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THE PASSING OF A CONCERT GUITARIST AND TEACHER, JUAN MERCADAL OF HAVANA, CUBA AND MIAMI, FLORIDA

Page by Gary Rodriguez


Late 1960s' brochure from Casa Sherry-Brener listing Maestro Juan Mercadal as one of the top classical guitarists in the world.


I had the privilege of taking private guitar lessons from Mr. Mercadal. He was probably one of the first teachers to create a concert guitar program at a major university, The University of Miami.

Maestro Juan Mercadal and myself at a reception following his concert at Vizcaya Museum, Miami, Florida 1969.

Maestro Juan Mercadal (center) with violist Victor Stern beginning a recital at Vizcaya Museum, 1969

Click here for music to accompany this page MOVIMIENTO PERPETUO from book 6 by Julio Sagreras, MIDI


The above piece of music is a study I did with Mercadal. It was the last of the studies before undertaking concert pieces. Before the Sagreras studies I did ones by Carcassi, Sor, and Coste. When I finished the MOVIMIENTO PERPETUO I asked Mercadal if there was a book 7. He said there certainly was, but by the time Sagreras finished that book he was totally insane. So why bother working on an insane person's studies! That was Juan's opinion. And I never worked on nor saw book 7.

The professor's left-hand thumb was badly deformed. I asked him what happened to it. He said it got that way from starting the guitar too young. It ruined it's proper growth. Something like what happens to children who suck their thumb for too many years.

When I took up the guitar I was already an adult. I found it kind of strange that Juan would stop me in a middle of a passage by banging on my fingers with a pencil as though I was a child. But I put up with it since he was the best. He had me spend months just working on my posture and how to attack the strings and left-hand fingering. He taught me that only with the proper technique was it possible to spread the hand over five frets.

From 1969 to 1970, I studied with the maestro. I wasn't that good, but he couldn't get rid of me as I kept coming back. We would spend a 1/2 hour of my lesson just talking. He told me he couldn't take it in Cuba under Castro. "I'm a highly disciplined individual, but the kind of discipline Castro imposed on everyone was crazy. I had to leave."

He would go to South America to play with orchestras and he liked to tell the story of how he would obediently follow the directions of the conductor throughout the rehearsals. But when he was actually playing the concert Mercadal would play at the tempo he wanted. He used to watch the conductor furiously try to keep up with him. "What could the poor conductor do to me?"

Starting my lesson on day with Juan, I had put new strings on the guitar and as soon as I began playing we could tell my guitar was in bad need of tuning. So I got out my tuning fork and started plucking the A string. Juan got exasperated, jumped up and grabbed my guitar "The way you are going it will take forever." He grabbed the A string, wrapped his hand around it and pulled it about 2 feet from the guitar. He had it far enough off the finger board to start shooting arrows with my guitar. He did that to all my strings and got it tuned fast and it didn't come out of tune for the rest of the lesson.

We were talking about how far you had to spread the left hand fingers to play modern music. He told the story of a pianist friend who was playing some modern stuff. His left hand was down on the bass and his right hand was at the end of the treble on the piano. Then the composer called for notes to be played in the middle. Juan said the pianist broke down in frustration saying, "How was I supposed to play those middle notes? Hit it with my d__k?"

There were two subjects the maestro didn't want to discuss. One was Andres Segovia and the other flamenco guitar. I asked him, ever so gently, what he thought of Segovia's playing. All I get for a response was "Segovia has his style and I have mine." Then I asked him if he ever played flamenco music. In a dramatic outburst as only a good Cuban artist can do, he turned red and literally screamed back, "I never play that s__t!!!!" Like Segovia he was true to serious music.

One of the side benefits of studying with him was that he was able to get me,in 1969, a new Jose Ramirez guitar for $650. At that time they were selling for $1200. Still, $650 was a lot of money to me. However, I have learned that today they are selling for around $14,000 and going up since the death of the luthier.

But before he ordered my guitar, he suggested that I see a young man named Ruck in Miami who was making fine guitars. I went to Ruck's place which was really an apartment and tried out the guitars. Ruck told me that Mercadal was the only player he knew who could wear out a guitar in a season. The Ruck sounded great. When I saw Mercadal for my next lesson I told him the Ruck guitar was fine but I still wanted the Ramirez. the Ruck was $500. $150 cheaper than the Ramirez and at that time $150 was a weeks net pay for me. But I wanted the same guitar the maestro played.


The following is his obituary in The Miami Herald 1-22-98

by James Roos, Herald Music Critic

Juan Mercadal, the Cuban-born guitarist who established the University of Miami's classical guitar program 33 years ago, died Wednesday at Jackson memorial Hospital.

He was 72 years old.

During his career, concerts took Mercadal from Brazil to Spain to the United States.

But while he enjoyed a respected career as a performer, he was best known as a pedagogue who taught artists as diverse as rock guitarist Steve Morris and Famed classical guitarist Manuel Barrueco - a soloist with the New World Symphony this season.

