September 1, 2011
Sharon Isbin y Steve Vai grabaron La catedral
Grandes de la guitarra interpretan a Barrios
Sharon Isbin is one of the great guitarists. Her repertoire is vast and
her discography enormous. Isbins newest album, Guitar
, features some of her favorite music from Spain and Latin
America. But Guitar Passions
is unique because it also features
her performing with some of her favorite guitarists from the worlds of
classical, jazz and rock.
Ariama: How did you select the artists joining you on the album?
SI: There were certain people I worked with that came to mind right
away. Theyve been wonderful friends in my life like Steve Vai who
Ive performed with several times. Last year we were hanging out at
his house and began to jam on the Allegro by Barrios [Agustin Barrios
Mangoré] and I was amazed by what he came up with. I suggested that
we do it on the recording.
Stanley Jordan and I did a tour back in the late 90s and I continue to
have enormous admiration for his creativity and innovation as a jazz
player. When he said hed like to be on the CD I was excited
because I had just come across an unpublished work by the Argentinean
composer Quique Sinesi. I went back to it and thought how great it would
be for Stanley to improvise on it. My part is written down but every
note Stanley plays on the tune is his own and its extraordinary.
Sony suggested Nancy Wilson (from Heart) and I loved the idea because
shes a terrific guitarist and Dreamboat Annie is one
of my all-time favorite songs. So when her name was mentioned that was
the song that came to mind. Then theres Steve Morse. I go back a
long way with him. Back in 1985 I was asked by Carnegie Hall to create
their first and, to this date, only guitar festival. Steve was one of
the people I invited. Hes always been so grateful and confided to
me that he considered that one of his big breaks.
Ariama: There are great repertoire choices on the album but for me the
Laurindo Almeida arrangement of the Adagio from Joaquin Rodrigos
Concierto de Aranjuez
is the centerpiece of the album.
SI: Its become an iconic work in the mainstream because Miles
Davis played on Gil Evanss arrangement of it and its been an
inspiration for Chick Coreas Spain, its a
beautiful theme thats inspired so many artists. It comes from a
time that was very difficult in Rodrigos life. He and his wife
lost what would have been their first child and she became very ill.
Hed visit her at the hospital every night and consoled himself
with that beautiful theme. Its certainly one of those works that
touches peoples hearts.
Our performance of Laurindos arrangement combines the rock, jazz
and classical worlds. I made the only other recording of it with
Laurindo and Larry Coryell and it was something that really delighted
Rodrigo. He welcomed the cross genre expression of his art. I only wish
he could have heard this version because I had Romero Lubambo play
Laurindos part and his improvising makes it even more jazz
Ariama: How is it playing with somebody plugged-in, playing electric?
SI: Its just like another voice. When I play with an orchestra
whats it like? Or a flute or violin? I was doing that when
crossover was still a dirty word back in the late 80s playing with Larry
Coryell, so its very natural to me. Its mingling with my
compatriots who come from these different fields and Im excited by
their creative and artistic approach to the instrument. Thats what
brings us all together. The album title is Guitar Passions
shared passion for the guitar has brought us all together.
Ariama: I understand there is a documentary film about you being made?
SI: Ive always enjoyed working with the most creative composers,
people like John Corigliano, Tan Dun, Aaron Jay Kernis, Lukas Foss,
Christopher Rouse and many others. The documentary is about these
fascinating collaborations. It will have interviews, work sessions,
performances with these composers and people like Joan Baez who worked
with me on my previous album, Journey to the New World
Shes one of my idols and it was an honor to record with her. Even
Martina Navratilova is included.
Ariama: The world of sports and music intersecting? I love it.
SI: We had a fun interview in which she spoke about the discipline of
tennis and music. She talks about the mental work and practice. She was
even asked if I were a tennis player who would I be. Right off the bat
she said Martina Hingis. She very clearly had in mind what
my music means to her. Ive admired her tremendously over the years
for all shes done for women.
The documentary has been a really exciting project to see come together.
Theres even a work session at Santanas home where hes
trying to teach me how to be Santana!
As would be expected, Sharon Isbins list of favorite musical
artists is pretty eclectic. Here are a few of them:
She was my teacher for ten years and my friend for 30 years. When it
comes to playing Bach there is no peer.
Her music is so different from any of the worlds Ive played in,
but I think its positively transformative and transcendent. She
writes all of her own works and hearing her live in concert is like
hearing the album; its so sophisticated and beautiful. One of my
favorite albums of hers is Mask and Mirror
Alica de Larrocha
Her playing of Spanish music is so inspiring to me.
A marvelous singer from Cape Verde; she has a wonderful sense of rhythm
and lyricism in her singing.
There are so many singers I admire. I grew up loving people like Elly
Ameling and Victoria de los Angeles. To me the voice inspires guitar
playing, thats what I aspire to. I seek that lyrical quality on my
instrument, so singers are my models.
December 6, 2009
Guitarist who played for the Obamas will play in O.C.
By Timothy Mangan
Its good to be Sharon Isbin.
For instance, minding her own business one day last August, she gets a
letter. When she opens the letter, she finds that its written on White
House stationery. President Obama, it says, would like her to perform
for him in November, joining cellist Alisa Weilerstein, pianist Awadagin
Pratt and violinist Joshua Bell in a day-long event celebrating
It gets better. Isbin, a classical guitarist, was naturally curious
about how she came to be selected for the prestigious occasion.
I asked the person who was organizing all this how this came to pass,
Isbin says, on the phone from her home in New York. And he said that
We really wanted guitar. And everywhere we asked the answer was Sharon
Isbin. So apparently there was some sort of consensus of recommendation
and thats how I landed the slot. I was delighted, I was thrilled to be
The Isbin Consensusit sounds like the title of a Robert Ludlum
novelis of her own doing of course. The multiple Grammy-winning
musician has forged a unique career. Through her efforts, the classical
guitar is gaining new prominence in the concert hall. In many ways, she
has furthered the cause of one of her teachers, the legendary Andrés
She has commissioned ten concertos for her instrument (said to be a
record for guitarists), by the likes of Tan Dun, John Corigliano,
Christopher Rouse and Lukas Foss. In 1989, she founded the guitar
department at the Juilliard School of Music, where she remains as its
director. She is heard in concert around the world. Her discography, for
EMI, Teldec and Sony, is large and growing and includes collaborations
with Carlos Barbosa-Lima, Joan Baez (nominated for a Grammy this week)
and the New York Philharmonic. PBS is at work on a documentary about
her, which includes a number of appearances by colleagues and friends,
such as tennis star Martina Navratilova.
This week she arrives in Orange County for three nights with the Pacific
Symphony, performing the popular Fantasia para un gentilhombre by
Joaquin Rodrigo, another longtime friend.
Isbin started playing the guitar when she was 9.
The way I began was really by accident, she said. My father, whos a
scientist, was invited to do a year of consulting work in Italy, and
when my older brother asked for guitar lessons, my parents discovered a
wonderful teacher who had studied with Segovia and was concertizing
throughout Europe. They brought him for the interview, and when my
brother realized it wasnt Elvis Presley he bowed out and I volunteered
to take his place.
The young guitarist took to the instrument naturally, but didnt
immediately think of it as a career. Science was her thing. I was an
avid model rocketeer and busy launching grasshoppers up into space, she
But at 14 she won a competition that allowed her to perform with the
Minnesota Orchestra. Thats when I decided that performing in front of
5,000 people was more exciting than sending up these spaceships.
The guitar is a kind of poor stepchild of classical music. It is
essentially an intimate instrument, best heard in living rooms, and one
that doesnt easily stand out in front of a symphony orchestra or
project in large concert halls. There are no concertos for the
instrument by the likes of Mozart, Beethoven or Brahms.
When I made my recording that came out in 2005 with the New York
Philharmonic of three Latin concertos, by Rodrigo, Villa-Lobos and Ponce
... this was the first recording, and still is the only recording, the
Philharmonic has ever made with a guitarist. And the performances we did
right before were the first that they had done in 26 years in concert.
So its definitely an instrument that doesnt appear as often with
So Isbin set out to change that. She commissioned a series of concertos
for her instrument by big name composers. In doing so, she has created a
new market for the guitar.
Its very much in demand to play these works (her concertos) with
orchestra. Ive given more than 60 performances of the John Corigliano
concerto, and more than 50 of the Rouse, and there are many others as
well. So it is wonderful to be able to add to the literature in a way
that really creates an important legacy but that also gives the
instrument the opportunity to appear on the mainstream stage.
