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Arts and Entertainment

Manuel's Labors

Peabody Guitarist Celebrates The Earthy, Sensuous Music of Astor Piazzolla

Manuel Barrueco performs for the Baltimore Classical Guitar Society at Peabody Conservatory's Friedberg Hall April 19 with the Cuarteto Latinamericano.

By Geoffrey Himes | Posted 4/16/2008

As bad as things are these days for pop-music record companies, they're even worse for classical labels. The classical realm has always relied on selling new recordings of older repertoire, but now there are so many versions of the same pieces that the market is glutted; it's harder and harder to get anyone to buy yet another rendition of a Beethoven symphony or a Bartók string quartet. And because the classical world has failed to develop and market contemporary composers, there's not much of a market for them either.

Even Manuel Barrueco, who released 17 titles on EMI Records, now finds himself without a major-label home. He has adapted by launching his own Timonium-based company, Tonar Records, which has already released two albums by the Maryland guitarist. Last year's unaccompanied Solo Piazzolla was nominated for a Grammy. This year's collaboration with the Cuarteto Latinoamericano, Tango Sensations, also highlights the music of Astor Piazzolla.

"That happens to me," Barrueco says. "I get interested in a composer or a style and I ride that wave for a while. I've gone through Bach, Mozart, Chick Corea, Paul Simon, and Toru Takemitsu. Recently it's been Piazzolla. It's a real advantage to have my own label, because when I was riding the Takemitsu wave, EMI wasn't interested. They thought he wasn't commercial, so I never got to document that music. Now that I have my own label, I can record things while I'm exploring them."

The guitarist, whose April concerts take him to Mexico, Germany, Italy, Turkey, and Texas, as well as Baltimore, is sitting in the living room of his Lutherville ranch house. He leans back into a plush couch, a glass mug of cappuccino cradled in his lap. The 55-year-old musician wears black suspenders over a tan shirt, and his trademark beard now has flecks of gray. The time is right, he claims, for artists to start their own labels.

"The record company was pushing me to sell my CDs at concerts," he points out. "I can do that without them. They're selling more CDs on Amazon. I can do that without them. The one thing a big label can do is lend some of their prestige to an artist. But I already have a bunch of recordings on the EMI site. How can they lend me any more prestige? Now I don't have to get anyone's approval to make a record. I can record when I'm ready, not when someone else is ready. And the recordings I make now belong to me--I decide if a title will stay in print.

"The truth is, about six years ago, my producer at EMI said, `Manuel, you should begin recording yourself, because someday you may want your own label. You may sell fewer copies, but you will make more money.' It was as if he could foresee the future of the record business."

Tango Sensations is a terrific disc, not only because it is so well played but also because it makes a persuasive case for Piazzolla as a major 20th-century composer. The Argentine, who died in 1992, took the tango out of the Buenos Aires brothels and attached its forceful rhythms and compelling melodies to the harmonic sophistication of chamber music and cool jazz. Piazzolla, who played the accordion-like bandoneón--tango's signature instrument--eventually recorded with such American jazz figures as Gerry Mulligan and Gary Burton.

There's no bandoneón on Tango Sensations, only Barrueco's nylon-string guitar and the two violins, viola, and cello of Mexico City's Grammy-nominated chamber group Cuarteto Latinoamericano. But even without their original instrumentation, Piazzolla's compositions are powerful.

"There's more to Piazzolla's music than just get-up-and-dance," Barrueco says. "It has more structure and takes more risks than the tangos it comes from. It may not be as direct, but it's more rational and substantial."

In moving from blue-collar barrooms to black-fashion concert halls, the music hasn't become any less rough and physical--as music often does in classical adaptations--only less sentimental. Piazzolla uses 20th-century dissonance to reinforce the rhythmic tension in the pieces and to counterbalance the seductive melodic material. On their new recording, Barrueco and his collaborators maintain that balance between dance beats and tunefulness--between sex and romance, if you will.

"Twenty years ago, I wouldn't have given Piazzolla the time of day," Barrueco confesses. "It would have seemed mundane, not intellectual enough. But that's because I didn't give sensuality and passion the importance they actually have. Now I understand how extremely important to the human experience those things are. I've come to believe that the best music is erotic at its core, and Piazzolla's music is definitely earthy.

