Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Manuel Barrueco

After the most recent airing of my segment on Maryland Public Television's Artworks This Week (see this post), I received an email that really astonished and touched me from Manuel Barrueco - the man regarded by many as the greatest classical guitarist of the modern era. Or, as so eloquently stated by Odair Assad about the evolution of the instrument: "We can say that, at one point, it’s before Manuel and after Manuel Barrueco."

It was as a teenager during my first master class in New Orleans that I learned about him. Back in Iowa, I didn’t know much beyond Segovia, John Williams, Julian Bream, and several others such as Michael Lorimer, who was teaching the class held at Tulane University. In preparation for that I was taking lessons with Segovia honor student Elias Barriero, head of the Tulane guitar department, at his shop on South Carrollton. Among the instruments and stacks of sheet music, Elias also sold records, and everyone was buying up the debut recording of a new guy featuring the Villa-Lobos etudes and Suite Breslienne. The photo of the artist sort of looked like a wild Cuban version of Jimi Hendrix, and his name was Manuel Barrueco. I asked Elias about him, and he told me he had actually been of some influence on the young virtuoso in Santiago, but was quick not to take credit for his brilliance, saying it "wouldn't have mattered," as Manuel’s destiny had already been decided. When I got home and listened to the record I understood within a few seconds what Elias and everybody else was talking about.

Like so many others at that time, my life was instantly changed, the benchmark of what was possible on the instrument dramatically shifted, and even with my limited experience, I realized the new apostle of the classical guitar had arrived. It was beyond an issue of technique; there was a musicality, an artistry, a depth of feeling, a tone, that practically burst the bounds of the medium.

My first master class with Manuel was in New York at the Manhattan Institute of Classical Guitar. There were guitarists from all over the place, and I showed up with my $200 Pimentel. I performed Capricho Arabe, and played it pretty well considering the difficulty and who was sitting a few feet from me. I’m sure I was terrified! He was very kind, changed some fingerings, and managed to find just the right complimentary words to say. Whew! A couple of young German guys who played as a duo were there, and they were fantastic. One of them also played the Prelude from the 1st Lute Suite (BWV 996), and aced it, even the presto section. That was the moment I knew that although I adored this music, I loved improvising and playing other styles too much; to play at the highest levels of classical guitar, you really have to do that to the exclusion of everything else. It was good to realize that then. Another guy in the class had the wits to ask Manuel for his fingering of the Villa-Lobos Etude #2 (see #43), one of those pieces he electrified the guitar world with on that first record. I woodshedded that knucklebuster for 20 years!

....................Manuel Barrueco and Nick - New Orleans

I did another master class with Manuel at Tulane, organized by Elias. I played the Folk Song from John Duarte's English Suite, and, incredibly, had the nerve to play about half of the 1st movement from Paganini’s Grand Sonata. What was I thinking??! A very funny moment occurred in front of the class when Manuel asked to see the fingernails on my right hand. While he inspected them, I realized we appeared precisely as that TV commercial, and I blurted out "Madge! Dishwashing liquid?!" Everyone was laughing so hard, I’m not sure whether he managed the rejoinder, "Relax, it’s Palmolive." Manuel helped me select a new guitar that week, and while playing it honored me with a request: the Gigue from the 1st Lute Suite. The last session of the class, pictures were taken, and then followed a houseboat party on Lake Pontchartrain. It was a beautiful summer night, and I recall being alone with Manuel on the top deck. Someone had given him a Cuban cigar, and I smoked a home-rolled variety! He talked to me, like a regular person, like a friend, an equal. I never forgot that.