Isbin also deals with the modern concert hall and its wide open spaces
differently than guitarists in the past. Though not the only classical
guitarist to do so, she uses discreet amplification to give herself more
of an immediate presence to listeners. Its very important that one
uses a very subtle and natural form of sound reinforcement so that you
can hear the instrument on an equal pairing with the other instruments,
she says. Thats something that I have worked very hard to do over
these years so that its something an audience member doesnt have to
She uses a small wireless microphone that attaches to the sound hole and
a small speaker that sits behind her. Sometimes listeners will not even
be aware of it, she says, but the amplification allows her to project
small nuances and a greater dynamic range than guitarists without
amplification are able to.
Her work with Segovia taught her the importance of nuances. The Spanish
guitarist was celebrated for the rich variety of sound color he brought
to his performances, techniques that Isbin absorbed.
By varying of the angle of attack with your right hand, since we dont
use a pickwe use our fingers directly in contact with the stringand
varying the angle of how much fingernail you use or how much flesh,
and the position relative to the bridge and the soundboard, you can get
an enormous variety of timbres and colors.
You can hear some of them on the video of her White House performance,
available for viewing at sharonisbin.com. A few feet in front of her sit
the First Couple, apparently transfixed by her performance.
Its kind of a beautiful experience for me to watch, Isbin says,
since when I was performing, I couldnt see any of that. I was
engrossed in the music. But now, being able to see this, I feel like Im
having another out of body experience.
The American guitarist reveals the inspirations behind her latest CD, Journey to the New World
Interview by Rebecca Franks
Youve just recorded your first disc for Sony, Journey to the New
World. What was the inspiration for it?
Originally I wanted to honour Joan Baez as she was one of my folk-music
heroes, so I asked John Duarte to write the Joan Baez Suite. Once she
heard my performance of it she offered to sing on the album. I was also
collaborating with Mark OConnor, who is one of the great country music
fiddle players. The work he wrote for the two of us is an evolution of
folk music through the violin, moving chronologically from early Irish
jigs and reels up through the ragtimes and waltzes to swing and beepop.
All this began to gel as a concept of the evolution of folk music.
And its something of a journey in time and place...
As Americans we really owe the British for our musicthe folk music of
the British isles. Composers like John Dowland were the pop music
writers of their time. So this CD is like hopping on a boat from the
earliest beginnings of this music with John Dowland and Greensleeves,
arranged here so beautifully for two lutes. It seemed the perfect bridge
would be the songs set by Edward Flower, which hail from 17th-century
Ireland and 18th-century Scotland.
Whats the highlight of the disc for you?
Greensleeves is a highlight for me, and Baez doing Wayfaring
stranger is haunting. In the Joan Baez Suite, Where all the Flowers
Have Gone takes on new meaning: the flowers are the fallen soldiers in
Vietnam who never return home, and the tune is juxtaposed with Taps,
the bugle call played at military funerals. For the lute music, I
enjoyed exploring embellishmentit was the jazz of their time.
Performers knew to vary the repeats, change the trills and passing
notes. Something you cant do on the lute because you play without
fingernails but can on the guitar is add a lot of tone colours. It takes
on a crystalline clarity on the guitar as we use our fingernails and the
flesh of our fingers, and the angle on the instrument to vary the
How did the pianist Rosalyn Tureck influence your approach to
I was her student for ten years and a devoted friend for a good 30
years. I owe so much of my musical insight to her. During the time of
our work togethershe doesnt play the guitar and I dont play the
keyboardwe met on a musical level that was special, unique and
powerful. I studied performance practice with Tureck and together we
created the first performance editions of all the Bach lute suites. That
EMI recording was a landmark in Baroque performance on the guitar, and
certainly informed my later explorationsnot just ideas about
ornamentation and embellishment but also phrasing and structure. With
Tureck I gained an enormous education from someone who Id say was the
premiere Bach performer
October 15, 2004
A pioneer in classical guitar, Isbin continues to break ground
By Richard Dyer, Globe Staff
I didnt set out to conquer the world, says guitarist Sharon Isbin,
who did just that. I just wanted to become the best player I could be,
myself, and a lot of things happened that I could never have predicted.
The honor roll of the 47-year-old guitarists accomplishments is long.
She has commissioned and premiered major new works for her instrument;
she has recorded more than 20 albums; she created the first guitar
department at the Juilliard School of Music; she collaborated with the
great Bach specialist Rosalyn Tureck in creating new editions of Bach
for guitar; in 2001 she took home the first Grammy a classical guitarist
had won in 30 years, and in 2002 she won another.
Isbin has been on the cover of 31 magazines, and you can look at the
glamorous images on her website, www.sharonisbin.com. Her next
recording, of Joaquin Rodrigos perpetually popular Concierto de
Aranjuez, along with concertos of Villa-Lobos and Ponce, with the New
York Philharmonic, was made after the first concerts by a guitarist with
the orchestra in 26 years and is its first-ever recording with a
guitarist. On an advance copy she sounds glorious, playing with
strong-backed rhythm and an astonishing spectrum of subtly shaded colors
Isbin has a soft spot for Boston, and she has been coming here to play
for most of her careera cousin is the talk-show host and film critic
David Brudnoy. She returns next week to play a concerto by Vivaldi,
adapted from a lute piece, and the Rodrigo Concierto with Steven Lipsitt
and the Boston Classical Orchestra in Faneuil Hall.
Lipsitt met Isbin when they were students at Yale. She reminds me of
Yo-Yo Ma in this wayshe could easily rest on her laurels and keep
going around doing the same things over and over again. Instead she is
constantly asking herself questions like Why am I a musician? and
What else can I do? She has this voracious musical curiosity that
feeds her imagination, and she is charismatic in all the best waysshe
is really dedicated to establishing a connection to the audience. I
love her playing because it is so elastic, so singing, so sensuous, so
evocative, yet she can lock into a groove the way the great nonclassical
Isbin has played the Rodrigo Concierto hundreds of times since her
first performance more than 30 years ago; she has recorded it three
I dont remember the very first time I played it, she says, but one
of the earliest ones was on a broadcast of a competition in Spain in
1979, and that led to my friendship with the composer, Joaquin Rodrigo,
who had heard me on the radio and got in touch with me.
Isbin says the famous slow movement was written when Rodrigos wife had
a miscarriage in 1939. He couldnt sleep at night after visiting her in
the hospital; he sat at the piano and developed this beautiful theme
full of of nostalgia, pain, and sadness. Even if you dont know the
story behind it, somehow you can hear that.
The piece has become one of the most performed, and recorded, concertos
written in the 20th century, and it has traveled far beyond the guitar
world. Miles Davis made a famous version of the slow movement, which
Rodrigo later turned into a song with lyrics by his wife. Isbin performs
the song on an album with mezzo-soprano Susanne Mentzer.
Although the guitar is a quiet instrument, meant to be heard on a
domestic scale and not built to project into a large, modern concert
hall, audiences dont have any trouble hearing Isbin. In recent years
she has worked with a specially designed wireless sound-enhancement
system, developed in large part by Roger Cane of Cane Audio Systems,
that she sends ahead to each of her engagements. I want the guitar to
sound as if it were being played in someones living room, she says.
Isbins achievements loom even larger because she is the first woman to
reach the top level of the solo classical guitar world. The heritage of
the instrument is in the folk world, and it has been popular in pop,
bluegrass, and jazz, she says. From the 60s on, teenage boys who
played rock guitar shifted gears when they heard the classical guitar
and liked it. Just how many young girls were playing rock guitar? Just
how many are doing it now? I dont think the ratio of male to female
guitar students is going to change very fastthe vast majority of my
students have been men, and with the exception of one student this year,
none of the women has been American.
Always looking for new projects, for the last season Isbin has been
playing a suite of folk tunes associated with Joan Baez, arranged for
her by composer John Duarte. Early next year, at the Châtelet in Paris,
she will play a new work that heavy-metal guitarist Steve Vai, a fan,
has written to play with her.
And she is excited to be making her debut in a television drama serieson
an episode of Showtimes The L Word, scheduled to air in March.
I play myself, she says. I play the guitar in a scene in the
nightclub on the show called The Planet, but I also have some lines.
There are only four of thembut they are good ones.