"When you're playing music you love in a nice hall with a beautiful sound and you're feeling inspired, it's almost sexual. We performers go out there and take our emotional clothes off while people watch us in the dark," Barrueco says, breaking into laughter. "I can't believe you've got me talking like this."

The guitarist was born in 1952 in Santiago de Cuba, on Cuba's southeastern shore. At first his family welcomed the 1959 revolution, but as it curdled into Stalinism, the family fled to Florida in 1967. It would take several years, however, for the teenager to grow comfortable with English, and he retains a Latin sensibility. Throughout his career, he has shown an affinity for Latino music, whether it be Mexican composer Manuel Maria Ponce, Cuban guitarist Leo Brouwer, Brazilian cellist Heitor Villa-Lobos, or Argentine bandoneónist Piazzolla.

"I didn't grow up with tango," Barrueco says. "But there is a Spanish influence in Piazzolla's music, and the language is important even in instrumental music. I tell my students, `Is it a coincidence that Italian rhythms resemble the way Italians talk? That German rhythms reflect their harsh consonants? That jazz rhythms have the undulations of English? That Takemitsu's music mirrors the inflections of Japanese?'

"Latin American music is a combination of Spanish, African, and Indian influences; it's a mix of Latin culture and the Catholic Church. Maybe Piazzolla combines them somewhat differently than we might in Cuba or they might in Mexico, but I think there's a common space where Latin musicians can meet."

The 14-year-old Barrueco was able to continue his guitar studies in Miami, but during high school in Newark, N.J., he became so alienated from his new country and his crime-ridden neighborhood that he stopped playing altogether. He was encouraged to audition for the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore anyway and, despite his accumulated rust, he was accepted.

He was still a student at Peabody in 1974 when he became the first guitarist to win the coveted Concert Artist Guild Award and performed the third recital of his life at Carnegie Hall in New York. In 1975, he finished second behind Sharon Isbin (and ahead of Eliot Fisk) at the Toronto Guitar Competition.

"There was already a buzz," David Tanenbaum says about his Peabody classmate in Michael Lawrence's 2006 documentary, Manuel Barrueco: A Gift and a Life. "At that time there was one guitarist on the planet who was playing at a level of cleanliness and perfection that was unbelievable, and that was John Williams. But Manuel was already approaching that level."

Barrueco moved to New York and launched his international touring career. After a divorce, however, he moved back to Baltimore to be close to his two daughters. He took a teaching job at Peabody and has been there for 17 years.

"I love Peabody," he says. "I spent four of the most important years of my life there and I know every corner of the buildings. And I love teaching. I have a small number of extremely talented players from all over the world that I meet with whenever I'm in town.

"I learn so much from them. Unless you can talk with someone about the inner workings of the music--and the audience only sees the face of the clock--you can't learn anything new. If you play in an orchestra or a chamber group, you always have other musicians to talk to, but if you're a soloist, you have to seek out other musicians. Being at Peabody gives me that chance."

The guitarist performs in Peabody's Friedberg Hall this Saturday, April 19, with the Cuarteto Latinoamericano. The program features the world premiere of Inca Dances, a piece by composer Gabriela Lena Frank, commissioned by the Baltimore Classical Guitar Society. Born in Berkeley, Calif., to a Peruvian/Chinese mother and a Lithuanian/Jewish father, Frank explored the Peruvian strand of her background in a suite designed with the Cuban guitarist and Mexican string quartet in mind.

Also on the program is Bay of Pigs, a recent piece by Michael Daugherty, a composer Barrueco calls "the Andy Warhol of classical music." The three-part piece quotes liberally from Jimi Hendrix and the Doors as well as traditional Cuban music. And, of course, the program features Piazzolla's music from the latest album on Barrueco's new label.

"Because serious composers weren't dealing with the basic human emotions, classical musicians had to go out and look for people like Piazzolla and Chick Corea," Barrueco says. "We're fighting for an audience that's hungry for real feelings, and these composers supply it. I have this theory that anyone who's willing to really show themselves is irresistible. Corea and Piazzolla are like that, and if I'm willing to show myself to the audience through their music, that will be irresistible, too."

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