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Solo Duets: Manuel Barrueco at Towson University’s Kaplan Concert Hall, April 24

April 26, 2010

By Arek Berbecki

As the 20th century recedes in the rear-view mirror, it becomes clearer that Astor Piazzolla was one of that era’s greatest composers, one of the few to integrate the century’s enthusiasms for syncopation, improvisation, stretched harmony, and non-European folk music into a distinctive body of work. Guitar music was only a small corner of Piazzolla’s composing, but one of the world’s great classical guitarists, Marylander Manuel Barrueco, has made a powerful case that it’s a crucial corner.

That’s why it was so thrilling to hear the Baltimore County guitarist play the Argentine composer’s “Cinco Piezas” at Towson University Saturday night. These “Five Pieces,” taken from Barrueco’s 2007 album Solo Piazzolla, ranged from the melancholy lament “Triston” to the percussive dance number “Acentuado.” But all of them managed to combine both surprise and pleasure; no matter how sudden the shift, the listener soon found rewards in the new mood or rhythm. It takes a special guitarist to navigate these great leaps and upon landing to keep going as if nothing had happened, but Barrueco knows this music better than anyone and carried the audience safely across the breaks.

Barrueco’s recent album is a collection of Virtuoso Guitar Duos with his protĂ©gĂ© Franco Platino, but this evening was entirely devoted to solo guitar. Wearing a black tux, his wavy dark hair speckled with the gray of his beard, the guitarist rested his right foot on the stage, his left on a footrest, and cradled his nylon-string guitar in his lap with the neck pointed up at two o’clock. He never spoke till the encores, allowing his unamplified instrument to articulate his intentions.

He was especially good at coaxing two different voices out of the guitar simultaneously. On Piazzolla’s “Romantico,” for example, it sounded as if a guitarist was accompanying a female vocalist, but the vocal line was merely a high melody that Barrueco had woven through the chords and embellishments that he was also playing. On Isaac Albeniz’s “Rumores de la Caleta,” the guitarist created a one-man duet between a high melody and a lower one, both in the spirited malaguena rhythm. On Piazzolla’s “Compadre,” Barrueco created the illusion of a guitar/percussion duet as he slapped the body of his instrument and brushed the strings with the backs of his fingernails without ever losing the thread of the melody.

Albeniz was the Piazzolla of the 19th century, marrying classical and folkloric materials with similar success. The second half of the concert opened with three of Albeniz’s wonderful showcases for guitar virtuosity, and Barrueco took full advantage. Less impressive was the evening’s opening number, a sonata by Cuban composer Jose Ardevol; this dry academic exercise was all technical challenges and no emotional force. The evening ended with 10 short pieces either composed or arranged by the 19th century Spanish guitarist Francisco Tarrega. He never embraced folkloric materials as vigorously as Piazzolla or Albeniz, but Tarrega created small gems of mathematical precision and music-box tunefulness.

Barrueco’s show was the final concert of the Baltimore Classical Guitar Society’s 2009-’10 season. The next season begins Oct. 16 with a recital by French guitarist Roland Dyens at the Baltimore Museum of Art.