Photo: Victor Vidal

Last Saturday at Washington University’s 560 Music Center, St. Louis Classical Guitar went big on several levels. The featured artist was the Cuban-born, Baltimore-resident guitarist Manuel Barrueco, at age 71 one of classical guitar’s venerable and venerated old pros, as profiled by Daniel Durchholz in this recent article in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. For this concert, St. Louis Classical Guitar booked the 560’s E. Desmond Lee Concert Hall, rather than the Pillsbury Theater that is now the standard space for their concerts, obviously gambling on a crowd that would need the larger space. The audience was over 250, so the gamble paid off.

Mr. Barrueco began with six Renaissance-era lute works in guitar transcriptions by the Italian musicologist Oscar Chilesotti (1848-1916). To use a well-worn classical music joke, four selections were by “that most prolific of composers, ‘Anon’” (for the joke to work fully, pronounce it as ‘A Non’), numbers 1 and 3-5. The respective titles were ’Vaghe belleze et bionde treccie d'oro vedi che per ti moro’ (paraphrased Google translation, ‘Lovely blonde beauty with golden braids I see, I die for you’ – sounds better in Italian, doesn’t it?), ‘Danza’ (‘Dance’), ‘Gagliarda’ (‘Galliard’), and ‘Se io m’accorgo’ (‘If I realize’). The second item was ‘Bianco fiore’ (‘White flower’) by Cesare Negri (1535-1605), and the sixth selection was a ‘Saltarello’ by Vincenzo Galilei (1520-1591), the father of Galileo Galilei. These six works, skillfully mixing moderate and up-tempo selections, immediately transported the audience to the atmosphere of a European aristocratic court, with an air of dignified elegance, a very suitable opening for this concert.

The next selection was the Lute Suite No. 3 in A minor, BWV 995, of Johann Sebastian Bach. This work originally began its artistic life as J.S. Bach’s Cello Suite in C minor, BWV 1011. (The BWV catalog numbers for J.S. Bach’s composition don’t necessarily go in chronological order, perhaps to state the obvious.) Bach then arranged this work for lute, transposed to G minor. For performances on the modern guitar, a further transposition is needed, to A minor. The performance had a passage of slight hesitation in the overall pulse, but things recovered quickly. The concert’s first half closed with the “Grand Solo”, or the Guitar Sonata No. 1, op. 14, by the Spanish composer Fernando Sor (1778-1839), in an arrangement by Sor’s near-contemporary Dionisio Aguado y Garcia (1784-1849). The work is in two sections without a break, an Andante and an Allegro. The Allegro is the far larger portion, and does feel garrulous, but in a good-natured way. Mr. Barrueco took it all in his stride, for a cheerful close to the first half.

The second half’s opening set brought the evening’s least familiar composer, with five works by Lou Harrison (1917-2003). Mr. Barrueco spoke for the first time here, to talk about Harrison, and also to reminisce that it had been about 40 years since his first visit to St. Louis, as well as to give past St. Louis Classical Guitar executive director William Ash belated birthday greetings. The first selection was “Music for Bill and Me”, from 1967, where the “Bill” was Harrison’s longtime companion William Colvig, whom Harrison had met that year. This work has a certain pentatonic feel, for those who know similarly stylized movements from Ravel’s “Mother Goose” and Mahler’s “Das Lied von der Erde”, which fits in with Harrison’s interest in Indonesian music. The second work indicated another of Harrison’s interests, his 1952 “Serenado por Gitaro”, whose title is in Esperanto. Per an excellent program note by Michael Bane (to whom I’m very indebted) for Mr. Barrueco’s upcoming performance of this same program in New York City in early May, the “Serenado” was Harrison’s first guitar work to utilize just intonation, for the musicologically inclined. To these ears, the “Serenado” had something of a ‘Spanish’ air about it. The third Harrison work was his “Sonata in Ishtarum”, where “Ishtarum” refers to a Babylonian tuning system mentioned on an 18th century BCE cuneiform tablet. As Bane noted: “Early scholarship on the tablet, which Harrison must have read, equated Ishartum with the Phrygian mode”, which Harrison utilized here, although newer scholarship indicates that Ishtarum is more like the Ionian mode. Perhaps this was why this work sounded more “middle of the road”, without any obvious nationality in its overtones. The last two movements, ‘Air’ and ‘Round’, are from Harrison’s 1978 composition “Serenade for Guitar and Percussion”. The ‘Air’ has the most angular-sounding musical invention of the whole set, while the ‘Round’ makes considerable use of the guitar’s higher register to give a more ‘exotic’ sound. The music of Lou Harrison has received minimal attention locally of late, AFAICT, so all praise to Mr. Barrueco for giving Harrison’s music such strong advocacy here.

Mr. Barrueco musically returned to Spain to finish the concert. A well-established favorite among classical guitarists began this “final set”, the “Capricho Árabe” of Francisco Tárrega (1852-1909), a mellow, moderately paced work, fitting its subtitle of ‘Serenata para guitarra’. The final work on the printed program was the Sonata, from 1931, of Joaquín Turina (1882-1949), one of Turina’s five works for solo guitar, and the only such work with a non-programmatic “absolute music” title. In three movements, the last movement is where Turina turned up the compositional fireworks, and Mr. Barrueco thus gradually kicked up the volume a notch, the evening’s most noticeable such moment. He then provided two encores from Gaspar Sanz (~1640-1710), ‘Folias’ and ‘Canarios’, the former reprising the courtly atmosphere of the concert’s start. The latter is highly familiar due to its use by Joaquín Rodrigo in his “Fantasía para un gentilhombre”, and made for a crowd-pleasing close.

Throughout the evening, Mr. Barrueco wore his virtuosity lightly, and performed the entire concert from memory. He was all business, with no showing off. He simply got on with it, which extended to his guitar re-tunings between movements when needed. Perhaps a moment of silence before each re-tuning might have allowed the music to sink in and settle, but that’s a very minor quibble. The audience was very appreciative of and attentive to Mr. Barrueco’s terrific artistry, as not one cell phone went off, to my hearing, even after intermission. This was a very satisfying concert indeed from Mr. Barrueco. One looks forward to a return visit down the line.

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