It would be natural for a Cuban-born classical guitarist to have been influenced by Latin music like tango or even salsa. And that would make sessions with artists like guitarist Al Dimeola or tenor Plácido Domingo seem right in step. Manuel Barrueco has performed with them both.
But less common would be a classical virtuoso performing and recording with two rock guitar icons. Barrueco did just that in 2001 when he released Nylon and Steel, a compilation of duos not only with Dimeola but also with hard rocker Steve Morse (Deep Purple; Dixie Dregs) and The Police’s Andy Summers.
And Barrueco is anything but common.
“I listen to everything,” Barrueco says. “I’m open to all music. What happened there was fascinating. It was an in-between world. It was a lot of fun to patch into such a different mindset.”
Over three decades of performances, Barrueco has trekked to most of the world’s greatest halls, appearing with many of the planet’s most esteemed orchestras and performers. Ditto for having produced some 29 recordings along the way, as well as for transcribing many classical masterworks from strings and orchestral settings to guitar.
This is the sort of stuff one expects from a virtuoso. Again, however, Barrueco is willing to venture across musical boundaries. It’s not unusual for him to tour through some of Fernando Sor’s overlooked works. But less common for a performer of his standing are his arrangements of classics by jazzbos Keith Jarrett, Chick Corea plus a few from John Lennon and Paul McCartney.
His musical sojourn began early, when he was 8. He asked his parents for a guitar after hearing his cousins and sisters practicing.
“It was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard,” Barrueco says. “It wasn’t classical per se, it was more like popular Latin American music.”
His very first teacher noticed the youngster’s aptitude and told his parents he was very talented. “He told them that I should learn to read music,” Barrueco recalls. “And before I knew it, there I went.”
All was not smooth sailing for the young man, however, as socioeconomic and cultural changes overtook mid-1960s Cuba. Barrueco was in third grade when the powers that be nationalized everything.
“Farms and houses were taken away,” Barrueco says. “Apparently you couldn’t be religious and communist at the same time. As a kid being there, it was quite difficult to understand. I remember feeling very afraid. Those kinds of experiences make you who you are.”
Ultimately he arrived in the United States as a political refugee with his family in 1967. He remains sensitive to the immigration tumult raging through the U.S. now.
As someone who went through the legalization process himself, he believes immigrants should follow the established protocol or be turned back. But he finds some new policies of today distasteful: “What bothers me the most is the racial element. And the separation of children from their families is cruel, and you don’t have to be cruel about it. Thank God that didn’t happen to us. I don’t know what I would’ve done.”
What Barrueco did was make his way to Baltimore’s Peabody Conservatory for his education, where he still teaches young prodigies today. And a scant eight years later, in 1975, he made his Carnegie Hall debut.
He has been called “the world’s greatest living classical guitarist” by many in the music press.
“Let’s just say that it is a great honor when people think that highly of you,” he says. “I never really felt that I was good enough growing up. To be honest, I don’t think about it or dwell on it because I don’t want it to control me.”
In addition to touring and performing, Barrueco feels teaching is a cornerstone. “I started teaching when I was really young, and I intend to do it forever,” he says. “When you do that you have to remain a student of your own craft. That makes it be about the art of it all, not just about show business.”
Of course, there is a bit of show business on Barrueco’s resume – such as his appearance on Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. He is also the subject of a documentary. And there is a coffee table book dedicated to Barrueco’s guitar.
That’s when you know you’ve truly made it.
A wine aficionado on the side, he says he had dinner recently with noted wine writer Robert Parker, who lives some 20 minutes from his Baltimore residence. “I was completely starstruck,” Barreuco recalls of an evening spent sampling some of Parker’s favorites and discussing the nuances of wine.
“It occurred to me that it would be a beautiful thing if we were to apply that same kind of careful analysis to music,” he adds. “Some wines age well and some do not. Music is like that as well.”
Through it all, Barrueco remains true to the intention of a composer, yet brings out shades that add texture and meaning.
“There’s an old anonymous saying: ‘Music is what feelings sound like,’” he says. “That is the reason I do what I do. I’m still just trying to get it right.”
MANUEL BARRUECO 3pm Sunday, May 5. Sunset Center, San Carlos between Eighth and Ninth, Carmel. $45-$60. 625-9938, carmelmusic.org