© Copyright 2004 Globe Newspaper Company
Ms. Guitar, Inc.: A Chat With Sharon Isbin
By Raymond Tuttle
Sharon Isbin doesnt simply play the classical guitar, although a
career full of victories and host of awards attest to her mastery of
that instrument. She won the Madrid Queen Sofia and Toronto
Competitions, and she was the first guitarist to win the Munich
Competition. Guitar Player
magazine named her Best Classical
Guitarist. In 2001, she won a Grammy award for Best
Instrumental Soloist Performance, the first time a guitarist had
received a Grammy in 28 years. But theres more to life than
plaques and medals. Isbin has helped to spread the gospel of the
classical guitar through concerts, broadcasts, television appearances,
and interviews in non-specialist publications such as Elle
She has assisted young guitarists by establishing and directing new
guitar departments at the Aspen Music Festival and the Juilliard School
of Music. She wrote the Classical Guitar Answer Book
, and she maintains
a snazzy website (www.sharonisbin.com) that contains an abundance of
information for other musicians and for the merely curious alike. Her
friends sometimes call her Ms. Guitar, Inc., for obvious
Surprisingly enough, Isbin started playing the guitar almost by
accident. When she was nine, her father, at that time a professor of
Chemical Engineering at the University of Minnesota, took a sabbatical
year to do research in Italy, and his family accompanied him. Once they
were settled, Isbins oldest brother, a fan of The Beatles and
Elvis Presley, told his parents that he wanted to learn how to play the
guitar. They found him a classical guitar teacher named Aldo Minella who
had been a pupil of Andrès Segovia, and who had given concerts all over
Italy. Minella was a wonderful guitarist. Not knowing that my
brothers ambitions were in the rock world, he took him in for an
interview, Isbin recalls. Once my brother saw Aldos
long fingernails and learned that hed have to practice at least
for an hour a day, he decided that this wasnt what he wanted after
all. So then we had a family conference, because my parents realized
that this was too good an opportunity to miss. If my brother wasnt
going to study with him, then who would? I raised my hand and
volunteered, more out of a sense of family duty than anything else. I
loved folk music and figured that this couldnt be too far from
that. I didnt have a clue what classical guitar was all about! By
then Id already given up the piano, which I had studied for two
years. Piano lessons felt so impersonal. Id finish my lesson, and
then twenty other little kids would come in and play the same piece.
Studying the guitar with Aldo wasnt impersonal at allit was
such a different experience. Early on, my hands were measured by the
local guitar-maker who lived in the countryside. I still remember
climbing up the rickety stairs to his studio. Within a few weeks he had
made me my own guitar. I felt a great attachment to it right away. All
this never would have happened if we hadnt all gone to Europe. And
learning classical guitar was very exotic those days. Back then, you
could count on one hand the number of schools in the U.S. where one
could get a degree in classical guitar performance.
Speaking of Segovia, Isbin took several lessons with the Spanish master,
starting when she was fourteen. He was very gracious. Each lesson
would last about an hour; Id play some of my repertoire and he
would comment on my playing. With Segovia, you chose only music that he
liked, otherwise the experience was not a productive one. The last time
I played for him, something funny happened. Instead of making comments
about any one particular piece, he kept saying, Thats really
lovely, play something else. Well, as the hour drew on, I was
running out of repertoire. I had been warned not to play music by
Agustin Barrios for him because the two of them had squabbled. As the
story goes, Segovia had been enchanted with one of Barrioss pieces
and had asked the composer to dedicate it to him, but Barrios
couldnt because he had already dedicated it to someone else. That
was the end of Segovias relationship with Barrios, I was told.
Anyway, as I said, I was running out of music to play, and I figured I
could slip this one bit of Barrios past Segovia because it was a slow
barcarolle, and it sounded like the kind of music that Segovia enjoyed
having other composers write for him. So I played it, and after I
finished, Segovia said, Oh what a beautiful piece, who wrote it?
I gulped a little and told him it was by Barrios. Oh, Barrios, he
said dismissively, he never could composea little bit of this and
a little bit of that, and that was the end of my lesson!
Has Isbin ever sensed that some of her mentors thought that it was
inappropriate for a woman to play classical guitar? In Italy, that
was not even an issue, nor was it an issue in France, where the great
virtuoso Ida Presti had established a precedent. In the United States,
on the other hand, it was a real anomaly. Most Americans who started
playing classical guitar in the 1960s and 70s were teenage boys who had
began playing rock guitar and who were inspired to switch gears for one
reason or another. Since girls generally didnt play rock guitar,
there wasnt much turnover there. I never had the sense that it was
considered inappropriate, exactly, but sometimes I felt like a salmon
swimming upstream. For example, I spent five summers studying with Oscar
Ghiglia at the Aspen Music Festival. One summer I recall that there were
fifty students, and only two of us were girls. I always felt that I had
to prove myself, as there were no living role models, Ida Presti already
having passed away at that point. This gender imbalance inspired me to
the best that I could possibly do, and to justify my presence by trying
to play better than anyone else. I responded well to the competitive
environment. Perhaps thats because I had two older brothers. I
learned as I was growing up that I could do anything they could do, as
long as I worked at it hard enough. I wasnt going to let gender
get in the way.
Isbin understands the importance of image in the success of a classical
musician. Perhaps women have an advantage over men, in one sense.
Women can wear colorful clothing on stage, and they have many more
attractive outfits to choose from than just a simple black tuxedo or
jacket. The image has to be tasteful, however. The message has to be
clear that youre a musician first. Still, the image is important
for any musician, because if you are a looking at a poster or a flyer or
a CD cover, youre going to see the musician before you hear the
music. If the packaging is unattractive youre going to move
on to the next item, just as you would in the grocery store.
One of the highlights of Isbins career so far has been her
association with famed Bach interpreter Rosalyn Tureck. Together, they
prepared the first performance editions for guitar of Bachs lute
suites. How did Tureck, a keyboard player, come to be a mentor for a
young classical guitarist? When I was studying at Yale, I was
searching for my next mentor, as I hadnt had a regular guitar
lesson since I was sixteen. At that time my only real lessons were
during the summers with Ghiglia or Alirio Diaz. When it came to the
music of Bach, however, I felt totally rudderless, because there
wasnt anyone who had thoroughly explored Baroque performance
practice on the guitar. Guitar performances of Baroque music tended to
be stylistically homogeneous and uninformed. For example, if you played
Bach for Segovia and dared to start a trill on the upper noteor to
add one that wasnt explicitly notated in the musiched
have your head chopped off! As an undergraduate, I thought that studying
with a harpsichordist on the faculty might help me, but that made my
Bach playing even worse! My mother was the one who suggested that I take
lessons with Rosalyn Tureck, so I looked her up in the phone
bookher number was listed. The timing was extraordinary; she had
just moved back to New York City from London. She invited me over for a
lesson and subsequently agreed to take me as a student. She was
intrigued with the idea of working with a guitarist on the Bach lute
suites, especially given the musical and historical relationships
between the lute and harpsichord. My goal was to study all of
Bachs lute suites with her, and I think she saw this as an
opportunity to explore a realm that was unfamiliar to her as well.
Little did I know how demanding and intense this work would be.
Our first project was BWV996, the suite in E minor. I remember going to
each lesson thinking wed soon move on to the next suite, only to
discover that we would move on the next level in the same suite instead.
Facing new challenges of embellishment, contrapuntal fingering,
articulation, phrasing, dynamics, and tempo, I quickly learned to banish
the word impossible from my vocabulary. We ended up spending the
entire year working on just that one suite. When I performed it in my
New York debut recital at Alice Tully Hall in 1979, Rosalyn was proudly
in attendance. I ended up studying with her for ten years and it was
just an extraordinary experience. What developed out of that was a
friendship. At the end of her life, when she
was dying of cancer, I told her how privileged I felt to be with her at
her side. The feeling of love and appreciation was mutual, and she often
let me know this. I was honored to be the daughter she never had.
Isbin and I spent a little time discussing the challenges of performing
Bachs lute suites, not just on the modern classical guitar, but
also on the lute itself. Although he knew eminent lute players,
Bach almost certainly didnt play the lute himself, and the scores
werent written in lute tablature; they were written on two staffs
as if they were keyboard works. It was up to lutenists to write out the
tablature. Also, the performers had to transcribe the music before they
could play it, because the actual scores didnt reflect the way
that lutes were tuned at the time. Two of the suites originally were
written for string instruments. We think that Bach adapted the
violin partita (BWV1006) for lute; we know for sure
that he adapted the G-minor
cello suite (BWV 1011) for
lute. That is the only one of the four lute suites that actually
specifies that particular instrument. For the other three, we can only
made educated guesses, based on the musics texture and character,
which are very natural for a lute or for a Lautenwercka
harpsichord-like instrument strung in such a way as to make it sound
like a lute.
Going from the lute to the modern classical guitar, changes need
to be made in the bass. If youre playing a six-string guitar, then
some of the bass notes have to go up an octave. Actually, the
adjustments are pretty minor. Because Bach transcribed hundreds and
hundreds of his own works for other instruments, we know very clearly
that he was less concerned with the sonority of instruments than with
the ability of the instrument to realize his intended structure
When you hear a guitar in any but the most intimate concert hall, it
usually is amplified, particularly when the guitar is performing a
concerto with an orchestra. Isbin found the amplification that was
provided for her often less than satisfactory and came up with her own
solution, which was subsequently produced by Cane Audio Systems. I
became frustrated with the often very poor sound that would result when
other people were engineering the amplification. With conventional
amplification, the sound is blasting off of the walls and the ceiling.
