Arts & Culture

When I'm Sixty-Four

World-famous guitarist Manuel Barrueco reflects on music, performing, and his 25-year career at Peabody.

One afternoon in early December, Manuel Barrueco points out a framed photograph on the wall in an office at his Lutherville home. In the photo, Barrueco is holding a guitar and sitting next to Fred Rogers, who’s sporting his trademark sweater and sanguine smile. The acclaimed classical guitarist appeared in an August 2000 episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood—playing Bach and a version of one of Rogers’ signature songs, “You Are Special”—and Barrueco considers it a highlight of his career. 

“[Rogers] was really delightful,” he recalls. “He was no different before we began shooting than after we began shooting. I really enjoyed myself.”

It’s a telling comment from a man who exudes a sense of modesty that would make Fred Rogers proud. Barrueco has, after all, performed at festivals and venues around the world, recorded at premier studios such as Abbey Road in London, collaborated with the likes of opera superstar Plácido Domingo and Police guitarist Andy Summers, been nominated for Grammy Awards, and even appeared in a Lexus commercial. 

The Los Angeles Times has dubbed Barrueco “a major artist with remarkable musicianship and a world of technique, [who’s] simply and consistently awesome.” And in a 2017 article in the venerable classical music publication American Record Guide, music scholar Ken Keaton called him “one of the leading guitarists of his generation . . . a mature artist at the height of his power.”

Settling into a sofa in his living room, Barrueco, dressed in a black polo shirt and black jeans, explains that his modesty comes from his upbringing in Cuba. “From my background, it’s difficult to talk about yourself,” he says. “In fact, it’s considered a negative thing to talk about yourself a lot, and I was always told not to talk about me.”

Still, he is remarkably candid and animated, emitting a big-bellied guffaw when something strikes him as funny or smoothing and shaping the air with hand gestures as the conversation turns serious. Looking at those hands, you might notice that his fingernails hint at his profession: The nails on the right hand are unusually long (for picking and strumming strings), while the nails on the left are clipped short (for pressing those strings onto the fretboard). 

At 64, Barrueco, who’s taught at the Peabody Conservatory for 25 years, finds himself at a crossroads. Like many artists who are eventually confronted with the aspects of aging, he realizes that physical limitations, sooner or later, will affect his playing, and he could face difficult choices. “I’m not 20 anymore,” he says, “so I need to be realistic about how much longer I’ll be able to play and perform like this.”  

But just this morning, the maestro drew inspiration from an unlikely source. Watching PBS NewsHour, he became increasingly intrigued listening to “The Boss, the guy from New Jersey,” he says, referring to Bruce Springsteen, a guest on the show. Springsteen had recently written his autobiography, Born to Run, and was discussing the broad scope of his life. A few years older than Barrueco, he, too, talked about battling limitations—in his case, recurring bouts of depression—and noted how he found solace in his relationship to music, which he was constantly reinventing.     

“At this point in my career, it might be natural to think I’m coming to the end,” explains Barrueco, “but listening to [Springsteen], I started to consider it to be a moment of opportunity.”

Barrueco leans forward and says, almost conspiratorially: “I thought, ‘Wait a minute, this could actually be the beginning of something special, something new.’” 

“Music is a very important part of Cuban life. There is a lot of music.”  

Barrueco was born in Santiago de Cuba into a family that, though not wealthy, enjoyed a measure of privilege and security. His father worked for a food distribution company owned by his brother-in-law. Barrueco fondly recalls trips to the beach, horseback riding at his uncle’s farm, and being surrounded by extended family and, always, music. “Music is a very important part of Cuban life,” he says. “There is a lot of music, but not so much classical.”

A smile crosses his face, and he recounts a Saturday Night Live spoof of a Latino talk show in which the host and guests repeatedly stand and dance to bursts of energetic music. The smile gives way to a shoulder-shaking laugh. “It’s so funny,” says Barrueco, “because there’s a lot of truth to it. It’s a culture full of music.” 

But Barrueco’s idyllic childhood ended in 1959, with the Cuban revolution and Fidel Castro’s ascent to power. Those events, Barrueco says, “represent a clear division. Though it happened gradually, everything changed, and things changed drastically.”

After the government seized the family’s food business, Barrueco’s father lost his job. The Catholic school Barrueco attended was closed and nationalized to reflect the burgeoning Communist ideology. “Everything at my school turned political,” he recalls. “If we were learning arithmetic, for example, the problem would be, ‘If you have three comrades and two are killed by American imperialists, how many do you have left?’ It got very intense.”

Many Cubans left, or attempted to leave, and his father petitioned the government for permission to emigrate. He also withdrew his son from the Communist school, fearing that he would be brainwashed, or worse—there was a rumor going around that children would be taken from their parents and shipped to Russia. For a few years, the Barrueco children were taught clandestinely at home by the former director of a Catholic school, as a creeping sense of tension and fear settled over the country. 

In the meantime, something magical happened. Barrueco, then 8 years old, was at his grandparents’ house for a family gathering. At some point, a cousin picked up a guitar and serenaded their grandfather with a song. Barrueco says her performance was “the most beautiful thing I had ever heard in my life.”

Barrueco’s sisters, Miriam and Lucia, began taking guitar lessons. An instructor came to the house and taught the girls to play an assortment of boleros and popular Latin American tunes, as the notoriously shy Manuel looked on, mesmerized. Though Miriam eventually stopped playing, her brother took it up and found he had a talent for the instrument. 

