guitar is a very intimate instrument — it's part of your body," says
Sharon Isbin, who has been playing the instrument since she was nine.
"When you play the guitar, you cradle it, caress it; there's direct
contact with the strings. There are no bows, no pedals, no keys. It's
the flesh of the hands producing the sound, which creates a very
personal kind of experience and its incorporation into your spirit."
The glamorous, Grammy Award-winning guitarist, author, and pedagogue is
making her New York Philharmonic debut in the Orchestra's Summertime
Classics, kicking off the new series on June 24 and 25, 2004, in the
program entitled Viva España. She points out that it is the first Philharmonic collaboration with a guitarist in 26 years. "It's more of a guitar debut than my debut!" she says.
Ms. Isbin, who studied briefly with Andrés Segovia, and worked for 10
years with harpsichordist Rosalyn Tureck on performance practices of
the Bach Lute Suites, is performing one of the most famous works in the
guitar repertoire: the Concierto de Aranjuez
by the Spanish composer, Joaquín Rodrigo, who died in 1999. Ms. Isbin
met Rodrigo in 1979 in Madrid, when he sought her out after hearing her
live broadcast of the Concierto as a winner of the Madrid Queen
Sofia Competition. It was the beginning of a 20-year friendship and an
opportunity for her to gain firsthand insight into the man and the
performance of his works, and the circumstances under which he wrote
his famous Concierto.
"He had already begun the concerto," she explains, "and then, when his
wife had a miscarriage of what would have been their first child, it
was devastating. He was mourning this loss, and then, in a short period
of time, she was so ill herself from the experience that nobody knew
whether she would live or die. Rodrigo would come back from visiting
her in the hospital and unable to sleep, sit at the piano and just
begin to express himself. And what emerged was the beautiful adagio
theme from the slow movement. He was thinking of their honeymoon in the
gardens of Aranjuez, where they walked hand in hand, so it was imbued
with this sense of terrible loss, nostalgia, very deep love and
passion, and enormous sadness. It's something that emotionally reaches
people of all cultures and generations. Even if they don't know the
story, they are moved by the music."
Ms. Isbin, who has performed the concerto hundreds of times, says that
people frequently come up to her saying, "I don't normally cry at
concerts, but I was weeping at that movement." "To me," she says,
"that's the greatest compliment because it means that I am somehow able
to communicate that spirit to the audience."
An intense, highly articulate, and animated woman, Sharon Isbin has
undeniably brought the guitar to new heights. The Minneapolis-born
musician, who holds a B.A. from Yale and a master's from the Yale
School of Music, has had works written for her by Christopher Rouse,
Tan Dun, Aaron Jay Kernis, Joan Tower, David Diamond, Ned Rorem, Joseph
Schwantner, and John Corigliano. She has made more than 20 recordings
of works of all styles and periods — from Baroque, Spanish/Latin, and
20th century to crossover and jazz-fusion — and earned a 2001 Grammy
Award for Best Instrumental Soloist Performance, the first time a
classical guitarist had received a Grammy in 28 years. She performs 60
to 100 concerts a year, is the author of the Classical Guitar Answer Book,
and is the director of the guitar departments at the Aspen Music
Festival and The Juilliard School (a department she created in 1989).
Add to that a passion for travel, especially to Latin America, where
she has performed at the famous Teatro Amazonas, and watched monkeys in
the wild. Ask her about the two Guenon monkeys, now living in Florida,
whom she grew to love when they were just babies, and she will tell you
how she gave them guitar lessons. "They never got their left and right
hands coordinated," she laughs. "But they loved to strum."
Sharon Isbin performs Rodrigo's Concierto de Aranjuez in the Summertime Classics concert, Viva Espana!