Classical Guitarist Sharon Isbin Makes Cleveland Debut

Sharon Isbin.  photo by J. Henry Fair
Authorized Isbin photo by J. Henry Fair

by Mike Telin.  Originally published on ClevelandClassical.com 10/31/17.  Used by permission.


In an appearance on the Tavis Smiley show, celebrated classical guitarist Sharon Isbin said that she came to the instrument by accident.

“Our family was living in Italy when I was nine years old, and when an older brother said he wanted guitar lessons — and my parents learned there was a famous teacher who commuted to our village from Milan who was touring all over Italy and had studied with Segovia — they brought my brother for the interview. He said, ‘What? Classical? No, no, I want to be Elvis Presley.’ He bowed out before the first lesson, and out of family duty I volunteered to take his place.” The rest is history.

The winner of two Grammy Awards and Guitar Player magazine’s “Best Classical Guitarist,” Isbin has appeared as soloist with over 170 orchestras and has given sold-out performances in the world’s finest halls. Her documentary Troubadour has been viewed by millions of people on over 200 television stations.

On Saturday, November 4 at 7:30 pm at Plymouth Church in Shaker Heights, the Cleveland Classical Guitar Society will present Sharon Isbin in her Cleveland debut as part of its International Series. Click here for ticket information. On Friday, November 3 at 7:00 pm, she will present a master class at Dolan Science Center Reading room at John Carroll University. The event is free and open to the public. “It is odd that I have never played in Cleveland,” Isbin said during a recent telephone conversation. “But I am looking forward to it.”

The first half of Isbin’s Spanish/Latin-themed program will include music by Enrique Granados, Francisco Tárrega, Isaac Albéniz, and Tan Dun. “We’re celebrating the 150th anniversary of Granados’ birth this season,” she said, “and Tárrega was a famous 19th-century guitarist. Although Albéniz never wrote for the guitar, his music is clearly inspired by it.” 

During the second half, Isbin will be joined by special guest Colin Davin. One of the classical guitar world’s rising stars, Davin, a former student of Isbin, has given concerts across the world and has appeared as a featured musical guest on the Late Show with David Letterman alongside soprano Jessye Norman. He has been invited as a guest teacher at the Afghanistan National Institute of Music in Kabul, Afghanistan four times, and is Professor of Guitar at both the Cleveland Institute of Music and Baldwin Wallace Conservatory. “I believe in promoting people who have wonderful creative spirits and Colin is an extraordinary player,” Isbin said. “He was my student first in Aspen when he was fifteen and then he studied with me at Juilliard for his master’s.”

The duo portion of the evening will include the guitarists’ own version of Joaquín Rodrigo’s Aranjuez, ma pensée (based on the slow movement of the composer’s Concierto de Aranjuez with lyrics by his wife, Victoria Kamhi). “In 1939 when Rodrigo was writing the Concerto, they lost what would have been their first child, and he would console his wife by playing the theme of the Adagio,” Isbin said. “So, it is poignant that in 1988 Victoria went on to write the lyrics. Their daughter Cecilia later gave me the music and asked that I be the first to record it.” 

Isbin and Davin will also perform Howard Shore’s The Departed: Three Pieces for Two Guitars, a work he wrote for Isbin while composing the film score for Martin Scorsese’s Oscar-winning film.

“How do the Shore and Tan Dun fit into a program of Spanish and Latin music?” Isbin said with a laugh. “With the Shore the music is all Tango-inspired because it is a metaphor for the dance of death between the Irish mafia and the police force.”

Tan Dun’s Seven Desires for Guitar, written for Isbin, draws on themes of Chinese folk music and the Spanish Flamenco instrument that she plays. “His music is often associated with folk music and ritual, and in this case the wonderful sounds which are shared between the pipa and the Spanish guitar. He likes to combine the background of a contemporary instrument with an ancient one.”

The evening will also include the world premiere of Antonio Lauro’s Waltz No. 3 (Natalia) with a second guitar part added by Davin. Click here for complete program details.

This past July, Isbin and Argentine-American mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard saw the release of ALMA ESPAÑOLA on Bridge Records, the first Spanish art song album with guitar in 40 years, including 12 world premiere recordings of arrangements by Isbin. The album features duos by Federico García Lorca, Manuel de Falla, Xavier Montsalvatge, Agustín Lara, and Joaquín Rodrigo, with guitar solos by Granados and Tárrega.

Isbin explained that the album began as a recital program she and Leonard created. “Our first performance was in 2014 at the Aspen Music Festival and we’ve been playing shows across the country. Isabel has a marvelous voice and she’s a wonderful person. It was thrilling to create a lot of the arrangements by working through the songs together,” the guitarist said. “Isabel explained what the characters were going through during each of the stanzas of the songs and how that might affect whether I do loud strums or different kinds of octaves or arpeggios.”

Isbin said that not only is Leonard a great collaborator, it was also wonderful to work with someone who grew up speaking Spanish. “This music comes very naturally to her and we both love performing Spanish music. For my instrument that’s a given and from her background it’s a natural. And it was great for us to be able to make the recording after we had been performing for three years together and had road-tested the arrangements and interpretations.”

Throughout her career, Isbin has thrived on collaborations with artists from diverse musical genres. “It’s been wonderful to work with people from Joan Baez to Mark O’Connor, Nancy Wilson from Heart, and Steve Vie from the rock world, and to share something compelling that allows each of us to do what we are best at while creating something new that no one has done before.”
 
She said she has also been fortunate to work with “amazing” composers who have written concertos for her. She noted that these concerti collaborations have enabled her to bring the guitar to the stages of major symphonies and to a wider audience.

Wrapping up our conversation, I told Isbin that I knew why she went to her first guitar lesson, but why did she go back for a second? “For me it was twofold. Number one, it was an exotic opportunity to do something that few kids were doing, and to have a guitar made for me as a nine-year-old living in Italy seemed quite special. I liked the smell of the wood, the tactile feeling of touching the strings with my fingers as opposed to keys. And the other part of it was that it meant I wouldn’t have to continue piano lessons.

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