On May 5, 2019, at Sunset Center in Carmel, classical guitarist Manuel Barrueco sat on his throne, guitar in hand, and positively wowed audiences at the Sunset Center. Playing various selections by Isaac Albéniz, Enrique Granados, and Ignacio Cervantes, his Spanish and Cuban music was like a warm and intimate embrace, each note plucked as if it was loved individually and played explicitly for each member of the audience.
The first group of pieces by a Renaissance composer were added into the program and replaced the pieces by Luis Milán and Joaquín Niño-Culmell that were originally programmed. You will have to forgive me for not being able to hear the names announced from the stage, but they were played with the delicate refinement necessary for interpreting music of so long ago, and the characteristic ornamentations gave the melodies an improvisatory air.
Next we heard Yoruba Chants from Cuba by Héctor Angulo, a collection of nine short pieces encompassing the history of Cuban culture. This selection was in sharp contrast to the previous group in that it was written in the latter half of the twentieth century. This was obvious in the brash harmonies, interrupted style, and disjointed rhythms, which gave the music a refreshing quality. And yet, there were also many pauses, offering moments of speculation and interplay between upper and lower voices, which captured our attention. Throughout the whole suite, there was a pervasive tone of slave chants, which gave the music a broader scope of narrative.
After this atonal escapade, we were treated to a romantic serenade. Cuban Dances,by Ignacio Cervantes, is a set of five pieces that wooed the hearts of listeners in the auditorium. Barrueco employed expressive rubato devices to draw out the charm of the glissandos, and the effect was magnificent. Light and dainty syncopations mixed with heartache and lamentations made for a well-rounded effect that held our attention throughout.
Julian Orbón’s Prelude and Dance was, like Angulo’s piece, a more harmonically adventurous work. You could still hear the romanticism of the Cuban Dances, but it was complemented (yes, genuinely complimented) by dissonant chords. We could hear a once worn and tired soul, fumbling through disjointed musical ideas while springing out into hysterical profanity. What a wonderful closer to the first half of the concert!
After the intermission, where I ran into my old classical guitar teacher, the audience heard two pieces by Enrique Granados. The first was La Maja de Goya, a deft and nimble waltz, searching and never quite settling, although occasionally breaking out into saccharine sentimentalism. The second piece was called A La Cubana, comprised of two movements. This piece offered a more pastoral mood, and found charming moments of appeal in its amorous counterpoint.
Isaac Albeniz’s music was a breathtaking journey across the Spanish Empire. Cadíz was a piece that brought a cold and dramatic ambience to the audience. Melodies were often played in the lower register, with faint, sorrowful accompaniment above. Cuba had a different attitude, feeling more spontaneous and, even, arhythmic at times. In this piece the melody was played loosely and drunkenly, while there was a spontaneity to its wandering harmony. Aragonhad a similar mood to Cuba, with an uncertain and subversive harmonic motion, but all the while maintaining a bright and proud character.
The music of Francisco Tárrega was an addition to the program not written in the flyer. La Palomawas a slow song marked by classical sensitivity with its bright turns and flutters, and by its Hispanic, even Cuban, influences, like an Habanera bass line. La Paloma, on the other hand, had a brighter tempo, and a more yearning and hopelessly romantic attitude quite appropriate for the end of the concert.
However, the audience felt that the afternoon was still quite young, and the standing ovation was long enough to mandate an encore. Barrueco announced his last piece as a “Scarlatti Sonata,” and offered us a charming baroque piece of music with graceful ornaments and complex counterpoint. Only after this last piece, did the great guitarist recede backstage for the last time of this performance and permit a happy audience to file out into the lobby.