The finale of the Hawaii Symphony’s inaugural season approaches, with three brilliant programs remaining. This week, Cuban-born guitarist Manuel Barrueco plays Joaquin Rodrigo’s sublime Concierto de Aranjuez and Toru Takemitsu’s To the Edge of Dream.
Guitar mesmerized the young Barrueco: Listening to his siblings taking their lessons on the instrument in their native Cuba, it inexorably called him to play.
“I mean, you don’t choose who you fall in love with,” he says, “and I fell in love with the guitar.”
Barrueco came to the US in 1967 in the Freedom Flights sponsored by the US government, the family bringing little more than the clothes they were wearing. He says it was difficult dealing with a different customs and language, but the gravity of their journey had less effect on him than on older family members.
“Recently, I realized that we were refugees and we were in exile,” he says with some amusement in his voice.
Decades later, Barrueco’s work has an incredible scope, ranging from standard classical repertoire to duets with guitar greats Al Di Meola and Andy Summers (The Police). His recording of the Concierto with Placido Domingo conducting has been hailed as the preeminent recording of the work.
“I would dare say it is one of the most popular [concertos] for any instrument,” Barrueco explains, “and I think the reason it is so popular is because of its beauty.”
A blind pianist, Joaquin Rodrigo captured the flavors and techniques of Spanish guitar in his composition. He named the Concierto for the Palacio outside Madrid where he had honeymooned with his wife, Victoria. Composed in 1939 as WWII loomed, it reflected both the love they shared and their sorrow at the miscarriage of their first child. Barrueco met the composer many times over the years.
“They had gone to Aranjuez to celebrate their marriage,” Barrueco relates, “the anniversary, and also in pain from what had just happened. I think that is painfully clear in [the 2nd] movement. It is really one of the most beautiful, haunting melodies that one could desire.”
Barrueco was also friends with Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu, and he played the American premier of To the Edge of Dream with the Boston Symphony, Seiji Ozawa conducting.
“He was a very spiritual figure for me,” Barrueco says of Takemitsu. “I was coming from a very intellectual background, and when I met him he was always talking about beauty and about colors, and it had a huge impact on me.”
Barrueco confessed that, while he loved music and playing, he really did not think about deeper meaning to it in his younger days. Perhaps the years of association with artists like Takemitsu and Rodrigo have led him to become more philosophical.
“I think we’re floating around on this ball in space, and it is one of the most beautiful ways that we have to express ourselves,” he explains. “And there are so many different ways to enjoy it, from the beauty of a technique to the beauty of the sound. I’m starting to feel that it’s as important as food and water.”
Two other programs round out the Symphony schedule: Dvořák’s Cello Concerto with conductor Maximiano Valdes and cellist Zuill Bailey, and Pictures at an Exhibition, with Jung-Ho Pak conducting and Jon Kimura Parker on piano.
Dvořák shelved his first cello concerto in 1865, saying that, while the instrument was fine in the orchestra, it was insufficient as the soloist. In 1893, Dvořák premiered his New World Symphony in New York, and his friendship with principle cellist and composer Victor Herbert evidently led him to change his tune.
“The Dvořák Cello Concerto is every violinist’s favorite concerto,” says Concertmaster Iggy Jang with a touch of irony. “I mean, we have great works too, but it’s the dialogue between cello and orchestra. I think Brahms would be jealous of the mellifluous lines that Dvořák implemented.”
Pictures at an Exhibition is based on a piano piece by Mussorgsky, to which Maurice Ravel applied his considerable finesse at orchestration. The piece imagines a musical accompaniment to artworks by Mussorgsky’s friend Viktor Hartmann. The melody of the Promenade theme is immediately recognizable, having been covered by everyone from Duke Ellington to Emerson, Lake, and Palmer. Ravel immortalized it as a trumpet fanfare, and the brilliant arrangement has kept Pictures an orchestral favorite.
“It all leads up to a great climax at the end, the Gate of Kiev,” Jang explains, “and that is sure to leave audiences on their feet.”