This confuses other musicians, and it sounds very artificial and
unmusical. The new sound reinforcement system that I use is
wireless. Theres no visible microphone. It is attached to the
soundhole in a matter of seconds. It was important to me that nothing
would be done to modify the guitar itself. This system allows me to
adjust my volume from where I am sitting. For example, if I am playing a
concerto and I want the second movement or the cadenza to be at a lower
volume than the outer movements, I can do so myself, without having to
rely on a sound technician who might not read music or understand what I
mean by the word cadenza. The other great feature of the
system is that it has a 15-band
graphic equalizer. Before
the other musicians come, I spend about half an hour in the hall with a
local guitarist. I have him or her play my instrument, and I walk around
in the seating area and make adjustments to the sound with the
equalizer. Of course the adjustments vary from venue to venue. Ive
learned to play my amplification system as a kind of instrument,
basically, because it needs to be fine-tuned to suit the circumstances.
Knowing how to use it and to place it is an art in itself, because it
can blend in so well. Rarely is it something that anybody sees,
particularly when I am playing with an orchestra. On one level, you have
to relate what youre hearing on the stage to what is going to be
heard by the audience, because the two rarely, if ever, are the same. On
another level, youve got to relate what youre hearing to
what other musicians on stage are hearing. Obviously this facilitates
coordination between the guitarist and orchestral musicians, which you
wouldnt necessarily have if you used conventional kinds of
Ideally, you dont want the audience to know that youre
being amplified at all. The greatest compliment is when someone in the
audience tells you that they could hear you perfectly well from where
they were sitting, and they dont realize that you were amplified.
Another guitarist came up to me after my last concert and told me how
much he appreciated the fact that I didnt use amplification. I
didnt have the heart to tell him the truth!
Most composers have at least a basic understanding of how to write for
instruments such as the piano or the violin. The guitar is another
matter entirely. When Isbin commissions a new work, how does she help
the composer to write idiomatically for her instrument? Well, if
he or she hasnt panicked and run for the nearest exit at that
point, then its important for me to provide the composer with
study materials, and that includes recordings, scores, and manuals on
how to write for the guitar. I show them what to be particularly alert
for in these manuals, and give them some basic pointers, such as how
fast a guitarist can play a long scale. I also give them a cardboard
mockup of the fingerboard, which is then overlaid with a grid that shows
them every single fret and what note it is, and how it is written on the
staff. If they want to find out if a particular four- or five-note chord
is possible, all they have to do is to stick the fingers of their left
hand on this mockup. I dont want composers to get too obsessed
with this, but they feel more comfortable with the writing if they can
get some basic familiarity with the instrument. Composers who have
written new music for Isbin include Aaron Jay Kernis, Ned Rorem,
Christopher Rouse, Tan Dun, John Corigliano, Joseph Schwantner, Lukas
Foss, and Joan Tower.
Isbins most recent release is a collection of Baroque
Favorites for guitar, including music by Bach, Vivaldi, and
Albinoni in transcriptions or arrangements by Rosalyn Tureck, John
Duarte, Emilio Pujol, Mats Bergström, and Isbin herself (Warner Classics
She is accompanied by the Zurich Chamber
Orchestra conducted by Howard Griffiths. That CD was really fun to
make, Isbin says. It ended up as a tribute to Rosalyn
Tureck. She was very much a part of this release, both in spirit and
materiallyshe assisted me in transcribing the Adagio from the
Fminor keyboard concerto. When I visited her in the hospital during her
final illness, I brought along the new CD. The poignancy of the moment
was overwhelming. Here, nearly lifeless in a hospital bed, was the most
important mentor in my life, listening with me to what represents the
gift of her teaching over the decades, some 26 years after my first
lesson. The spell of my misery was momentarily broken when she bolted up
and exclaimed, the G, where is the G, I cant hear the G! Ah, it
was the good old Dr. Tureck, once again, for that moment.
Also, when you make a CD, you never know whether it is going to
resonate commercially. Bach and Baroque music in general might seem a
little esoteric next to more popular styles. Still, this was the first
album Id done that lingered on the Billboard
Classical charts for
16 weeks in the top 10. Thats gratifying.
Isbins next recording project for Warner Classics is going to be
with the New York Philharmonic. Shell play in a pair of concerts
with the Philharmonic during a two-week festival at the end of June, and
then a few days later shell record the Rodrigo Concierto de
Aranjuez, the Ponce Concierto del Sur
, and the guitar concerto by
Villa-Lobos. The conductor for the recording will be José Serebrier.
Isbin considers these three concertos to be the pinnacle of
traditional guitar repertoire. Villa-Lobos in particular was a great fan
of the guitar and friend of Segovias, although this is his only
guitar concerto. All three of these concertos have wonderful cadenzas,
and they are great models for other composers who are trying to get the
most out of this instrument. This will be Isbins first
recordings of the Ponce and the Villa-Lobos. She has recorded the
Rodrigo several times. This time Im going to get it
right, she laughs. Shell be the first guitarist ever to
record with the New York Philharmonic, and the first to play a concerto
with it in 26 years.
I asked Isbin to comment on the urban legend that guitarists
were forbidden by Rodrigos family to perform the famous slow
movement of the Concierto de Aranjuez
by itself. Isbin has heard the
story too and says, Its not quite as simple as that. Rodrigo
himself arranged the middle movement for voice and guitar and called it
Aranjuez, ma pensée
. In fact, I recorded it with Susanne Mentzer on our
CD. Also, Ive played and recorded Laurindo
Almeidas arrangement for three guitars with Larry Coryell and
Almeida, and Rodrigos family didnt seem to mind that. The issue
that you raise came up about eight years ago. At that time, my brother
was very illhe was dying of AIDS. I was asked if I would play the
Adagio of the Concierto de Aranjuez
in a concert with the Baltimore
Symphony Orchestra. It was going to be part of a multifaceted evening in
Washington, DC that included everyone from Aretha Franklin to pop
singers, so in terms of timing, it was not an option to do all three
movements. I dont quite remember how this happened, but when
Cecilia Rodrigo, the composers daughter, got wind of this, she
said no. This woman has been just wonderful in overseeing the
publication of her fathers music and ensuring that it is there for
the public. I had come to know her over the years, and so I called her
and explained the situation. I told her that it would be so much better
for a huge new audience to hear this music than to take it off the
program. I had played the complete concerto hundreds and hundreds of
times, and this was the first time Id ever been asked to play that
one movement by itself with orchestra. She was concerned that if
performers started doing this, then they wouldnt bother with the
first and third movements. I reassured her that this wouldnt be
the case with me, and then she gladly gave permission. Shortly before he
died, my brother told me that he wanted my recording of this same music
to be played at his memorial service. Then he passed away two days
before the concert in DC. I wouldnt have dreamed of performing in
public so soon after his death were it not for this coincidence. It was
as if it were commanded from above.
When you think of the origins of this movement, it makes sense
that it has become such a beloved hallmark in the classical repertoire.
It captures such a sense of passion, longing, loss, and beauty. When
Rodrigo began writing the concerto, his wife was expecting what would
have been their first child; they both were in their early thirties at
the time. Then she had a miscarriage and was very ill. Rodrigo returned
from the hospital in despair, mourning the loss of his child and unsure
if his wife was going to live or die. He was unable to sleep, so he sat
at the piano and began to play, and what emerged was this beautiful
theme, which became the slow movement of the concerto. He titled it
Concierto de Aranjuez
because Aranjuez is where he and his wife had
taken their honeymoon. As he composed this theme, he remembered what it
had been like walking hand in hand with her through the same beautiful
gardens where Spanish nobility had walked centuries before. The music
was imbued with the tremendous personal drama that was occurring his
life at that time, but that drama became really quite universal and
cosmic because it speaks to people of all cultures about celebration,
pain, sorrow and loss. The music is in the tradition of the cante jondo
in Spanish flamenco, in which the vocalist passionately sings tales of
oppression, embellishing them with melismatic twists and turns in the
melodic line. Thats what the guitar does in this movement; it is a
story-teller, and what a story it is. I think everyone can find their
own personal connection with it. People are very moved when they hear
this music, and it invariably makes them cry.
Speaking of emotions, one of the most powerful experiences
Ive ever had was when I was asked to play at Ground Zero in New
York City on September 11, 2002, the first anniversary of the tragedy at
the World Trade Center. I was asked to play, along with
Ma, Gil Shaham, and the Juilliard String Quartet,
during the reading of the names of those who had been lost. I remember
thinking to myself, How am I going to do this? The sense of loss and
tragedy are just overwhelming. How will I hold together? I
remember walking out there and looking at a sea of faces of the 24,000
family members and survivors who had shown up that day. The wind was
whipping up, and I realized how much people needed music to heal them
more than they needed anything else at that moment. Once I realized
that, I was able to go on. Gil and I played Schuberts Ave Maria
Then I played three solosa Spanish dance by Granados, Recuerdos de
la Alhambra by Tárrega, and then a beautiful song called Jerusalem of
written by the composer Naomi Shemer in the mid 1960s. I thought
her song would be particularly appropriate, given the daily suffering of
the Israeli people from the horrors of terrorism. I didnt know if
I would be criticized for doing this, but quite the opposite, I was very
much embraced for it. Thats gratifying as well, to be able to
share that message. Ever since that time Ive been playing the
Tárrega and the Shemer as encores at my concerts, referencing that event
each time. Often, people will approach me afterwards and tell me about
friends or family members that they lost on September 11. Thats
just another example of how music has connected me with other people in
quite a striking way.
