The “Concierto de Aranjuez” is not only one of the most recognizable pieces of 20th century classical music, but also the most popular piece for classical guitar from any era. Written by the blind Spanish composer Joaquín Rodrigo for a 1940 premiere, the piece has been recorded by most of the world’s major classical guitarists: Manuel Barrueco, Julian Bream, John Williams, Sharon Isbin, Paco de Lucía, Christopher Parkening, David Russell and more.
But this concerto for guitar and orchestra, which Barrueco will play with the Nashville Symphony this weekend as part of their celebration of Spanish and Latin American composers, has also enjoyed a life outside the classical world. Trumpeter Miles Davis and arranger Gil Evans adapted the concerto’s middle section as the centerpiece of the 1960 album Sketches of Spain. Chick Corea quotes the same movement in his best-known composition, “Spain.” Jazz guitarist Jim Hall made it the center of his 1970 Concierto album. Herb Alpert recorded a disco version, Buckethead a hard-rock version and Buster Williams a solo bass version. The tune became a hit pop song in France in 1967 and has appeared in countless movies.
“Things become that popular for a reason,” Barrueco insists. “It’s so beautiful that people never get tired of it. When you perform it, the conductor loves it, the orchestra loves it, the audience loves it and you love it, so everything is easier and more enjoyable. You can really reach into your soul without worrying about going overboard because the music is so elegant.”
Perhaps the definitive recorded version of the concerto is Barrueco’s on his 1997 EMI album, Rodrigo. The disc opens with a lively figure crisply articulated by the guitarist, who sounds relaxed and confident even as he navigates the brisk tempo and tricky fingerings. His assurance allows the listener to relax as well and be carried along by the back and forth between the soloist and the orchestra.
In the middle adagio section, an English horn announces the famous slow melody. The theme is picked up and developed by Barrueco, who is able to expand and shape his tone almost as if he were a horn player himself. In the final movement, the guitarist plays the traditional Spanish rhythms as if he were partnering the orchestra around an old wooden dance floor. The closeness of his give and take with the band can be attributed to his communication with the conductor—opera star Plácido Domingo.
“With Domingo, I had an immediate rapport,” Barrueco says. “It wasn’t, ‘No, I don’t understand.’ It was, ‘Yes, I get it.’ I often tell my students, ‘If someone landed here from another planet and tried to follow all the written explanations of how to play the blues, it still wouldn’t sound like the blues.’ The same is true of Spanish music: You have to absorb the language by living with it. He’s Spanish, so he knows Spanish music very well, and I’ve played a lot of Spanish music, so we both understood the language. When he was conducting for the recording, you could hear him singing through the orchestra.”
Barrueco, whose summer concert schedule takes him to Germany and Spain as well as Tennessee, spent the first 14 years of his life in Cuba, learning classical guitar and soaking up the Latin American sensibility. But his family fled to Florida in 1967, and the guitarist now lives in Maryland, where he still teaches at the Peabody Conservatory, the school that he graduated from in 1974.
He recorded 17 different titles for EMI Records, but last year he launched his own record label, Tonar Music, with Solo Piazzolla, which was nominated for a Grammy. He followed it up with this year’s Tango Sensations, featuring more music by Astor Piazzolla, performed this time with the Cuarteto Latinoamericano. Piazzolla is the Argentine legend who transformed the tango, the blue-collar music of Buenos Aires’ brothels and barrooms, by attaching its forceful rhythms and compelling melodies to the harmonic sophistication of chamber music and cool jazz.
“Twenty years ago, I wouldn’t have given Piazzolla the time of day,” Barrueco confesses. “It would have seemed mundane, not intellectual enough. But that’s because I didn’t give sensuality and passion the importance they actually have. Now I understand how extremely important to the human experience those things are. I’ve come to believe that the best music is erotic at its core, and Piazzolla’s music is definitely from the earth.
“Maybe it’s because I’m in my 50s now that I think so much about sensuality,” Barrueco admits. “Maybe in my 20s I didn’t have to think about it. Segovia used to talk about the shape of a guitar as a woman, and I used to think that was really corny. Now that I’m 55, it doesn’t seem so corny.”
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