Playing guitar boosted Barrueco’s self-confidence and even helped deflect playground taunts about his light skin and freckles. After he quickly mastered the pop material, the instructor suggested he switch to a classical teacher, which he did. He started out learning three pop songs for each classical piece; then, it was two to one. “Before I knew it, I wanted to just play classical,” says Barrueco, who then enrolled at the state music school, the Esteban Salas Conservatory of Music, which had a guitar department.  

He developed and deepened his classical repertoire at the conservatory, where one of his teachers, the director of the school, sometimes wore military garb and a holstered gun in the classroom. “That was not uncommon at that time,” Barrueco recalls. “It was like a state of emergency, because they expected the United States to invade at any time.”

In 1967, Cuba approved the Barruecos’ departure. The authorities confiscated all of their possessions, including his parents’ wedding rings, and the family came to the U.S. as political refugees. After a stay in Miami, they moved to Newark, New Jersey, where Barrueco’s father believed he’d find more job opportunities. They arrived just weeks after racial unrest tore Newark apart, leaving 26 people dead and hundreds injured.   

Barrueco was 15 years old.  

“[I was] talented, but not a good student.
I was wild and
wanted to party.” 

Although his family was grateful the U.S. took them in, Barrueco, at first, questioned the move—he wasn’t sure it was any better than Cuba. Besides racial tension in the streets, fights often broke out at the public high school he attended. “I never saw violence like what I saw in Newark,” he recalls.

Once again, music provided a measure of solace. A family friend arranged an introduction to Rey de la Torre, a legendary Cuban guitarist then living in New York. He gave Barrueco lessons and loaned him a guitar, which he played until attending college.

He also became a huge Beatles fan and says, “I used to know all their songs. It was just good music, and I appreciated that every record was different. John Lennon was a bit of an idol for me. He was socially involved, a rebel, and I had a little taste for that, too.” (In 1994, Barrueco released an entire CD of Lennon and McCartney songs, some of them recorded at Abbey Road, where many of The Beatles’ classic albums were made.)  

After a year of high school, Barrueco transferred to Newark’s Arts High School, which didn’t offer guitar instruction, so he ended up playing French horn. He struggled with his studies, grew depressed, and actually stopped playing guitar for a year-and-a-half. Despite not practicing for such an extended period, he auditioned for the Boston Conservatory, Mannes School of Music, and Peabody. Peabody eventually rewarded him with a full scholarship, the first ever for a guitar student at the conservatory, and Barrueco arrived in Baltimore in the fall of 1970.

He continued to struggle. He was, he recalls, “a talented student, but not a good student, and it was a crazy time with free love and LSD and all that stuff flying around. I was pretty wild and wanted to party.” He rarely practiced and often butted heads with his instructor, Aaron Shearer, then the director of the guitar program. At one point, Barrueco announced he was quitting, and his friends razzed him for days. One of them suggested, “You have to remember the school was made for the students not for the teachers.”           

Barrueco reconsidered and returned with renewed purpose, established a practice regimen, and set some goals. It paid off. He entered Peabody’s concerto competition and won. He was also the first classical guitarist to win the Concert Artists Guild competition in New York, which netted him a prized Carnegie Hall recital at just 22. 

From there, post-graduation life was something of a whirlwind that came to include a robust concert schedule, with no fewer than a dozen tours of Japan; recordings with major label EMI; performances with prominent orchestras; multiple Grammy nods, including a 2008 nomination for Best Instrumental Soloist; radio and television appearances; and the teaching position at Peabody. 

Of all the accomplishments and milestones, Barrueco may be most satisfied with his teaching and mentoring. The Peabody job allowed him to be close to his daughters, who live nearby, and helped him establish a home base—living out of a suitcase never appealed to him. These days, he even records at home, in a basement studio, and releases those recordings on his own label, Tonar. Barrueco’s second wife, Asgerdur Sigurdardottir, manages the label and his other business affairs. “She basically does everything for me,” he says, smiling. “I have a feeling she is my biggest fan.”    

Besides issuing Barrueco’s recordings, which often highlight the work of Spanish and Latin American composers, Tonar has also released projects by Peabody protégés such as Meng Su. “Because Maestro has gone through every step to have an extremely successful career, he knows how to guide young people,” says Su, who calls Barrueco “my music and life mentor.” 

Former student and rising classical star Lukasz Kuropaczewski echoes those sentiments. “Maestro Barrueco is the most important person in my musical life,” says Kuropaczewski, who graduated in 2008 and now performs around the world. “His teaching gives you such a power, such a strength, that you leave Peabody thinking that there is no other place in the world where you could learn these things.”

Barrueco hopes to continue at Peabody as long as they’ll have him, and as long as his teaching remains relevant. “I have a responsibility to pass on sound judgments to the students,” he says, “and it gives me pleasure to do that. I don’t see it as a job.”

He’ll also continue searching for new opportunities as his work continues to evolve. He’d like to “take the guitar to other places, new places, and maybe become more of an ambassador for the instrument,” although he isn’t certain what form that would take.

But any uncertainty is tempered by the wisdom and vision that comes from reaching 64. “It’s really important to be honest with your work and your art,” says Barrueco. “As you age, it should express what you feel without relying on tricks or gimmicks. 

“This is a nice age. I can see beauty where I didn’t see it before. Now, I’m able to truly see it.”