Thursday, July 10, 2003, Arts & Leisure
Classical Guitar? She Wrote the Book
By Barrymore Laurence Scherer
The guitars versatility and ability to produce harmony as well as
melody have lent themselves to a wide range of musical genres, from old
Spain to the Old West to rock. The guitar also has a long though
overshadowed tradition in classical music. Yet, despite its wide
popularization by Andres Segovia (1893-1987), the classical guitar
lingered at the edge of standard concert lifetill now. The change is
due largely to the American guitarist Sharon Isbin.
Despite her virtuoso technique, Ms. Isbins concerns transcend display.
Emotion is the most important thing to me as a performer,
she says. And performance is about making beautiful music and making
music beautiful, something I learned when I heard Artur Rubinstein play
Chopin in concert when I was 14.
Ms. Isbins repertoire embraces everything from Renaissance masters to
jazz. Since 1989, Ms. Isbin has headed the Juilliard Schools guitar
department, which she established, and between her many concerts she
gives master classes world-wide. She is author of the Classical Guitar
Answer Book, which addresses everything from how to memorize
pieces more effectively to how often to change strings to the
differences between spruce and cedar guitar tops. She also collaborated
with the eminent Baroque keyboardist Rosalyn Tureck on the first
performance editions for guitar of J.S. Bachs lute suites.
Faced with a limited concert repertoire for her instrument, Ms. Isbin
has regularly commissioned new guitar works from a variety of major
composers including Ned Rorem, Joan Tower, Aaron Jay Kernis and
Christopher Rouse. Necessity has also obliged her to become a
technological innovator: To make the soft-toned acoustic guitar
practical for orchestral concerts in major halls, Ms. Isbin helped
create a unique amplification system for it. Meanwhile, in what little
spare time she allows herself, she maintains an active Web site
(www.sharonisbin.com). Is it any wonder that some of her intimates call
her Ms. Guitar, Inc.?
The daughter of a chemical engineering professor at the University of
Minnesota, she began studying guitar at nine. After winning her first
competition at 14, she eventually went to Yale, and though she worked
sporadically with a variety of guitar masters, Segovia among them, she
was essentially self-taught after age 16.
|Photo by J. Henry Fair|
Now 46, she is always eager to think independently, a result of which is
her portable amplification system, designed to her specifications by
Cane Audio Systems. Her aim was to let the audience experience the
guitars natural sound with sufficient volume for a large auditorium.
Sound systems provided by the halls are unpredictable and impossible
to fine-tune, she says, especially when you have to depend
on sound engineers who dont play the instrument.
Ms. Isbins system uses a wireless microphone clipped inside the sound
hole of the guitar and a small omnidirectional acoustical box containing
speakers, batteries and other electronic components, placed about 10
feet behind her among the orchestral players. A built-in graphic
equalizer lets her adjust the system to a wide range of frequencies to
suit any hall. In performance, the audience hears a great big
guitar sound emerging naturally from the orchestra, while
the speaker placement lets the orchestra musicians hear her clearly as
well. Shes now the only one using this system but hopes it will catch
Ms. Isbins discography reflects broad musical interests and includes
Journey to the Amazon, with Brazilian percussionist Thiago
de Mello and saxophonist Paul Winter, and Wayfaring
Stranger (Erato), with that fine American mezzo-soprano
Suzanne Mentzer. Dreams of a World: Folk-Inspired Music for
Guitar (Teldec) earned her a 2001 Grammy, the first awarded
a guitarist since Julian Breams in 1972. The next year, her recording
of concertos she commissioned from Tan Dun and Christopher Rouse won
Her latest release, Baroque Favorites
with conductor Howard Griffiths and the Zurich Chamber Orchestra,
features elegant, nuanced performances of familiar music by Vivaldi,
Albinoni and J.S. Bach in arrangements or transcriptions she has either
made herself or overseen.
Addressing the fact that none of the works on this disc were originally
composed for guitar, Ms. Isbin notes that, much Baroque music was
conceived in terms of overall structure rather than particular
instrumental sonorities. Bach himself, she notes, arranged
over 800 of his own works for a variety of instruments. For Ms. Isbin,
an important principle of making transcriptions or arrangements is
that the piece should sound at least as good as, if not better than, it
does in the original form.
A fundamental characteristic of Baroque music is its contrapuntal
texturei.e., with several melodic lines played against one anotheras
contrasted with the homophonic texture of classical style, with a
single melody supported by an accompaniment. Ms. Isbin relishes the
challenge of playing four- or five-voice Baroque counterpoint on the
guitar. Youre only using four fingers on the right hand and various
configurations of the left, so you have to find ways to achieve the
independence of the lines and the control that allows you to do
She attributes her present skill at it to the 10 years she spent
studying with Ms. Tureck. Shes not a guitarist, so as she imparted
creative ideas about embellishment, articulation and dynamics, I had to
find ways to realize them through guitar technique. Indeed,
every measure of Baroque Favorites bespeaks the abundant
success of Ms. Isbins solutions to contrapuntal conundrums.
Sunday, July 22, 2001, Arts & Leisure
Sharon Isbin Coolly Carries the Torch for the Classical Guitar
By Anne Midgette
THERES something about the guitar that draws composers to local
color. For Christopher Rouse, this means a Concert de
Gaudí for guitar and orchestra that opens and closes
with big flamenco flourishes, with swatches of bright, romantic
orchestral color alternating with glissando effects evoking the organic,
unexpected curves of the buildings of Antonio Gaudí, the great
Catalan architect. And for Tan Dun, it means echoes of the pipa, the
Chinese lute, in his guitar concerto, Yi2, which brandishes a panoply of
whispering percussion, against which the guitar notes play like the
plash of a waterfall in a Chinese garden.
For Sharon Isbin, the guitarist who commissioned these two concertos and
performs them on her latest recording for Teldec, local color could mean
the many stations in the travels reflected in the titles of her
discography, some 20 albums strong: American Landscapes,
Journey to the Amazon and, of course, Dreams of a
World, with music by composers from Israel to Greece and
Venezuela, which won her the 2000 Grammy for best instrumental soloist
There is even a hint of local coloran evocative atmosphere of placein
Ms. Isbins apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. She
has set the stage beautifully. A faint smell of incense mingles with the
late afternoon sun falling on an array of travel souvenirs, and fresh
cake waits on a low coffee table. On the floor under a desk in the foyer
lies a large but tidy pile of papers and manuscripts. Thats my
next album, she says, laughing.
Whats not to like about Ms. Isbin? Nothing. First of all, she is a
wonderful musician. People rightly describe her technique with
adjectives like impeccable and flawless. In
her hands the guitar takes on the precision of a diamond, each note a
clear, shining facet that catches, prismlike, a glint of the spectrum.
Her playing evokes Andrés Segovias observation that the
classical guitar is an orchestra seen through the wrong end of a
Ms. Isbin, 44, is also an attractive person, something documented on the
covers of more than 24 magazines, which chronicle her development
from long-haired Ivory Girl to an altogether more glamorous figure (all
reproduced, along with critical accolades, on her meticulously tended
Web site (www.sharonisbin.com).
And she has been a fine, upstanding citizen of the music world. Her new
album presents the latest of the nine concertos that she has
commissioned, along with as many works again for solo guitar or chamber
ensemble, from important composers like Joan Tower, Lukas Foss and John
Corigliano. She has also made a significant pedagogical contribution,
not least by establishing the guitar department at the Juilliard School
All these contributions are undeniable. So if Ms. Isbin projects an air
of being keenly aware of them, and of carefully considering every aspect
of her self-presentation, it is an understandable, though slightly
distancing, part of the package.
Being a classical guitarist still involves some pioneer work. The guitar
remains the ultimate crossover instrument. Ubiquitous in folk and pop,
it arrives in the classical concert milieu with a chip on its shoulder;
a need to prove that it can measure up to its orchestral cousins in
volume as well as quality; and a slender repertory that has to be
supplemented not only with original compositions but also by forays into
the repertories of other instruments.
