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The Gospel According to Manuel
Besotted by the beauty of music, world-renowned guitarist Manuel Barrueco is on a mission. "My ideal," he says, "is to play every note in a way that there's no other way to play it."
By Dale Keiger
Photos by Stephen Spartana

On the stage of Peabody Conservatory's Griswold Hall, a young man named Nathan Fisher cradles a guitar. He has just played a piece by the Spanish composer Joaqu&iacuate;n Rodrigo, having come to Baltimore from New York for the annual master class conducted by Manuel Barrueco. Barrueco, one of the world's great classical guitarists, now gazes at Fisher for a moment, not unkindly, and asks of his performance, "Are you happy?"

"Yeah," Fisher replies.


The student does not miss Barrueco's bemused look. With less conviction, he again says, "Yeah."

"Play the first two notes as if they were the whole piece."

Fisher isn't quite sure what to make of this instruction, but he does his best. Barrueco then has him play only the first note. And again: just the first note. He asks him for the musical idea behind that first note. Musical idea? It's the first note. Until this moment, Fisher probably has thought of the first note as little more than where you start if you want to get to the second note. Such thinking is not Barrueco's way. "Playing well is playing each note with character," he says. "Your first note doesn't have character."

The idea of playing a single note as if it were the entire composition, as if everything were riding on it, is a fair epitome of Barrueco the guitarist. He is a meticulous artist besotted by the beauty of the guitar. He's also driven by a sense of obligation. Guitarists do not have the best reputation for musicianship among classical musicians and conductors. Barrueco is on a mission to change that. Study the guitar with him, and you will learn a gospel. Play only great music: "I'd rather go to a piano concert than sit through a concert of third-rate guitar music." Never stop thinking: "Anything that you play just by feel, you can't trust. When I hear something in a certain way, I ask my heart if it feels it, and my head if it understands it." Strive for perfection: "I have never heard a beautiful mistake." And each note, including the first, is a reservoir of beauty and meaning: "My ideal is to play every note in a way that feels as if there's no other way to play it."

Paul Moeller has studied full time with Barrueco for four years and says, "He's relentless. That can be annoying, but it's also what you love about him."

Among the practitioners of the art there tends to be a short list of the world's great guitarists. John Williams. David Russell. Pepe Romero. The Assad brothers. Barrueco. Players make distinctions that befit their refined ears and sensibilities: Williams has remarkable consistency. Russell plays with a unique sweetness of tone. Romero has the technique. Sergio and Odair Assad bring fire to the stage. And Barrueco ... he's the one who marries precise technique with deep musical knowledge and sensuous expressiveness.

At age 48, he is working hard. He has issued 16 recordings in 14 years. He averages more than one performance per week. For concerts in the first half of this year alone he traveled to Spain, Germany, California, back to Spain, Mexico, Philadelphia, London, Michigan, the District of Columbia, Italy, Illinois, back to Mexico, Kansas, San Francisco, Greece, back to Germany, back to Spain, Delaware, Baltimore, New York, back to Delaware, Japan, Korea, and Chicago. Still ahead were Denmark, Spain, Costa Rica, Italy, Holland, and more than a dozen U.S. cities. He teaches full time at Peabody and practices three or four hours a day, which doesn't sound laborious unless you've actually tried it. He says he can't imagine not playing. He also concedes that he dreams of no longer having to. "It's a stressful job," he says, "and I don't do it gracefully. I suffer with it." Franco Platino, who moved to Baltimore from Sardinia to study with him, says, "You have to be a little crazy to commit to this kind of life."

Barrueco has been hooked on guitar since he was an 8-year-old in Santiago de Cuba. As an adolescent he once rebelled and refused to play for more than a year. But he came back. He says, "You don't choose what you fall in love with."

"How can we play without mistakes? It certainly doesn't happen by closing our eyes and hoping everything lands in the right place." From all over the globe, people who have fallen in love with guitar apply for admission to Barrueco's master class. He invites about 15 to participate as players. Some are teen-agers, some are young adults with conservatory training. Over five days, each one performs twice for Barrueco and an audience. He listens, then takes them phrase by phrase, measure by measure, note by note through their performances, probing with questions, suggesting better technique, reviewing their interpretation, heightening their awareness of what it means to be a musician. Another 20 or so people attend as auditors, watching and listening and taking notes.