Rene Gonzalez, a Mercadal protege now an associate professor at UM , says he met the maestro 35 years ago when Gonzalez, 14, was an aspiring virtuoso.

"I was certainly one of those people closest to Juan on a day-to-day basis," Gonzalez said, "and he was a man of great pride, strength and stability, yet a generous, compassionate person."

Cathy Ellis, of the Ellis Family Music Co., for which Mercadal wrote forewords to guitar textbooks, said, "He was a superb professional and enjoyed sharing his artistry with people." Among those with whom Mercadal shared regularly was violist Victor Stern, with whom he formed a duo and performed widely in the 1970's.

Mercadal was born in Guanabacoa, just outside Havana. In an interview last December, to be published in February by the National Association of Guitar Teachers, he said he was attracted to the guitar at age 2 after receiving an instrument about the size of a ukulele from his father, a guitar professor. He began studying with his father, then continued with his father's own guitar teacher until he was 13, but never studied with anyone else after that. After graduating from high school at 16, in 1940, he immediately became a professional performer.

In Havana, Mercadal played frequently on the radio and taught guitar, but also worked for Braniff Airways to supplement his income. After Castro took power, however, in 1960 he decided to take his family to the United States.

"Those were hard days" he once told The Herald.

But friends helped him get established, and by 1962 he was teaching part time at UM and appeared as a soloist on public television.

During the last decade, Mercadal played only about 10 concerts annually. He hadn't made a recording in more than 30 years. Yet recently he returned to the studios to make his first CD, an album of guitar miniatures, which will be released next month on the Aranjuez label.

It will now be his memorial.

Mercadal is survived by his wife, Iris, three children and seven grandchildren. Viewing is today from 1 p.m. to midnight at Funeraria Memorial Plan, 9800 Coral Way, Miami.


The following is an update concerning Juan Mercadal and about the classical guitar.

Article by James Roos, Herald Music Critic, The Miami Herald, ARTS section 10-04-98

In this raucous age dominated by the electric guitar, the Spanish classical guitar often seems a relic of a more patrician era. Its pure, unadulterated sound strips music to its essence. Its tones are so fragile that even in a small hall, listeners must often lean forward to catch its murmurous counterpoint.

Unlike the rock guitarist, who plays in a band, the classical guitarist's art is intimate and solitary. The virtuoso sits quietly on a chair, cradling the instrument with one leg raised on a footstool, while plaintively plucking a Bach saraband, or tossing off a glittering Albeniz dance with highly developed technique.

Playing tremolo passages, a classical guitarist often strums three fingers of the right hand while picking out a counter-melody with the other fingers of the same hand. And yet the musical line, however intricate the ornamentation, remains clear; the sparkling purity of tone never wavers, the rhythm is kept firm.

There's an elegance about all this that's brilliantly captured by Manuel Barrueco, the Cuban-born guitarist whose breathtaking technique yet subtle, restrained style have delighted world audiences for two decades and who will commemorate the l 00th anniversary of Cuban independence with a recital at the University of Miami's Gusman Hall Saturday night.

Barrueco's Festival Miami concert, spotlighting music by Cuban composers Leo Brouwer, Jose Ardevol and Ernesto Lecuona as well as works of previous centuries by Bach, De Visse and Sor is also a tribute to the late Juan Mercadal, a former teacher of the star, who headed UM's guitar department for more than three decades until his death this year.

Barrueco's fastidiously bearded and tailored figure visually reinforces the understated refinement of his playing, which is why he was chosen for a TV commercial a couple of years ago in which he was seen strumming his guitar in the back seat of a Lexus. But though he's enough of a star to be recruited to sell luxury cars, he's not an extrovert by nature, even on stage, he says.

"I have never been a good showman," the guitarist insisted last week by phone from Baltimore, where he lives with his wife and two teenage daughters, and teaches at the Peabody Conservatory.

In his unshowy reserve, he may share at least something in common with Segovia," he says, refering to Andres Segovia, who for most of this century, until his death at 94 in 1987, was the dean of classical guitarists.

A rescued instrument

Segovia was not only supreme in his field, he created the field, rescuing the classical guitar from a near-century of neglect, giving it a new literature by commissioning composers and reviving old works becoming its prophet. He left legions of proteges worldwide. But Barrueco isn't one of them.

"Segovia's achievements as a pioneer were fantastic, and his style of playing unique," said the guitarist. "He had a very personal concept of rhythm and stressed beautiful tone. But everything he played had such a strong personal imprint that his Bach became Segovia-Bach, his Villa-Lobos, Segovia-Villa-Lobos, and l would never want that."

What Barrueco wants is immaculate clarity even in the fastest scale passages, so that notes glisten like so many pearls in a strand. He loves the little jeweled bits of virtuosity and filigree in show- pieces, which have an exquisite spiderweb texture in his hands. He strives for infinite shades of tonal coloration; and he wants phrasing that's truly fresh. Ultimately, "each piece should reflect the composer's style, not mine," he says.