The perception of crossover sometimes lingers. Dreams of a
World consists of original compositions; but because it
bears the subtitle Folk-Inspired Music for Guitar, because
the composers represent a deliberate sampling from different countries
and because the music goes down as easily as a tray of hors
doeuvres, to some people it smacks of world-music crossover. Yet
it presents legitimate forays into folk idioms by serious composers like
Mikis Theodorakis and Toru Takemitsu; and like flamenco, folk music is
another strain of local color that tends to surface naturally in
compositions for guitar.
Ms. Isbin has had to proselytize, to an extent, from the beginning. She
began guitar studies at 9 in Varese, Italy, where her father, a
professor of chemical engineering at the University of Minnesota, had
taken the family for his sabbatical. Her older brother had requested
guitar lessons but backed out when he discovered that what the teacher,
Aldo Minella, had to offer wasnt Elvis Presley or the
Beatles, Ms. Isbin says. She stepped in instead and took to
the instrument so naturally that she was performing in public within a
few years. But when she applied for her first competition, at 14, the
real challenge was to convince the organizers that the guitar was a
worthy vehicle. After that, she says, the competition itself was
almost easy. Not surprisingly (or why bother to tell the
tale?), she won.
She has continued to beat her own path. Although she has worked with
luminaries like Segovia and Rosalyn Tureck, the noted Baroque keyboard
player and scholar (who had never had a guitar student before), her only
regular teachers since the age of 16, as she tells it, have been a
mirror and a tape recorder.
Her 10 years of work with Ms. Tureck resulted in, among other things,
definitive Schirmer publications of two Bach lute suites (BWV 996 and
997) for classical guitar, edited by Ms. Tureck and fingered by Ms.
Isbin. In her accounts of these works in a Bach album on Virgin
Classics, Ms. Isbin carefully follows the musics tracery with a
degree of subtlety and coloristic nuance that differentiates her
interpretation from the flashier, highly individual performances of the
great guitar pioneer and transcriber Segovia. In her apartment, she gets
up to demonstrate on her instrument how her fingerings differ from
Segovias, preserving the continuity of the many voices by keeping
each, as much as possible, on different strings.
This kind of care and hard work underlies every facet of Ms.
Isbins career. She describes researching hundreds of Appalachian
folk tunes for the piece that became John Duartes Appalachian
Dreams, scouring local libraries and following up leads with
local musicians at the same time that she was on tour, rehearsing and
performing with the West Virginia Symphony. When I put my mind to
something, Ms. Isbin says, its not work.
Susanne Mentzer, the mezzo-soprano who appears with Ms. Isbin on the
album Wayfaring Stranger, paints a portrait of their
collaboration that supports this assertion. We got together and went
through stacks of music, she says. She has incredible
knowledge of the repertory. She has such a good sense of folk music. A
lot of these were her own arrangements. She spends a lot of time trying
to make sure its perfect.
In the realm of commissions, this work ethic is a particularly good
thing, since it takes a lot of work to get some composers to write for
this unfamiliar instrument. Ms. Isbin issued her first commission at 17,
when she was performing in Israel and heard a piece by Ami Maayani; she
introduced the resulting Guitar Concerto in 1978. Not every commission
comes easily. Mr. Corigliano required eight years of cajoling before he
I learned not to take no for an answer, Ms. Isbin says.
TROUBADOURSa concerto in which the soloist strolls,
troubadourlike, around the stagehas become one of the most-performed
commissions in the guitarists repertory. And it was important in
another way. To make sure that the guitar could be heard as she moved
around the orchestra, Ms. Isbin used a concealed system of wireless
amplification, which worked so well that she has been using it ever
since. This seems simply another way of reaching, literally, a larger
audience; Ms. Isbin isnt even concerned with hiding it. Perhaps
because the guitar has not been adapted, like the violin or the piano,
to carry over an orchestras sonority, the miking hasnt
been controversial, she says. In fact, it is usually not
detected. Even fellow guitarists have innocently complimented her after
concerts on the size of her tone.
Still, no one can argue with Ms. Isbins talent and technical
prowess. And those qualities have gotten her into the vanguard of a
field dominated by men, and helped her raise public awareness of her
instrument with everything from a guitar series on National Public Radio
to, of course, recognition of the guitar at Juilliard. They have also
helped introduce a significant body of music to the repertory, not least
the Rouse and Tan concertoswhich, for all their evocation of local
color, no one will confuse with crossover.
So it may be natural that Ms. Isbin is anxious to document every step
she has taken along the way, from her musical achievements to the
photographs of her travels in the Dreams of a World CD
booklet. Travel, after all, requires preparation. And one has a sense
that whatever Ms. Isbin encounters along her path, she will be ready for
June 2001 - Connoisseurs World
The Busy Ms. Isbin
By Robin Tabachnik
The classical guitar kingdom is a small but rich corner of the musical
world, owing much of its wealth to a svelte beauty named Sharon Isbin.
She plays at least sixty concerts a year, and her repertoire embraces
folk, jazz and Latin pieces, in addition to works by the likes of Bach,
de Falla and Granados. I no longer think of music in terms of
categories, she explains, just wonderful pieces that excite and touch
They excite the critics too. Isbins CD DREAMS OF A WORLD (Teldec) not
only displaced The 3 Tenors: Paris 1998
from near the top of the
classical-music charts last year; it won a Grammy award in Februarythe
first won by a classical guitarist in almost thirty years. Besides
playing, Isbin somehow finds time to serve as head of the guitar
department at the Juilliard School in New York and to give master
classes at the Aspen Music Festival and School.
When the Minnesota-born Isbin took up the guitar at age nine, her
natural talent shone. She honed it through prodigious study; among her
teachers were the legendary Andrés Segovia and the famed keyboardist
Rosalyn Tureck. So expert has Isbin become that she often uses a
custom-made wireless amplification system that lets the softest guitar
phrase soar above the largest orchestra. Without losing nuance, I can
maintain an enormous dynamic range that sounds so natural, she
The Isbin sound is a symphony unto itself, all raw emotion, dazzling
technique and a kaleidoscope of tonal colors that led one critic to call
her the Monet of the classical guitar. Some of her most interesting
performances are of works she has commissioned from top composersChristopher
Rouse, Tan Dun, Lukas Foss, Ned Rorem and John Corigliano among them.
First I have to
get the composer to say yes, Isbin smiles. Then I have to find the
funding and the orchestra. And the rest is up to me.
Wednesday, May 30, 2001; 12:05 p.m. EDT
Guitarist Isbin Steps Out of Shadows
By Josh L. Dickey, Associated Press Writer
MINNEAPOLIS Calling all composers (and Eric Clapton): Ever wanted to
write for the classical guitar? Sharon Isbin would like a word with you.
Shes got world-class chops, a couple-dozen recordings, and a Grammy
just out of the packing peanuts perched on the shelf in her New York
The award was a coup for the instrument itself: Richard Nixon was in
office the last time a guitarist beat out a pianist for Best
Instrumental Solo Performance (without orchestra). Isbin did it in
February with her folk-inspired Dreams of a World.
But while Isbin is among the worlds elite classical players, what
really sets her apart is the dogged commissioning of new concerti for
guitar and orchestra. Shes created a stir, certainly, said Jeff Van,
head of the guitar department at the University of Minnesotas School of
Music and Isbins teacher while she was growing up in Minneapolis. Its
not easy to get a new concerto into the repertoire, Van said. Shes
done a lot to establish that with premieres and her recordings.
Score two more for Isbin on her latest recording, which hit stores this
month: The first is Concert de Gaudi in four movements by
Pulitzer Prize winning composer Christopher
Rouse, a tribute to Spanish architect Antoni Gaudis surrealistic,
melting ornamentation and organic forms.
The second is Yi2, in five movements by Tan Dun (who took home an
Academy Award this year for his score to the Taiwanese martial-arts
juggernaut Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon). It draws its forms from
Chinese ritual and folk music. Both concertos were recorded in live
performances with the Gulbenkian Orchestra, based in Lisbon, Portugal.
Isbin has previously commissioned the work of John Corigliano, who
claimed the Pulitzer Prize for music this year with his Symphony No. 2
for string orchestra.
Her Grammy, Tan Duns Oscar and Coriglianos Pulitzer came all within two
months, Isbin said with a bemused chuckle. I feel fortunate to be in
such company. Its especially impressive for a master of classical
guitar, an instrument deep in the shadow of the piano and violin.
Christopher Rouse and Tan Dun were very eager to take on the
challenge, Isbin said, speaking by phone from her hotel room in Rome,
where she was touring. Tan Dun especially, because theres such a rich
tradition of the plucked instrument in Chinese culture. Eager is not
a word Isbin uses to describe most composers she approaches. Very often
it takes a lot of arm-twisting because guitar is a confounding
instrument for composers that dont play it, she said, then added with
a laugh: I kind of play the role of the vulture. I single out my prey.
It has to be someone whose music I really love, and it has to be someone
whose previous work I know will fit in well with guitar.
