by Leonard Bernardyn
A legend in his own time, Manuel Barrueco continues to perform extensively throughout the world as soloist and chamber musician. I had the privilege of speaking with Mr. Barrueco on the phone while he was at his winter home in Miami; it was the first extended conversation I had with him since I completed my studies under his tutelage at Peabody Conservatory in 1999. In the frigid chill of –15 degree wind chill here in New York, I listened to Manuel talk about 60 degree weather while enjoying his south Florida ocean view and a cigar. His tone, as well as the atmosphere, sounded warm and inviting.
His upcoming New York appearance is a chamber music concert with Michala Petri, recorder, on the Art of Guitar series at the 92nd Street Y on Wednesday, February 25, 2004, at 8:00 PM. He is touring with her this season, and played with her a few years ago on a tour of the U.S. How important is playing chamber music when one is primarily a soloist? “Extremely important. It takes the emphasis away from just playing your instrument and allows you to focus on music-making — especially for guitarists, who spend most of their time being isolated. When playing with other musicians, things like rhythm become important. Every instrument has its own particularities, and new ideas come from working around new musicians.”
Mr. Barrueco continued, “On a good day, when all performing conditions are there (i.e., good acoustics, a good program), it can be a thing of beauty. On a personal level, it is like having a great conversation. The thing I don’t like so much is the preparation and dealing with nerves. Even after all these years, I never feel like I am ready!” In regards to what a typical practice day is like he answered, “Well, just like anybody else … you solve technical problems, work on memory, and interpretation.”
We talked about Mr. Barrueco’s days as a New Yorker. Before he had even graduated from the Peabody Conservatory in 1975, he was offered a teaching position at Manhattan School of Music. He was one of 2 original faculty members who started the guitar program. “To me, teaching is quite complementary. I take it seriously. It allows me to talk about the inner working of music, and it helps keeps you pure. It is like practicing what you preach. It is also a circular process, because students have good ideas.” Today, he is the most sought after faculty member at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore, where he maintains a loyal commitment.
When he is not playing or teaching?
“I have purchased about 500 bottles of wine. These with my new place in Miami … have practically ruined me!” he replied jokingly. Miami is quite close to his place of birth.
He was born in Santiago de Cuba and lived there until age 14. “Basically, it sucked. You know the political situation. There was a lot of fear. I remember raising my hand in class and I was told to shut up by a history teacher because I was not a communist. The guitar really became an oasis for me. It was the ‘one thing’ I would turn to.” It was not until 1967 that Mr. Barrueco would leave his homeland for America. Known then as a U.S.-sponsored “freedom flight,” he and his parents, his sister and brother flew to Miami with only the clothes on their back. He could not even bring his guitar! “It was a rough life — my parents had to basically start over.” With no money, his family relocated to Newark, NJ, where he finished his secondary education. He eventually went to the Art High School in Newark and played French horn in the band and orchestra.
The proximity to New York gave him ample opportunities for exposure to the arts. He recalls talking to his good friend Sergio Assad about this Brazilian guitar duo he once saw perform in New York in 1969, and Sergio replied, “that was us!” His birthday is ten days apart from Sergio’s.
Mr. Barrueco feels that the future of classical music is not so clear. “We are living in a transitional stage. Everything is a bit upside-down, ranging from a lack of support to changes in the recording industry. PBS airs more old rock performers than classical ensembles. Schools do not support the arts enough. These are all bad things for society.”
His advice to the next generation of classical guitar professionals:
“You need to do one thing very well. It is an increasingly competitive world. I am a firm believer that you can not wait for things to happen. You need to be able to compensate for your weaknesses. The five best players are not always the most naturally talented; they are the five hardest-working players. We all have had big disappointments, but you just have to get up and try again. Those who can turn a negative into a positive can go on to be successful, and I believe good things will happen to those who continue to work for them.”