First String

Manuel Barrueco's talens on the guitar and in the classroom draw eager students to the Peabody Institute.

May 01, 2004|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

In a world filled with the loud and the blatant, the classical guitar - a plug-free, not unplugged instrument - offers a rare, inviting balm. And when Manuel Barrueco's hands are at work, the guitar speaks volumes, without ever having to raise its voice.

There wasn't any doubt that Barrueco had talent when he entered the Peabody Institute to study guitar in the early 1970s. The extent of that talent, though, came as a surprise. "We knew by his second year that this was a kind of player we had never seen before," says Ray Chester, head of Peabody's guitar department.

Soon after graduating from the conservatory in 1975, the qualities that define Barrueco - Chester lists "precision, purity, refinement and elegance" - propelled the Cuban-born guitarist to the top of his profession and kept him there.

No wonder Barrueco was invited back to Peabody, first as a visiting artist, and then, in 1990, to join the guitar faculty. Or that his recital at the Peabody tonight is a hot seller. Or that he will receive the 2004 Johns Hopkins University Distinguished Alumnus Award during that recital. Barrueco's subtle artistry, honed on many international concert tours and preserved on numerous recordings, remains an inspiration to students.

"Manuel's reputation worldwide has attracted some of the best young players to Peabody," says Chester. With the widely recorded, widely admired Julian Gray also on the guitar faculty, it's easy to understand why Chester's department is recognized as one of the strongest in the country. And why a considerable appreciation for the guitar has developed locally.

The Baltimore Classical Guitar Society has quite a loyal base, presenting an exceptional annual concert series. Barrueco's recital closes this season; next season's lineup includes such luminaries as John Williams, Eliot Fisk and Pepe Romero.

Although Barrueco's playing suggests an innate affinity for the instrument, he didn't set out on a path toward classical guitar. "Most guitarists come to it after playing a different style," he says. "I started playing popular Latin American music back in Cuba. When I started lessons, I was sort of bribed by my teacher; he made me learn one classical piece for every three popular pieces."

Barrueco, 51, who makes his home in Lutherville, quickly embraced the classical genre. After his family emigrated to the United States in 1967, he took lessons with teachers in Miami and New York before entering Peabody, the first major American conservatory to add a guitar department. That department opened in 1964, when revered guitar pedagogue Aaron Shearer joined the faculty. It was the prospect of studying with Shearer that attracted Barrueco. (In the new Michael Lawrence Films documentary Aaron Shearer: A Life With the Guitar, Shearer declares, "Manuel Barrueco is the greatest guitarist of our time.")

Although Andres Segovia first brought the classical guitar into the limelight in the early 20th century and greatly influenced a new crop of guitarists, notably Williams, Shearer's influence has been exceptionally strong since the 1960s. "Back then, there was really just the Segovia world of very talented, self-taught players," says Chester, who studied with Shearer. "It wasn't until the generation of Manuel's age that guitarists had the luxury of a conservatory education."

Shearer left Peabody in 1981, but his methods continue to be felt there, as they are at other conservatories around the country where he and/or his students have taught. And now, after almost 15 years of teaching and mentoring, Barrueco has started a legacy of his own. "Manuel is influencing his students a lot," Chester says, "but he's not producing a bunch of clones. He's managed to avoid that, which is part of his brilliance."

Teaching method

On a sunny afternoon in his Spartan studio at Peabody, Barrueco is finishing up a lesson. The focus this day is on Songs from the Chinese by 20th-century English composer Benjamin Britten. Soprano Darlene Enke delivers the poetic texts; Barrueco's student, Akiko Sumi, plays the intricate accompaniment part.

The teacher's beard and graying, wavy hair give him a suitably professorial look, but his manner is down-to-earth, thoroughly collegial. His voice, like the classical guitar, is soft-spoken. Barrueco offers praise to both students. "The only thing I can think of to make it tighter," he says, "is to listen more to each other."

But he has some specific details to discuss with Sumi. He has her repeat a passage that calls for a quick crescendo and decrescendo, then offers her a suggestion phrasing - he doesn't grab his guitar to demonstrate, but sings the notes. Sumi tries again, and Barrueco nods.

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