One of the best things about composers lack of familiarity with her
instrument, she said, is that it forces innovation. I have to kind of
play nursemaid to the process, and the fax machine really starts
whirring, she said. But oftentimes this dialectic of interaction has
worked for me because, really, every single piece that has been written
for me has been written by composers with no preconceptions. So they
allow their creativity to make extraordinary new discoveries.
The new works from Rouse and Tan Dun are a departure from Isbins folksy
Dreams of a World and from Journey to the Amazon, her spicy cocktail
of South American styles that was nominated last year for a Grammy for
Best Classical Crossover Album. Both Concert de Gaudi and Yi2 are
flecked with flamenco, and Isbin occasionally flavors the traditionally
percussive stew by stomping her feet and slapping the body of her
But there the familiar forms end; the rest of the record is, for the
most part, eerie, modern and polychromatic, with quizzical, Igor
Stravinsky-inspired figures bending conventional melody and rhythm.
Its a much more modern experience, one which transforms you, with a
very grand, very mysterious, mystical sort of feel, Isbin said. She
attacks the opening of Concert de Gaudi with a Spanish flourish backed
by orchestral overtures before ascending into more airy, modern themes.
Yi2 (pronounced Y-I-two) mourns and wails, evoking Chinese funeral
rituals. Isbins mimicry of the pipa, a traditional Chinese stringed
instrument, was terra incognita for the guitarist whos always looking
for new worlds of music to explore. Tan Dun likes to take a modern
instrument, and with that, evoke an ancient one, Isbin said. Its his
style to draw on the resources of both. With the Spanish guitar that I
play, he was able to produce an extraordinary synthesis.
Isbins virtuosity has been her freedom to dabble in many styles. If
Eric Clapton called me up and said, lets do a duet, Id be just
delighted, she said. I like good music, and to me there are no
boundaries to what it is.
© Copyright 2001 The Associated Press
May 30, 2000
Sharon Isbin is at the Pinnacle of a Macho Tradition
By John von Rhein , Chicago Tribune Music Critic
Speaking with Sharon Isbin, you can almost hear her
pulling sensuous colors from her guitar. The artist whom
one critic has called the Monet of the guitar talks in the
melodious cadences of that instrument. The rich play of
emotions and moods, the suppleness and beauty of
phrasing, that she brings to a Bach lute suite or a Spanish
fandango are there as she talks of her life and art.
One of the worlds preeminent virtuosos of the classical
guitar, Isbin is the first woman to reach the pinnacle of
the solo guitar world. For her, its a world without
She has commissioned more new concertos for the
instrument than any living guitarist. She has jammed with
jazz legend Herb Ellis, Spanish guitar master Laurindo
Almeida and bluesman Rory Block. She has explored
Appalachian folk music and recorded a
Grammy-nominated tour of the Amazon rain forest. She
has published an edition of the Bach lute suites with
renowned Bach specialist Rosalyn Tureck. And she
heads the guitar department she created at the Juilliard
School of Music in New York.
The glamorous guitarist even maintains a Web site,
www.sharonisbin.com, where you can hear snippets from
her albums and peruse 22 magazine covers, each bearing
a different color portrait of her. She has attracted a
devoted following on both sides of the crossover fence,
including pop singer Melissa Etheridge, with whom she
jammed at a recent party.
I just love all styles of music that are of good quality.
Around every corner, I keep finding new musical worlds I
want to be involved in, says Isbin.
She will share the music she has discovered in some of
those worlds in a solo recital Saturday evening at
Pick-Staiger Concert Hall in Evanston. Her program will
include selections from her albums Dreams of a World
and Journey to the Amazon.
The Minnesota-born Isbin was fortunate to have been
able to take lessons with Andrés Segovia, the Spanish
master guitarist who did more than anyone to legitimize
the classical guitar as a concert instrument during the last
But her actual role model was Ida Presti, the French
guitarist who, before dying in her early 40s, was the
leading woman guitarist of an earlier generation.
Indeed, its the lack of female role models in this country
that is responsible for the solo guitar having attracted
relatively few women players, Isbin contends. She also
points to how the classical guitar tradition originated in
Spanish flamenco music, whose tradition is muy macho.
Flamenco may be sung or danced by a woman, but the
guitarist is almost always a man. Also, most of the people
of my generation who came to the guitar were teenage
boys who were enamored of rock music and played
electric guitar. They heard Segovia recordings and
thought, This is kind of cool, and switched over to
classical guitar. Since girls really didnt play in rock bands,
that transfer didnt happen for them.
Even so, Isbin reports that the guitar classes she has
taught during the past 10 years at Juilliard have attracted
men and women players from 15 different countriesthough
no female guitarists as yet from the United States.
Because there are fewer mainstream works for guitar
and orchestra than any other mainstream instrument, Isbin
feels a particular responsibility to increase the guitar
repertory. To date she has commissioned nine concerti, as well
as solo and chamber works, from major composers including
John Corigliano, Lukas Foss, Joseph Schwantner, Aaron Jay Kernis,
Joan Tower, David Diamond and Ned Rorem. In Lisbon she
recently recorded her two newest commissionsconcertos
by Christopher Rouse and Tan Dunwith the
Gulbenkian Foundation Orchestra under Chinese
conductor Muhai Tang. The disc will be released by
Teldec this fall.
Her dedication to contemporary music has not only added
some important new pieces to the guitars relatively slim
catalogue, but it also has fired the imagination of
composers and obliged her, in turn, to expand her
technique to meet their musical demands.
Her most successful commission has been Coriglianos
Troubadours. Since the premiere in 1993 with the St.
Paul Chamber Orchestra, Isbin has played the concerto
well over 40 times and recorded it. She is scheduled to
perform it in Chicago in May 2001 with Symphony II, on
the same program as the most popular staple of the
modern repertory, Rodrigos Concierto de Aranjuez.
It took Isbin eight years to persuade Corigliano to write
the work. He didnt agree until I presented him with the
idea of the courtly, romantic French troubadours of 13th
Century and suggested that I be the strolling troubadour
who interacts with members of the orchestra.
Making the guitar audible, first from offstage, later when
she moved around the stage, required a special means of
sound enhancement. Isbin had two of her colleagues at
Juilliard design a hidden, wireless sound system. It
proved so successful that she has used it for all her solo
and concerto appearances since 1994
reinforced sound is as natural and unobtrusive as if you
were hearing her play in your living room, the guitarist
insists. I used it a few years ago when I played with the
Chicago Sinfonietta at Orchestra Hall. A number of guitarists
came backstage afterward and exclaimed, My God, youve
got a loud guitar. The sound is incredible! They had no idea
it had been reinforced.
She says the portable sound systemshe remains the
only major classical guitarist who uses onehas
revolutionized her career. This way, the audience can
feel the energy of the instrument and I can enjoy
performing more, because I dont have to struggle to be
heard, especially when Im up against an entire orchestra.
I can do everything I have in my mind and know it will
Isbin got hooked on the guitar at 9, when her father, a
professor of chemical engineering at the University of
Minnesota, took the family on a sabbatical to Italy. Her
oldest brother expressed an interest in guitar lessons, and
their parents arranged for him to study with an Italian
pupil of Segovias.
When he realized this was classical guitar, not Elvis
Presley or the Beatles, he bowed out and I volunteered,
not having any idea of what the classical guitar was, says
The resonance of the guitar, the sensual contact of
fingers against the stringseverything about the
instrument appealed to her at once.
Although Isbin owns and plays several guitars, her
preferred instrument is a 10-year-old
guitar made by
Thomas Humphrey in New York. I enjoy its unusual
construction, the way the body narrows toward the
fingerboard, allowing for more volume and impact of
sound on the wood. It has a round and full treble and it
responds quickly to different timbre changes. Playing
lyrically depends on how evenly you sustain each note.
Isbin, who this season has performed more than 60
concerts in America alone, apart from those shes done in
Europe and Japan, says she uses transcendental
meditation to boost her mental stamina and help her
access her inner creative powers.
Basically, my goal in playing is to become so immersed in
the music that nothing else exists except the energy Im
feeling from people and the connections Im making to the
composers and their languages and emotions. Thats why
its important I choose music I believe in, music that
speaks to me.
And while the guitarist had to give up her childhood
dream of becoming an astronaut, she has made it to the
heavens nonetheless. Astronaut Chris Hadfield took one
of her CDs, American Landscape, into space in 1995 as
a present for a Russian cosmonaut who is an amateur
Life and art in celestial harmony. Thats so Sharon Isbin.
