Sharon Isbin: a conversation with one of the world’s greatest classical guitarists

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Sharon Isbin Photo by J. Henry Fair

As seen in Guitar Girl Magazine Issue 10 – Winter

The Cambridge Dictionary defines artist as “someone who creates things with great skill and imagination.” It’s a term affixed to many, but few truly embody it as does classical guitarist and virtuoso Sharon Isbin.

Detailing all that she has accomplished is an ambitious goal, as her career trajectory spans years and includes everything from teaching at Juilliard, where she is founding director of the school’s guitar department, to performing at the White House and the Kennedy Center, touring the world, a 2014 documentary, Sharon Isbin: Troubadour, winning numerous awards, working with an A-to-Z list of artists in every genre of music, leading the guitar program at the Aspen Music Festival and School, and recording 30 albums. In October, it was announced that she would be honored with the 2020 Musical America Instrumentalist of the Year award, making her the first guitarist to receive the award in the organization’s 59-year history. The ceremony is scheduled to take place in December at Carnegie Hall.

By the time one would tell Isbin’s story, there would be new chapters to add, as she is always busy, always creating, and always finding new challenges and directions in which to take her craft. Her latest project is a collaboration with the world-renown, Grammy-winning Pacifica Quartet for Souvenirs of Spain & Italy, an album of strings and guitar music from the baroque to the mid-20th century. Like all of Isbin’s work, the result is more than a musical experience; it’s also an emotional one that carries the listener into an “eyes closed” time-travel of sounds, cultures, moods, and intricate compositions.

Guitar Girl connected with Sharon Isbin via e-mail.

This is your first time recording with the Pacifica Quartet, but not your first time working with them. You performed at the Aspen Music Festival several years ago and then toured together. Please tell us about that performance and how the working relationship grew from there.

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I invited the Pacifica Quartet to join me in 2016 for my annual concert at the Aspen Music Festival, where I direct the guitar department every summer. We all loved performing together, and afterwards, they asked if I would tour with them. They are brilliant players, so I was delighted to accept!

When did you — you, as a solo artist, and you, as a collective — decide to record an album together?

A year ago, the quartet asked if I would make an album with them on the label they work with, Cedille Records, which has a stellar reputation for great sound, engineering, and production. Of course, I said yes!

When and how did you choose the pieces to record? Were the choices exclusively yours, or did you collaborate with the Quartet in the selection process?

In collaboration with the quartet and their record label, we all agreed to record the music we had been performing together. The common theme was Italian composers influenced by Spanish music. Playing Boccherini’s famous Fandango quintet, with added castanets and tambourine, was a natural for their passionate, exciting style of playing. Boccherini was born in Italy, but lived most of his life in Spain. When his contemporary Casanova first saw a Fandango danced in Madrid, he described it in 1767 as having a “lasciviousness with which nothing can compare … a dance of love from beginning to end!” Perhaps you will hear that in our performance!

The Vivaldi, written originally for lute, violins, and continuo, was reconfigured by Spanish guitarist Emilio Pujol to feature the guitar in a prominent solo role. The beautiful slow movement gives me the opportunity to improvise my own embellishment and variations in baroque style in the repeats. Performing it with just three strings players creates a level of intimacy that is magical.

The Quintet by Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco is a rarely heard gem, full of lyricism and virtuosity for each instrument. Written for Segovia in 1950, it’s a masterpiece, and the composer called it one of his “best works of chamber music.” He referred to sections in the slow movement and the habanera in the final movement as a “Souvenir of Spain.” His family actually originated from Spain, but was forced to flee the murderous Inquisition, settling in Italy in 1492. In 1939, Castelnuovo-Tedesco and his family fled from the Nazis, settling in California, where Mario enjoyed a prolific career writing for both film and the concert stage.

The work the quartet plays without me is a bullfighter’s prayer by Spanish composer Joaquín Turina. He wrote it originally for four lutes, which were mandolin-like instruments in the day, and then created the string quartet version, which he knew would be more popular.

Can you “take us into the studio” and describe what a day of sessions was like?

Instead of a studio, we recorded in the beautiful and resonant Auer Concert Hall at the University of Indiana in Bloomington, where Pacifica is in residence. We had just performed concerts together in Florida the week before, so we were able to approach the three half-days of recording in January 2019 like another performance.

Amazingly, a few months before, I had learned that Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s granddaughter lived just a few blocks from me in New York City! I was thrilled and honored to meet her. She shared many inspiring stories with me about Mario and gave me a copy of his handwritten manuscript of the Quintet, which proved to be a treasured resource for us all in researching notes, dynamic markings, and more. The exchange made me feel very connected to the composer and deepened my passion for his music and the upcoming recording.

This is your debut project for Cedille Records. How did that come about?

Cedille Records is a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting composers and performers from Chicago. Pacifica was in residence there for years, and so it is the label they work with, and I was their guest. It was a fantastic experience! I have worked with Sony, Warner Classics, Erato, Bridge, and other labels, depending on the projects.

In this era of single-song downloads, you continue to create full-length, exquisite works of art, and best of all, you have an audience for them — an audience that still wants the traditional musical experience. What is your overview of the music industry, coming from the perspective of a true artist recording these timeless classical pieces?

Thank you! One has to be ever more resourceful to bring recording projects to fruition, including finding sponsors who believe in sharing beautiful music with the world. Remarkably, there are still a multitude of independent classical labels doing the important work now that the majors used to do. After Souvenirs, I recorded two new projects for 2020 release (making three albums in four months, which was nuts!): Affinity, an album of works composed for me and titled after the jazzy, sizzling concerto for guitar and orchestra by Chris Brubeck, son of Dave Brubeck, whose centenary will be celebrated in the 2020-21 season, and world premiere ragas for guitar and sarod composed for me by the legendary Amjad Ali Khan, performed with him, tabla and his two brilliant sarod-playing sons, Amaan and Ayaan Ali Bangash, with whom I toured India last February.

You’re recognized as the world’s greatest classical guitarist, and rightly so, but part of your repertoire is to collaborate with artists in every genre of music. How do exploration and experimentation make for a better musician?

I can’t speak for others, but I can say 100 percent that my life and music have been immeasurably enriched by many collaborations with extraordinary artists in genres both outside of and within classical. In each case, it was a passion for the music and performers that inspired me to embrace the challenge of forging something new.

Both you and the members of Pacifica Quartet are faculty members — obviously at the university level, but still part of music education programs. Day after day, our public-school arts programs continue disappearing, and without them, we lose valuable contributors to the future of music. Would you mind sharing some closing thoughts about this important topic and why everyone should be concerned about the future of arts and music education?

Studying classical music as a child has so many benefits, including honing skills that increase coordination, dexterity, mental stamina, creativity, listening, teamwork, and problem-solving. This training has been shown to enhance the ability to learn other subjects as well, from languages to math. A recent study even showed that playing an instrument in childhood develops parts of the brain that can later help to ward off dementia!

Juilliard encourages its students to embrace the idea of artist as citizen, training and encouraging students to share their talents in underserved communities for the betterment of all. One of my students, Alberta Khoury, from Australia, became the first person in the 130-year history of the school to think of walking about with her instrument every week to serenade staff and administration in their offices, including maintenance workers, food service providers, and more. Last year she was the first guitarist to be awarded a Kovner Fellowship, and this year she is the first guitarist to be accepted into the DMA program, which she encouraged me to create a couple of years ago. What’s not to love about that!

 

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