this was dessert."

Barrueco returned to the classical mode with a tremendous version of Rodrigo's concertos with the great tenor Placido Domingo conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra and singing, but a 1998 offering of Latin American melodies titled "Cantos y Danzas" again showed Barrueco's versatility and willingness to explore yet another realm.

All those recordings established Barrueco's virtuosity, but none of them has ever captured his heart like the just-released " Cuba!" (EMI, $18.95). This collection of music written exclusively by Cuban composers in a variety of styles is Barrueco's 15th recording for EMI in the last 12 years and, to him, the most important.

Barrueco has always abhorred the Castro regime and now, in his newest recording, he has found a way to express the sorrow he feels for his native country. In the CD notes, he has made a rare dedication, which reads:

"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."

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