Over the years these experiences replayed in my mind a thousand times as I followed Manuel’s spectacular international performing career, and the string of recordings that consistently set new standards for the classical guitar. I remember well when the Albeniz/Granados album was released and being floored by his dynamic performance of the Minuetto (#79), not to mention his transcription (previously thought to be impossible on the guitar) of Cataluna (#107). I always considered Alicia de Larrocha as the premiere interpreter of Spanish piano music, but when you hear Manuel play pieces such as Granada (#3), it’s difficult not to believe that those composers were really thinking about the guitar. After that, the stupefying recording of Paganini’s Sonata in A (#115) on the Scarlatti album; his perfect interpretations of Bach; the groundbreaking transcriptions and arrangements drawn from a huge spectrum of composers: deFalla, Ponce, Rodrigo, di Visee, Brouwer, Turina, Chick Corea and Keith Jarrett, Lennon & McCartney, Barrios, Lauro, Piazzolla, and many composers whose music had either been largely overlooked or simply not attempted on the guitar. His collaborations with people such as Placido Domingo, The King’s Singers, Cuarteto Latinoamericano, Al DiMeola and Steve Morse, among others, has broadened the instrument’s scope and attracted new audiences. His famous appearance on commercial television, burning through Leyenda (the linked clip shows a former student of Manuel's, the amazing and beautiful Ana Vidovic) in the back seat of a speeding Lexus, brought some much-needed guitar publicity to the attention of millions. Contemporary composers such as Roberto Sierra, Arvo Pärt, Michael Daugherty (from my hometown!), Gabriela Lena Frank, Steven Stucky, and Toru Takemitsu have been inspired by Manuel to write new solo and ensemble works for guitar, greatly expanding the modern repertoire. Not surprisingly, I'd love to see him collaborate with Pat Metheny.

Besides the unmatched tone and interpretation, Manuel took technique to a startling new level. He is able to hold on to the notes and chords just a little longer, and get to the next note or chord just a little faster, smoother, and more securely than everybody else, thereby conquering the fiendish technical problem of this instrument: producing a sustained, legato sound. Playing his records over and over, a curious phenomenon became apparent: when I would go into another part of the house, and the timbre of the instrument became obscured, I could swear I was listening to a pianist. A really killer pianist. I have proven this a number of times to the amazement of others.

Naturally, the 1000+ guitarists I taught received a crash course in Barrueco 101 (along with Pat Metheny and Tommy Bolin).

As another testament to Manuel’s kindness, in the early 90s I was suffering from tendonitis, and it threatened to shut down my guitar career, which by that time was providing me a very good living, and sponsorship from some major companies such as Ibanez, Laney, Roland, D'Addario, etc. My father happened to see Manuel at a meet & greet event in Baltimore, and told him about my malady. Not long afterwards, while cooking spaghetti in my Florida apartment, the telephone rang. That phone rang about 100x/day, and I let the answering machine take care of it. This time I heard the name "Manuel Barrueco" coming through the tiny speaker, and almost fainted. He gave me some very good advice, and happily that affliction eventually disappeared. How’s that for a person who cares?!

Michael Lawrence’s brilliant documentary film A Gift and a Life, is a wonderful behind-the-scenes glimpse of Manuel in public and private, with a particularly moving account of his early life in Cuba and emigration to America. And the incredible camerawork provides a rare opportunity to see the magic happen up close, where fingers meet strings. It is highly recommended! Mr. Lawrence is also producing an ambitious new film devoted to the music of Bach, and Manuel is featured in that with an amazing array of famous musicians.

An artist’s greatest legacy, besides their body of work, is their willingness to "pass the baton" to future generations. The most promising young guitarists in the world make the pilgrimage to the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore for the opportunity to study with Manuel Barrueco.

Finally, that he reached out from the cobwebbed past to reconnect is a tremendous thrill for me. We are planning on meeting soon, and I can’t wait. Querido amigo...un abrazo!

Youtube clips from A Gift and a Life:
1 (trailer)
2 (slightly different from #1)
3 (party at Manuel's house, check this out!)
4 (with Placido Domingo)
5 (with Andy Summers and Al Di Meola)
6 (with Aaron Shearer)
7 (from new Bach film)

P.S. Guess who....playing a fabulously bastardized Valse Criollo, complete with digital reverb....sorry, Manuel! : )


perugina said...

What an amazing read NNG... and an amazing talent - gobsmacked i was at your - how did you phrase that?... bastardized Valse Criollo … hang on a minute will have to watch that again…
be back in a mo...

perugina said...

yep... that's what i thought...gobsmacked!

Janet Belich said...

wow. I know NOTHING about classical guitar but that I love it. My music collection runs the gamut...( I imagine physical altercations in my Ipod when no one's home, between The Norrkoping Symphony Orchestra and Green Day ). Once again you have introduced me to an artist of whom I wasn't aware. What time does Borders open ?

babahr said...

Great post.

Annaquarel.les said...

No wonder why you love Spanish music. Really impressed by your knowledge about Spanish composers and musicians. Reading yout post I have found out about your second (or first?) personality. So what came first : music or painting?
By the way, I love Segovia's music.

Billie Crain said...