Among the players this year: Finbarr Malarfonte from England. Hande Yorulmaz from Turkey by way of Chicago, where she now lives. Piotr Zielinski from Poland. Simone Onnis from Italy. Max Zuckerman from San Francisco. Max is a 15-year-old with spiky hair and baggy jeans. While the others perform he likes to draw battleships and airplanes in his notebook; the sketches are not bad. Finbarr is 15 as well, a modest, likable kid with a complexion so peaches-and-cream he has to be English. He met Barrueco when the guitarist played in Bath some years ago. Recalls Barrueco, "The organizers told me he was my biggest fan. He was so shy, he couldn't look me in the eye." When his mother and father learned that Finbarr could participate in the master class, they dropped what they were doing, made some hurried arrangements, and all three flew to Baltimore. Patricia, the mother, likes it here: "I don't want to go home." Is her son happy to be receiving instruction from Barrueco? "He's over the moon."

Says Hande Yorulmaz, of Turkey (right), "Of course I feel nervous playing in front of him. But I know he's going to teach me something." The guitar seduces you. If you take up the trumpet or clarinet or violin, weeks if not months will drag past before you get out of it anything resembling music. But the first time you pick up a guitar, by placing three left fingertips close together at the first two frets, then pulling your right thumb across the strings, you can play an E Major chord and it will sound beautiful, at least to you. Learn a simple three-chord progression and you'll be on your way to what rock star Gregg Allman once called "the fever." You may never go very far with it, or you may find your way to the classical repertory and become hooked on the music of Bach, Giuliani, Rodrigo, Sor, Torroba, Barrios, and Brouwer. Then your challenges begin. This is music that demands mastery.

At Barrueco's class, every student who takes the stage already can play. That's what got them invited. What Barrueco gives them is a taste of what mastery means, and what it will demand of them. He delivers to Nathan Fisher that little lecture on the importance of the first note. He watches a player's right hand and points out that the flesh of his right fingertips is striking the strings a fraction of a second before the fingernails, causing a loss of control. With Barrueco, control is everything. "How can we play without mistakes?" he asks. "It certainly doesn't happen by closing our eyes and hoping everything lands in the right place." Many of the students are nervous when they play, and begin to rush. Barrueco tells them, "Never play faster than you can think." He works on their minds as much as their hands. He tells them again and again in many different ways that for the hands to express the heart, the brain must be fully engaged.

He tends to break things down into component parts. A common refrain: "There are only five things that can shape a sound. One is time--when we play the notes. Another is dynamics, how loud we play a note. There's the color that we give the note. Another thing is articulation, how long or short we play the note. The last is vibrato." He dissects practicing, asking, Do you practice scales? Do you practice vibrato? Do you separate the hands, practicing only what the right must do, then the left? Slow down, he tells the students, until you can play it without mistakes. And always sing.

That word comes up over and over and over. Make the guitar sing. To play well, sing the melody, literally sing it with your voice, to form a musical idea, then take that idea and sing through your hands on the strings. "I don't hear you singing." "Trills--we have to sing those also." "Sing each note." "You can't just push or pull notes mechanically. It has to sing."

Bravely, the students struggle to learn, and to please. Hande Yorulmaz began playing 13 years ago, at age 11 in her native Istanbul. Now she wants to come to Baltimore for a year to study with Barrueco. "Of course I feel nervous playing in front of him," she says, talking over lunch at a café near Peabody. "But I know he's going to teach me something." This is her second straight year in the master class. "He makes me aware of my abilities. If you ask him, he may say he did nothing, but he did. He gave me confidence. I know I have a lot of technical and musical problems. But I know I can ... you say ... come over? Overcome." She pauses, sipping her coffee. "He thinks so much, I think."

Barrueco shares an expansive house in suburban Baltimore with his companion, Asgerdur Sigurdardottir. She is Icelandic and a guitarist herself. They met at a classical guitar festival in Helsinki, and she works with him now as publicist, manager, tour companion, and overall minder, trying to keep him on schedule, which can be a challenge. He likes to talk, likes to linger, likes to walk at a relaxed pace. She is the more brisk of the two. "Sometimes I'm like a little dog, walking circles around him," she says.

Behind the house is a two-level wooden deck overlooking a swimming pool. Under a motorized awning ("Asgerdur likes gadgets"), Barrueco sips cappuccino, smokes slender Macanudo cigars, and talks about his 40-year love affair with the guitar.