Sunday, February 14, 1999 - Page N2 - Arts and Film
In the Tradition: Sharon Isbins New and Old Guitar Music
By Richard Dyer, Globe Staff
More than 20 years ago, David Brudnoy called up to say, I have this
cousin who plays the guitar. The answer shot back too fast: Who
I didnt know then that Brudnoys cousin was Sharon Isbin. In 1975 she
had already won major competitions in Toronto and in Munich; later in
that decade she played a wonderful Boston debut recital in First and
Second Church and appeared with the Brandenburg Ensemble in Symphony
Since then, Isbin has become one of the worlds most celebrated
guitaristsand the first woman to enter the top rank of solo
guitarists. Today Isbin has more than 20 CDs to her credit, plays 60
concerts in America every year (and more in Europe and Japan), and heads
the guitar department she created at the Juilliard School in New York.
One of her CDs has traveled into outer space, and she has her own Web
site (www.sharonisbin.com) where you can see a picture of her CD
This afternoon at 3, Isbin returns to Boston to play Joaquin Rodrigos
Concierto de Aranjuez with the Pro Arte Chamber Orchestra under
Gisele Ben-Dor in Sanders Theatre. There she will also perform one of
the many guitar concertos she has commissioned, Troubadours, by John
Corigliano. She has also agreed to play a free half-hour aperitif
concert at 2 before the main event; she will play selections from her
best-selling, Grammy Award nominated CD Journey to the Amazon.
Speaking by phone from New York last week, Isbin talked about her career
and her commitment to new music; she speaks with the vigor, the color,
the emotional investment she brings to her playing.
She says she had no intention of becoming a guitarist. My father, who
is now retired, was a professor of chemical engineering at the
University of Minnesota; my mothers side of the family was full of
musicians and theater people. I was planning to be a scientist and spent
hours dissecting anything that leaped or crawled. I also spent many
hours a day on model rockets. When I was 9, our family went on
sabbatical to Italy. My oldest brother expressed an interest in taking
guitar lessons, but what he had in mind was Elvis Presley. What was
available was classical guitar lessons, so I volunteered, not really
having any idea of what the classical guitar was. I loved it immediately
because it was so exotic, so out of my immediate world, and also because
it was so very personal. The resonance spoke to me right away, the
contact of fingers against the stringsthere was something very
sensual about it. After all, you cradle the guitar almost like a human
being. This was something very different from my previous experience
with the piano.
Isbins talent was immediately apparent. Fortunately, she came along in
time to take some lessons with the legendary Andres Segovia, who created
an honored place for the guitar in the concert world. I had a number
of lessons with Segovia when he would come to town, and I also traveled
to take lessons with him. He was not known for being a great teacherhis
approach was to say, Do it like I do it. But what was nice was to
hear his sound up close. It was so especially beautiful and remarkable,
something to strive for.
Unfortunately, Isbin was never able to hear in live performance the most
prominent woman guitarist of an earlier generation, Ida Presti, who
played as half of the famous duo-guitar team with Alexandre Lagoya.
Ida Presti died in her early 40s, so I never heard her, but she was
one of the finest guitarists ever to be produced in France, and she was
a role model for me. In France, far more women study guitar than in the
United StatesIm sure that the many years of her prominence
encouraged that. Today some of my top students have been women. If I
ever encountered any prejudice, I wasnt consciously aware of it. Of
course, when I would show up for a master class and there would be 40 to
50 male guitarists there, I was very aware of pressure. But that had a
positive effect on meit made me work harder. I didnt want there to
be any question about the quality of what I was offering. Nurturing my
talent like that laid aside any question anyone might have. Ultimately
you are in competition with yourself, and with no one else.
The Rodrigo Concierto de Aranjuez is the most popular guitar
concerto, and one of the most widely performed 20th-century concertos
composed for any instrument. Written in 1939, it has been with Isbin
throughout her career, and she prizes her personal association both with
the piece and its composer, who is 97. When I won a competition in
1979 in Spain, Rodrigo heard about it and tracked me down. I met him and
his wife and forged a friendship that has lasted ever since. This is a
man, blind since the age of 3, who changed the future of the guitar.
The story behind the piece explains why it has so powerful an effect.
Rodrigos wife was expecting her first child, but had had a
miscarriage; she was hospitalized, and he didnt know whether she would
live or die, Isbin says. He had already begun work on the concerto.
Every night hed return from visiting her, devastated, and sit at the
piano; what emerged was a beautiful theme for the second movementhe
was remembering their honeymoon, in the Aranjuez, so the music is a
mixture of passion for their love and of intense pain and loss. She
didnt die until last year, which was devastating to him; he is touched
by some kind of cosmic gracehe has such a potent connection to his
Isbin has forged her own emotional connection to this piece. Two and a
half years ago, when my brother was dying of AIDS, he said he wanted my
recording of the second movement of this piece played at his memorial
service. This sent me into shocktwo days later I was scheduled to
play just that movement with the Baltimore Symphony. I wondered how I
was ever going to get through it, but it went as if he had commanded it.
It was one of the most powerful experiences of my life, and now I have
that association whenever I play this music.
Isbin has been interested in extending the repertory for her instrument
since she was a teenager. In the 1980s, she embarked on a collaboration
with the eminent Bach pianist Rosalyn Tureck that revolutionized the way
Bach is interpreted on the guitar, and the two women collaborated on an
edition of Bachs lute suites. Isbin has also commissioned many new
works for the guitarincluding pieces by Aaron Jay Kernis, Lukas
Foss, Joseph Schwantner, Christopher Rouse, Ned Rorem, David Diamond,
and Bruce McCombie.
In terms of number of performances, John Coriglianos Troubadours is
probably the most successful to datesince the premiere at the St.
Paul Chamber Orchestra in 1993, I have played it more than 40 times, and
people always love it. It was inspired by the courtly love tradition of
the French troubadours, and the piece is conceived as a song by a woman
troubadour. It evokes the spirit of the past, a return to childhood
innocence, but it is also steeped in sadness and nostalgia because of
what happened to the troubadours when they fell out of favor.
Isbin plays an 11-year-old guitar made by Thomas Humphrey in New York.
What I like about it is the projection, the very round and full
treble, and the ability to respond quickly to different timbre changes.
How each note sustains is criticallyrical playing depends on
evenness and balance, the sustain, and the intonation.
In the Corigliano work, the guitar is first heard offstage, and Isbin
must play it while moving around. To make that happen, she had to take a
step in a new direction. I knew that the sound would require
electronic reinforcement, but I wanted to control the quality of the
reinforcement, so that it would sound so natural that nobody would know
it was there. That required something that no one could see, so it is a
wireless sound system. I began to use it not only for Troubadors but
also for other concertos and solo dates. It gives the listener the
depth, resonance, and roundness of the guitar sound and it sounds as
natural as if it were in a living room. The contexts in which most
people hear the guitar are very differentin the living room, on a
recording, or in a concert hall. What is important to me onstage is that
the sound of the instrument should have all the intimacy, the nuances,
the wide dynamic range you would hear in a living room or on a
Isbin says she is the only guitarist so far who has the system. It is
a pain in the neck to travel with because it weighs 94 pounds in its
shipping case. But it has revolutionized my career. It has not proved
controversialquite the opposite. Critics who had no idea it was
there write about how easily my unamplified guitar filled the hall! Its
not much fun for a performer to struggle to be heard; this way the
audience can feel the energy of the instrument. Ive had the system for
six years now, and since Ive had it, I enjoy performing a lot moreI
can do everything I have in my mind, and know it will come across.
Sharon Isbin, unplugged
By M.G. Lord
Isbins intimate style is
bringing her a new audience.
When Sharon Isbin was nine years old, she wanted to be a scientist like her dad.
Then she picked up a guitar. Before turning thirty-five, she won first place in
the Munich and Toronto classical-music competitions; gave sold-out performances
at New Yorks Avery Fisher Hall and Washington, DCs Kennedy Center; founded the
Guitar department at Juilliard; and created Guitarstream, a festival at Carnegie
Hall, as well as Guitarjam, a critically acclaimed series on National Public
Radio. Isbin, now thirty-nine, has also expanded the guitar repertoire by
commissioning new pieces from some of Americas greatest composers, including
John Corigliano, Lukas Foss, Ned Rorem, David Diamond, Joseph Schwantner, and
Joan Tower. At the Aspen Music Festival, which begins on June 28, Isbin will
premiere (in America) composer John Duartes English Suite #6 and perform an
homage to Spanish composer Manuel de Falla. Isbins lyrical playing recalls a
human voiceat points bold and passionate, at others tender and intimate. The
guitar is an instrument you cradle and caress, she explains. You feel the
vibration of the wood against your body. Its very sensual. Isbins virtuosity
has attracted admirers throughout the music world, including Melissa Etheridge,
with whom she jammed at a recent party. I arranged her song You Can Sleep While
Isbin recalls, because its soft, lyrical, and works well with nylon
strings, unplugged. Isbin also has fans out of this world: Astronaut Chris
Hadfield brought American Landscapes,
her most recent recording for EMI/Virgin
Classics, into space last fall as a present for the Russian cosmonauts.