In 1970, a 14-year old guitarist took the stage at Northrop Auditorium and inspired such an enthusiastic response that she abandoned her plans to become a rocket scientist. “I won the Minnesota Orchestra’s Young People’s Symphony [award] and the reward was playing Northrop,” says Minneapolis native Sharon Isbin, speaking from her home in New York. “It became more exciting than launching my model rockets and therefore was a pivotal point in my life. I’d like to thank the orchestra for that.”
Eight years later, Isbin was an accomplished musician banging her head against a pair of glass ceilings. She was a female playing classical guitar, an instrument greatly influenced by the macho flamenco culture and later populated by males initially enamored with rock, and her instrument lacked the rich orchestral history and repertoire of the piano or violin.
Isbin’s bona fides were impeccable: She’d studied with Andres Segovia and the renowned teacher and harpsichordist Roselyn Tureck, and become friends with Antonio Carlos Jobim. But to engender further respect for herself and her instrument, she embarked upon the strategy of trying to commission works for guitar from some of the world’s leading modern classical composers. Once her first successful commission – with Israeli composer Ami Maayani – was completed, Isbin chose to premiere the piece with the Minnesota Orchestra. “Another pivotal point in my career,” she notes. “If I want to be a musician of our time, I have to work with the greatest living composers. The commissions are a big part of that.”
‘Having the guitar is different, unique, very exciting’
Flash forward again – nearly three decades this time – to the brainstorming sessions for how to kick off the Minnesota Orchestra’s 106th season of subscription concerts, and the sixth under Music Director Osmo Vänskä, this Friday, Saturday and Sunday. According to Vänskä, the process was exceedingly simple. “I wanted to get Sharon here. That was the starting point. She is from here and having the guitar is different, unique, very exciting. Then, we built the program around that.”
By now, of course, Isbin is regarded as being among the top handful of guitarists in the world. She founded the guitar department at the Juilliard School of Music in 1989. She became the first classical guitarist to win a Grammy in 28 years, for her 2000 record, “Dreams of a World: Folk Inspired Music for Guitar.” A year after that, her recording of two of the dozens of works she has commissioned for guitar – concerti by Christopher Rouse and Tan Dun, both dedicated to her – captured another Grammy.
This weekend’s season-opening concerts will feature Isbin performing Joaquin Rodrigo’s “Concierto de Aranjuez,” arguably the most familiar guitar concerto in the modern classical music canon. Isbin has played it literally hundreds of times, and recorded it thrice, including a 2005 performance with the New York Philharmonic. When Rodrigo himself heard Isbin’s interpretation on the radio many years ago, he tracked her down and fostered a friendship.
Isbin says that the most famous section of the piece, the slow, second movement, was written right after Rodrigo’s wife had suffered a miscarriage. “The ability to capture the quality of the human voice is essential in making that come to life,” she emphasizes. “And the other movements are very rhythmic.” Given that Isbin is renowned for the emotional impact of her style, it’s logical that Rodrigo (and most everyone else who has heard her perform the piece) would be drawn to her interpretation. Here is a four-part videotape of her performance of the “Concierto de Aranjuez” from April of this year:
Vänskä says that once Isbin committed to the project, he structured the program “to be a type of celebration, to start the new season, a bit of new ideas that are not the standard repertoire.” The result is “Viva Espana,” a toast to Spanish and Latin music. The other longer work in addition to the Rodrigo Concierto is “Variaciones concertantes,” by 20th century Argentine composer Alberto Ginastera, a challenging yet invigorating work that Vanska says “is also great fun and many times is on the list of things musicians want to play.”
A pair of folk-themed pieces, Chabrier’s “Espana” (a favorite of Ravel’s) and de Falla’s “Suite No. 2 from The Three-Cornered Hat,” are also on the program, which concludes with Aaron Copland’s “El Salon Mexico.”
“It is very different than Beethoven or Brahms,” Vänskä says. “With everything Spanish you get those folk elements. It is like sparkling life, where a Brahms is more introverted. Both are very strong, but very different from each other.”
An affinity for Spanish and Latin compositions
It’s a program very consonant with Isbin’s own taste (although her performance will be restricted to the Rodrigo). The same year she won that Young People’s Symphony award as a teenager, she spent time studying music in Venezuela, sparking an enduring love and affinity for Spanish and Latin compositions. She’s also never been shy about collaborations with folk and pop-music acts, ranging from arena-rocker Steve Vai to bluegrass fiddler Mark O’Connor to iconic folkie Joan Baez. Add in the fact that both her parents still live in the Twin Cities (her father is a former professor of chemical engineering at the University of Minnesota, which helps explain her legitimate fascination with rocket science) and it is easy to understand the enthusiasm in her voice as she discussed this weekend’s concerts.
The feeling is mutual on the part of the orchestra. “She’s one of the top players in the entire world and I have never played with her,” says Vänskä. “So yes, of course we are all very excited she is coming. Our goal is to make programs that are interesting and unique. When you plan a dinner, you don’t want to eat the same thing every night. You want something a little bit familiar and something that is not familiar, that is going to surprise you. That’s what we have with this [“Viva Espana”] program.”