As a small boy in Cuba, he listened as his sisters played. When he first picked up the instrument, at the beginning of the '60s and the Castro regime, he learned Latin American popular songs. "My parents tell me that a teacher told them I had talent and should get a teacher who could teach me classically." His parents followed that advice, finding an instructor who began teaching him one classical piece for every three pop tunes. Over time the ratio changed, until at around age 10 young Manuel was studying the classical repertory full time at the Esteban Salas Conservatory. He was smitten. "I dreamed about the guitar. I practically lived at the conservatory."

An uncle by marriage owned a grocery distribution company and employed Manuel's father, also named Manuel, as treasurer. After Fidel Castro came to power in 1959, the company was nationalized, and when the senior Manuel applied to leave Cuba with his family around 1962 or '63, he was no longer allowed to work. It took the Barruecos more than four years to secure permission to leave the island. The family subsisted during those years by borrowing money and selling possessions, including a collection of gold coins left by young Manuel's grandfather. An aunt and uncle bought meat without authorization and were confined to house arrest after the neighborhood Committee for the Defense of the Revolution turned them in. Manuel felt like an outcast in school, ostracized and unattractive. He was light-skinned, with freckles, a former private-school kid of the segment of society that was leaving Cuba. Darker children in the more integrated nationalized schools teased him, calling him "milk bottle" and "sesame cracker." Only when he played guitar, he says, did he feel accepted and desirable.

When the Barruecos finally made it out in 1967, Manuel was 14. "Leaving was probably the most painful experience I've had in my life, comparable only to breaking up a family." Emigration did break up the family; during the long wait for permission to leave, Manuel's sister Miriam fell in love with a man and elected to stay behind. It would be 18 years before Manuel saw her again. The family had to abandon all its possessions, including Manuel's guitar. He had heard only bad things about the States in the Cuban press. "I was petrified to come to the U.S. It sounds absurd, but I really was afraid that as soon as I walked off the plane, there would be someone there shooting at us. I remember landing in Miami and seeing more cars in the parking lot than I'd ever seen in my life. I remember going into a grocery store and seeing 20 different kinds of bread, and no lines to buy them."

In Miami, Barrueco borrowed a guitar and began study with Juan Mercadal, the head of the guitar department at the University of Miami. "He was one of the most famous Cuban guitarists. He was a name I'd heard all of my life, but I had never met him. When he heard me, he took it upon himself to teach me. He would come to my house and take me to his house, and he never charged a cent for any of that."

Then, after only a year in Florida, the family moved to Newark, New Jersey, where Manuel's father foresaw greater opportunity. Barrueco was miserable. In Miami there had been a supportive, burgeoning Cuban population. In Newark, Barrueco remembers, the black and Italian kids were fighting in school, there were few Cubans in his neighborhood, and he struggled with his halting English, "getting up in front of a class and reading Shakespeare and not knowing what one word meant, and having everyone laugh at me." In adolescent revolt against all that seemed to have conspired against him, he refused to play guitar for more than a year.

Yet when it came time to think about college, he chose to go where he could study music. He had applied to Peabody, then decided not to pursue it because he didn't have any money and didn't understand about financial aid. "In my ignorance, really, not knowing how things worked here, I had decided not to come to the audition." But Mercadal and others had written letters of recommendation so laudatory that Aaron Shearer, the founder of Peabody's guitar program, told him to come down and audition anyway.

Barrueco had heard only bad things about the States in the Cuban press. "I was petrified to come to the U.S. It sounds absurd, but I really was afraid that as soon as I walked off the plane, there would be someone there shooting at us." Shearer, now 82, recalls the audition: "Manuel was such a sweet young man. He played the Bach Chaconne, and it was so rough, with so many wrong notes. I said, 'Manuel, what do you want me to do?' He said, 'Tell me what you think.' I said, 'Play through it again please.' So he played a few measures and missed a note or two. My finger went up and I said, 'Is that what Bach wrote? Did you really want to play it that way?' He was so disturbed that after he played it again he got up and put his guitar in the case and said, 'I don't want to play for you anymore.' I saw him to the door and wished him the best. Two weeks passed. The phone rang, and my wife said, 'It's someone named Barrueco.' He said, 'Mr. Shearer, I want to come and work with you. You're the first one who really challenged me. I want to come.'" Shearer told him, "If they don't have a scholarship for you, I'll pay for you to come."