Wow, Nick! you weren't kidding when you said you were writing a long post about your beginnings as a musician. i think you answered my question in there somewhere. I'll be back to re-read and check out all the links you provided. Turbotax has turned my brain to mush and i need time to recover.

Anonymous said...

Nick, that is such a powerful post that I feel intimidated to even leave a comment. You have been blessed in this life with all your experiences and your talents, and I know you are grateful for it all. If this post is the teaser for the book than I am hooked! Get the advance! Your auto will be a powerful read and complete with wonderful photos to boot.

wayne said...

Hi Nick, This is quite an amazing story and post you have assembled here!!! I'm not a guitarist but know enough about music to recognise some pretty *heavy names* in there (Segovia, Williams, Arvo Pärt, Placido Domingo, and Bach, to name but a few) + tons of amazing links to people who have either taught you and/or inspired you. The story of your own musical path, and particularly of the way you describe your inspiration by the music of Manuel Barrueco, is quite compelling and moving. I read through all this and clicked many links (not all yet!) but the first two i looked at were yours "Valse Criollo" (brilliant!) and, immediately after that, my eye zeroed-in on that "No 7" link above it to the "new Bach film": i had a feeling that would be an eye/ear opener, and it was. Anyone who plays Bach like that, and who speaks of Bach like that, *Knows* music, imo. I consider JS Bach to be without parallel in music history. That is not to say i have a particular favourite composer, but Bach was *pivotal* in music history. To hear Barrueco speaking of Bach the way he did/does, i found quite moving. I also revere his brilliant technical mastery of Bach's music on that "7" link. I was further intrigued by how you described the way the deft fast fingering changes from chord to chord (of Barrueco) can and does sound like a piano (from a room or so away)... an *amazing* post Nick!! Inspiring+++ Awesome!!

Nusret Topuzoğlu said...

Wow,what a post! I have to go back and re read it to understand fully and visiting all the links,its a must for me because I'm such a guitar fan.

Coincidentally, I have recently been taking out my modest Yamaha out of its case often and trying to thrum with my arthiritis struck fingers!
Having played guitar thru all my childhood and youth without proper technique ,I took classical guitar lessons at the age of 35 just to learn the basic techniques and I was so happy to be able to get to know how to play Leyenda or Romance even if I couldn't play them faultlessly!
Thanks for the great reading Nick,you're an amazing man.
PS.In a couple of weeks time I'll be listening to Xuefei Yang in person btw!

David Burge said...

What a gold mine of a post!! Your generosity is uncommon Nick.
Thanks for taking the time to put this together. It's fabulous read, and a wealth of information.
Manuel's technique and sensitivity are surely emanating from a genuinely warm and thoughtful man. Beautiful!
As well as sharing something from the well of talent that the greats draw from, you are a fortunate fellow to have sat and smoked with one of the great guitarists. What a wonderful memory. Heres to an encore!
I can but offer a humble hill under the Southern Cross with a few bottles of your fancy, some damed fine home rolled cigars, couple of six stringers to pass the time and enough laughs to kill a catholic.
What's say we make it happen before too long

William K. Moore said...

What a story Nicholas! You have definitely filled some gaps in the Simmons music story for me. Damn injuries - but how about the helping hand of your teacher guiding you out of a tough physical spot? Inspirational to be sure. To have a mentor of this caliber in your corner really is good fortune and a rare occurrence in the lives of many.

Nick said...

Patricia - don't watch my video, watch his! heheh And then buy a bunch of CDs, you won't regret it.

Janet - I can't think of anyone who doesn't like the classical guitar, it's just too beautiful.

Bob - as a musician, you know what people like this mean to our lives

Anna - the art classes started when I was four, I started guitar when I was seven. I didn't get into watercolor until much later. Yes, the Maestro was a big hero of mine, unfortunately I never saw him perform.

Billie - had about 250 visitors yesterday, I should write posts about Manuel more often!

Sister - nothing to be intimidated about, esp with your smarts! Thanks for posting, I appreciate your input as always.

Wayne - you should hear Manuel's performance of the Chaconne. What's really scary is that he had that memorized before he turned 12.(you read that correctly) I practiced it for years, but never quite was able to memorize it (approx. 13-14 minutes) It's also interesting in that link to listen to Manuel talk about how it's common to wish that a composer had written a different note here or there...and how he has never once felt that with Bach. I realized I have never felt that, either. The perfect composer, a Force of Nature. Great post, thanks!