Barrueco has certainly been suc- cessful in this. Says flutist Eugenia Zukerman, a cultural correspondent for television's CBS Sunday Morning, "There are a huge number of terrific players out there, but Barrueco is the reigning crown prince of the current dynasty because of his aristocratic, lyrical playing."

After becoming the first classical guitarist to win New York's prestigious Concert Artists Guild Award in l 974, his career took off and he has circled the globe regularly from Tokyo and London to Vienna and Los Angeles, performing 60 concerts a year, all the while churning out more than two dozen CDs for the EMI label.

Different musical styles

Not all his discs feature pure guitar music. In addition to exploring traditional works by Bach, Mozart, Rodrigo, Turina and others, Barrueco has more than a dozen CDs in which he collaborates with famous colleagues like soprano Barbara Hendricks, harpist Nancy Allen, flutist Ransom Wilson and the King's Singers and he has explored music of the Beatles, as well as by jazzmen Chick Corea and Keith Jarrett.

But one of Barrueco's favorite collaborations was last year with tenor Placido Domingo, who conducted the Philharmonia Orchestra of London for the guitarist in a CD of Rodrigo's Concierto de Aranjuez, and sang Spanish songs with Barrueco accompanying him.

"Most people don't realize how quickly these things are often on ," says the guitarist. "I had never met Domingo before, but he was a good conductor, especially for the Rodrigo, with his natural feeling for Spanish music. Still, it was his professionalism, the way he worked out the songs with me after only a few tries, and yet insisted on making repeated corrections, that was extremely impressive; and of course his voice. He just opened his mouth and I thought, wow, there goes the neighborhood."

Although the word "guitar" derives from the Greek kithara, an ancient stringed instrument, the modern guitar originated in 16th Century Spain and spread rapidly throughout the world. As early as 1526, a member of Hernando Cortes' army taught the guitar in Mexico. But it wasn't until l 800 that the six-stringed guitar appeared, and not until the mid- l 800s that Antonio de Torres established the shape and size of today's instrument.

Early guitar studies

To Barrueco, playing the guitar came easily, almost intuitively, he says. Born 46 years ago in Santiago de Cuba, he began studying the instrument at 8, after hearing his two older sisters take lessons. Soon, he was a student at the Esteban Salas Conservatory, "where I practically lived because it was just a couple of blocks from my home," he recalls.

It was there, too, when he was only l 2, that he met Brouwer, the Cuban revolutionary composer- guitarist known for his slightly morose guitar miniatures. Brouwer, 59, a charismatic musician who today conducts an orchestra in Cordova, Spain, became Barrueco's idol.

"I heard that he had learned the Bach Chaconne," a supreme challenge to even great virtuosos, "when he was 12," says Barrueco. "So I decided that I would learn it, too."

By the time his family emigrated to Miami in 1967, Barrueco, then 15, had decided to become a professional musician.

His early teenage years in Cuba were "pretty miserable," he says, but the guitar helped boost his ego because, "as a kid, I had a low sense of self-esteem, and the praise l received for my playing was like an antidote."

Still, because his parents had unsuccessfully applied to leave Cuba in the early '60s, Barrueco was singled out for criticism by some of his rabidly Communist teachers and was eager to get to Miami, where he still has relatives.

And yet, he left South Florida with his family for Newark, N.J., after scarcely a year coaching at UM with Mercadal, whom he nevertheless credits with imbuing him with a singing approach to the guitar.

In Newark, Barrueco says he was unhappy. But things brightened when, in his 20s, he began studying at Peabody with noted guitar pedagogue Aaron Shearer.

"Shearer had an extremely intellectual, rational approach to the guitar and music in general that appealed to me; it gave me a certain sense of solidity and secu rity. But it was very objective, and now, as l get older, I realize that not putting enough of your own personality into your playing being too objective is wrong, too. I can appreciate an artist with a strong personality like Segovia's much better than I did before."

Compatriots' places

Cuban composers have written extensively for the guitar, and Barrueco has played many compatriots' pieces, both old and new. He has recorded works by Brouwer and the late Julian Orbon, who moved to Mexico, then New York in l 964, where he composed reams of structurally rigorous works.

Next spring, Barrueco also plans to record music by more current Cuban guitar composers, including pieces by Enrique Ubieta, a New York resident, and Carlos Farinas and Hector Angulo, who both remain active in Cuba. At his Festival Miami recital, besides dances by Brouwer and the ever- popular Lecuona, he'll also feature a sonata by Jose Ardevol, who died in 1981, but was an important musical force in Cuba during the l 1940s, and also was active in musical politics after Castro's ascent. Some of Ardevol's later works even have distinctly revolutionary overtones.

But Barrueco isn't concerned with politics, just music. "Cubans, whatever their political beliefs, have contributed significantly to world music," he says, and on the l 00th anniversary of his native land's independence, "I think that's what is important to show."



MERCADALIANA

Site for ordering Mercadal VHS tape (great tape! One hour of his guitar mastery)

grod@dc.seflin.org

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