As it worked out, Shearer only had to pay $200, Barrueco's dorm fee for the first year. Peabody paid the rest, and in his sophomore year Barrueco became the first guitarist ever granted a full scholarship by the conservatory. He concedes that in the beginning he was an awful student. "I didn't have any money," he recalls, "but what I did have, I spent in the bar across the street." In those days, art students from the Maryland Institute, College of Art were housed at Peabody, and Barrueco spent a lot of less-than-sober time with them. He also spent a lot of time clashing with his teacher. The analytical Shearer had broken down guitar technique into what he felt were its constituent elements-- this may sound familiar--and created a method that thousands of students around the country eventually studied through a series of instructional books. Barrueco recalls, "He tried to break down every movement and explain it anatomically: how we should use our bodies, our hands, to play the guitar. This was just what I needed." But Shearer also had pronounced views on the guitar's sound, views not shared by his star pupil. "To me, it was too purely intellectual," Barrueco recalls. "It was a pretty raucous relationship. We had a lot of fights. But he forced me to think. As much as we fought, if I had to do it again, I'd go to him." He pauses, then smiles. "And we'd fight."

Despite the time he spent hanging out with woozy art students and battling Shearer, Barrueco progressed as a player. He became the first guitarist to win the Concert Artists Guild award, which entitled him to a recital at Carnegie Hall. Subsequent to Peabody, he began building a recording and concert career, married, and fathered two daughters. (He is divorced; his eldest offspring is a psychology major at Hopkins.) His reputation grew. Reviewers lavished praise on his recordings and performances: "A major artist with remarkable musicianship and a world of technique ..." "... aristocrat of the guitar" "... a musician of utter taste and intelligence" "... the undisputed crown prince of the present guitar dynasty" "... simply and consistently awesome."

Shearer remembers attending the Carnegie Hall recital: "I saw a Latin gentleman start toward me through the crowd. He held his arms out and I said, 'I bet you're Manuel's father.' He said, 'Yes I am, and Mr. Shearer, I want you to know that I understand what you're going through.'"

On the fourth day of the master class, there's a lovely episode. An Italian named Simone Onnis has just performed, and Barrueco, as always, wants the guitarist's playing to sing more. But his Italian is limited, and Onnis's English is all but non-existent. Barrueco has him begin playing again. The piece is titled Una Limosna Por El Amor De Dios, by Paraguayan composer Agustin Barrios-Mangore. As Onnis plays, Barrueco begins to sing what he wants to hear, conducting and shaping the notes with his hands. The student tries to mimic on the guitar what he hears in Barrueco's voice and sees in his gestures. Each time he gets it right Barrueco points and raises his eyebrows and keeps singing. It's like watching a dance. In the audience, Hande Yorulmaz can't help but sing, too.

Barrueco is an amiable, self-effacing instructor who seems to have mastered the ability to be direct without being discouraging. His longtime students tell stories. Franco Platino recalls once having played some Bach for him. "He said, 'It's really clear you have no idea what you're doing.' In a way, it was depressing for me, but it was OK." Says Paul Moeller, "As a student, you want to be told how good something is. Manuel doesn't take a lot of time with that. All through your career you have people who blow smoke up your ass. That's not what you need."

Barrueco could easily intimidate the younger, less experienced players at his master class, but he puts them at ease by telling stories of his own shortcomings, and by being honest. In one of his lectures about how to practice, he recommends a specific scale. Then he admits he doesn't practice it himself. "Why don't I do it ... I ... I don't know."

Working on stage with student David Brierwood, Barrueco asks, "Am I losing you?"


"Well, I'm losing myself."

Gently but relentlessly, Barrueco chides them for failing to count properly, or for taking liberties with what the composer has written, or for being lazy with a tricky passage. It is all part of his campaign to bring guitar musicianship up to the standard of other orchestral instruments.

"It's always easier to play without a beat. But we must always count, always count. Always. Always. Always. Always." Barrueco is concerned about the guitar's problematic reputation with modern conductors: "They expect a bit of a mess. A real mess. I have had conductors hear me play and say, 'Oh my God, a guitarist who can count!' Or, 'Oh my God, a guitarist who can play the notes!'" He concedes that much of the bad reputation has been earned. Too many guitarists have not held themselves to high standards. How this happened involves some peculiar history.