Nusret - as with painting, it doesn't have to necessarily be faultless, just real, emotive, and in the moment. Also check out Ana Vidovic if you haven't already, and Franco Platino - a student of Manuel's of such monumental talent that they are performing together.

Dake - I was pretty discreet about my smoke, through long practice! I know you appreciate all kinds of music, and Manuel has recorded a vast catalogue that can sate almost any appetite for that most profound of art forms. The Hill is always at the top of the agenda, just waiting for the proper stars to line up!

Bill - truth is often more amazing than fiction, although your tales on the blog are the exception that disproves the rule. One great thing about living in a major city such as Chicago is the opportunity to see a Barrueco live. I would keep tabs on his concert schedule!

David Burge said...

Sister hit the nail on the head re an Auto Biography, but the story's barely half way through.
Perhaps a Part 1 would set the pace!

Anonymous said...

A Great read Nick. A reminder of the heights which mere mortals can attain when the focus is art. I'm going now to get my old classical Yamaha out and then finish that painting of my nieces for my sister. See how inspiring you are?

Mike D.

Pablo Villicaña Lara said...

I agree with Sister, only, I see a few books on the way. I will inisist you autograph them for me!
Great post!

Unknown said...

Thanks Nick for dropping by my blog and commenting on my "Using Old Masters for Composition" post. I will certainly check out your article coming up on the same topic.

How wonderfully odd that so many visual artists are also musicians. I played guitar for 25 years, from the time I was a small child until my early thirties. I had to choose between painting and guitar, or so I thought. Now I am sitting here, egg on face, thinking that I must have been just a lazy old wench not to do both as you have.

I've been pining for my guitar in the studio for some time now and I guess you've put the fire back in my belly. I will get the Yamaha out and put some new strings on it and see if these old fingers of mine can still play a little Bach (of course) or maybe just some Johnny Cash. Either or, eh?

Thanks again for the profound inspiration. I will have to re-read this post and click on the many enticing links you have so generously provided. As another commentator said here, you do have a generous nature and thank you for all the great information!

If you get to San Francisco let me know and I'll buy you a coffee!

Tesia Blackburn

Nick said...

Dake - there's not enough material, it would have to be in brochure form. :D

Mike - it sounds like everyone is pulling out the old Yamaha...I never had one of those, feeling left out. I guess I'd mortgage the house to have Manuel's famous '72 Robert Ruck...that would be right up there with Pat's 175 and one of Tommy's Strats.

Pablo - good to see you, I'm going to assume you have a Yamaha too! lol No books in the plans, unless I land a multi-hundred dollar contract, heheh.

Tesia - hello and thanks for stopping by. All I've ever done is play guitar and paint, so nothing else to get in the way. Been pretty lucky that way to do what I have wanted. The Man in Black works for me, too! I love almost all styles of music, more than I can say about art. (never thought about that until just now)

lupus said...

Hi, Nick, I have just known your other activity, the music, good music, good guitar. As Ana said, you know all de best Spanish musicians, and I'm astonisehd, because you are a master in painting, as well as in music.
I think someother has asked you about de posibility of finding some publications of your works, that I love so much. Tell me please.
When are you posting some about new paintings? Excuse my curiosity, but they are very good...
Best regards.

Nick said...

Siete - thanks for posting, amigo. More paintings soon, I'm in the islands now on a ship, doing a lot of salsa dancing! Oh, and pina coladas. :) I'll write you soon...Fistro

Anonymous said...

No me sorprende en lo mas minimo que alguien del calibre de Manuel Barrueco aprecie tu arte. Eres sin duda una persona especial, a la cual la vida le ha dado no uno sino dos talentos que te permite tocar de manera unica a mucha gente alrededor del mundo. Eres un guitarrista fantastico y un acuarelista fenomenal - sin duda uno de los mejores del mundo. Tu arte es refrescante, lleno de vida, energia, sabor y sentimiento. Tengo que admitir que Capricho Arabe a la Nick Simmons es quizas la pieza musical que me ha llegado a lo mas hondo ...A buena hora Nick!

Nick said...

Charo - great to hear from you on the blog! My Capricho was a mere shadow of what Manuel is capable of, but it wasn't bad! I need to work that one up again and record it while I still can. :) You forgot one special bit of fortune bestowed upon me: knowing the most beautiful girl from Lima! Remember this?