Antonio Stradivari, the Cremonese violin maker, also made guitars. Niccol˜ Paganini played the guitar and wrote lots of guitar music. He enjoyed composing for a string quartet in which guitar replaced one of the violins. During times when Franz Schubert couldn't afford a piano, he composed on the guitar. It was not an obscure instrument. Yet great composers, for the most part, did not create either orchestral or chamber pieces for it until the 20th century. "Guitar is extremely hard to write for," Barrueco says. "It can do a little of a lot of things, and not a lot of any one thing." Unlike a violinist or cellist or wind player, a guitarist cannot sustain a note. Compose for the piano and you can write simultaneous melody and accompaniment, one for each hand; that doesn't work on guitar. With six strings to cover but only four fingers on the left hand, a guitarist must depend on open strings. This means on a standard-tuned guitar only certain keys work well.

So violin and piano amassed a trove of compositions, and much of what accumulated in guitar literature was only for solo performance. This has led to what Barrueco calls a guitar ghetto: "Guitarists playing for other guitarists music that was written by guitarists and reviewed in a guitar magazine." And in his view, too many guitarists, working in their own little world, have not disciplined themselves to rise to the same performance standard as other classical musicians.

Barrueco does not want to settle for this second-tier status. So in his master classes, he drills the students on rhythm: "It's always easier to play without a beat. But one thing we can never do is lose track of time. We must always count, always count. Always, always, always, always." On sound: "Watch the tone. Watch the tone. Never forget about sound." On their choice of repertory: "There's a lot of modern music written by guitarists, and it makes too much use of tricks. What I want to play is great music. I'm too old for this stuff. I'm sorry ... I say too much what I think."

Barrueco's campaign: to bring guitar musicianship up to the standard of other orchestral instruments. Barrueco loves to play, but on a pair of occasions when he's been injured, he's consoled himself with the thought that perhaps now he'd be freed from practicing and touring and facing his nerves before every performance. Before a recent appearance with the Peabody Symphony in New York's Alice Tully Hall, he appeared backstage, saying, "I tell you, there has to be an easier way to make a living. Right about now, flipping burgers doesn't look quite so bad. Who needs two cars anyway?" He laughed, adjusted his shirt cuffs, then said, "Don't mind me. I'm using you to work off my nerves."

He maintains his strenuous touring schedule. "When we've been at home for a while, we start to get edgy," Sigurdardottir says. "We want to go. When we're on tour, after 10 days or two weeks we want to be home." Touring may soothe restlessness, but it entails long flights and lost baggage and having to perform at venues with awful acoustics (Italian movie theaters, for example). Traveling with a guitar is a headache. Before a flight to Hawaii one time he watched it drop to the tarmac from the top of a baggage conveyor pulled up to a 747. (It survived.) Another time, his guitar came around the luggage carousel with a piece of wood jutting from the zippered outer case. (Again, the guitar was fine.)

Though his schedule may suggest otherwise, Barrueco has learned that he has to pace himself. He has twice injured his hands. More than 15 years ago, during a recording session, "suddenly I couldn't feel my thumb. I couldn't control it. I would tell it to play the fourth string and it would play the fifth." For months he had to severely limit his practice time; the thumb came back, but he remains afraid the problem will return. Another overuse injury, to his left little finger, took three years to get over.

During his recent master class, someone asked, "What inspires you to do what you do?"

Barrueco replied, "My mortgage." But he also told a story, about when he was younger and played Rodrigo's Concerto de Aranjuez with an orchestra in New Jersey. He messed it up and afterward felt blocked, like he couldn't find a way to play the piece properly. So he called the great guitarist Pepe Romero and asked him what to do. "Pepe said to just enjoy it. 'You've got a beautiful piece, an orchestra, a crowd ... enjoy it!' And damn if that didn't work."

So there were more than 25 Barrueco concerts booked for the nine months after the master class, with more to come. And a new crop of students about to enter Peabody, awaiting the chance to absorb his perfectionist's credo. And protégés who have their own careers in progress but still seek his guidance. "I don't think he's done teaching me," Franco Platino said one day. "If you see him, tell him that."

Dale Keiger is a senior writer for the magazine.

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