Guitarist Sharon Isbin: Instead of traveling to the stars, she became one

Photo by J. Henry Fair
Sharon Isbin

How does a shy little girl from St. Louis Park give up her dream to be a rocket scientist and grow up to become the foremost player in the male-dominated world of classical guitar?

The question is answered in a thoughtful and revealing one-hour documentary, “Sharon Isbin: Troubadour,” to be shown on 200 public television stations in upcoming months (KAWB in northern Minnesota Dec. 27 at 10 p.m. and in the Twin Cities on TPT in January, the time yet to be determined) and soon available on DVD. And Isbin herself, no stranger to Twin Cities audiences, will perform two shows Tuesday at the Dakota Jazz Club in downtown Minneapolis. Her program, a double-bill with the Brazilian guitarist Romero Lubambo, will highlight her wide-ranging, genre-busting interests – a mix of Bach and Jobim along with a jazzy bossa nova arrangement for two guitars of the slow movement of Rodrigo’s famous “Concierto de Aranjuez,” a work with which Isbin has long been associated.

“In the guitar world, I always had to fight as a woman, and in the music world, I always had to fight as a guitarist,” the 58-year-old Isbin says early in the film. Produced by Susan Dangel, the film follows Isbin around the world over the course of five years documenting her concerts, her teaching experiences – she is head of the guitar departments at both the Juilliard School and the Aspen Music Festival – and her interactions with the many composers from whom she has commissioned new works.

With NPR’s Susan Stamberg narrating, we see Isbin receiving the first of her two Grammys and, at one point, being introduced by first lady Michelle Obama during a performance at the White House. (The film is dedicated to Isbin’s mother, Katherine – her daughter’s biggest fan – who died in 2012.) Among friends and colleagues interviewed on camera are Joan Baez, who sang on Isbin’s Grammy-winning “Journey to the New World” CD, along with, among others, Martina Navratilova, Garrison Keillor, Leonard Slatkin, Janis Ian and a flock of major composers: among them Tan Dun, Joan Tower, Christopher Rouse and John Corigliano.

After eight years: ‘Troubadours’

Isbin badgered Corigliano for eight years to write a concerto for her. The result, when he finally agreed to write one, was “Troubadours.”

“I knew nothing about the guitar, except that it has six strings and you pluck it with your fingers,” Corigliano recalls, looking over the score with Isbin in his living room. Among her commissions, “Troubadours” has been her biggest success. She recorded it with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra in 1993 and has performed it with orchestras around the world more than 80 times.

The problem, she realized early in her career, is that the guitar repertoire is small, compared to that of piano and violin. “It was an instrument that had to catch up,” she said. “We didn’t have a Chopin, Mozart or Beethoven. I wanted more to play.”

While a senior in high school, she approached the Israeli composer Ami Maayani, who had just written a concerto for harp. “As soon as I heard harp, I thought guitar,” she said. “This guy can write for a plucked instrument. I’ll ask him to write a guitar concerto.” He said no, but she persisted, and at 21 she premiered Maayani’s concerto in Israel.

“That was my first premiere,” Isbin said. “From that I learned an important lesson: ‘No’ just means ‘Try harder.’ ”

Her latest commission, a concerto by Chris Brubeck, son of Dave Brubeck, will be premiered by the Maryland Symphony April 11 in Hagerstown, Maryland.

Scientist or surgeon?

In truth, this large, absorbing career of Isbin’s happened by default. What she really wanted to be was a rocket scientist or a brain surgeon. One of four children born to Herbert and Katherine Isbin, Sharon grew up knowing she would have a career. She just didn’t know what it would be. “Having two brothers helped,” she says in the documentary. “Because they could do whatever they wanted to do, I figured I should have the same privileges. For a girl in the ‘60s, that wasn’t something that was taken for granted.”

 
An excerpt from the documentary “Sharon Isbin: Troubadour”

When she was 9, her father, a chemical engineer who taught at the University of Minnesota, took a one-year consulting job in Italy and moved the whole family. While in Italy, her brother Ira got a guitar and visited a teacher for an introductory lesson.

“Ira saw the teacher’s long nails on his right hand and was told that he would have to practice classical music,” Sharon recalled. “He said, ‘Absolutely not. I want to be Elvis Presley.’ I volunteered to take his place. Since I was a little kid, I had an instrument custom-made. Just to know that it was something personal, that I wasn’t sharing it with other kids, like a piano, impressed me. It was something I could cradle and caress. When you hold a guitar, it becomes part of you. You can feel the vibration. I was a shy kid. So being able to play something that wasn’t loud and bombastic, it expressed my own feelings.”

Returning to Minneapolis a year later, she stayed with the guitar but was still more interested in science. She launched rockets in the back hard, putting grasshoppers in the capsules. Her father had to push her to practice. He’d say, “If you don’t practice for an hour, you can’t launch a rocket.”

Competition prize: playing with MN Orchestra 

When she was 14, the scale tipped in favor of music. She won a competition, the prize being a performance with the Minnesota Orchestra – a Vivaldi concerto – before 10,000 people. “I was just exhilarated, walking onstage and seeing thousands of people,” she said. “I realized this is even more exciting than launching my rockets. I think I’m going to be a guitarist. It was literally an overnight thing.”

She studied with Jeffrey Van and a colleague of Andres Segovia’s, Sophocles Papas. “Papas,” she said, “was appalled that I was practicing only an hour a day and that I didn’t practice scales. He taught me the discipline involved in becoming a musician. I ended up practicing 5 hours a day.”

The rigorous practicing paid off. She won competitions in Toronto and Madrid and was the first guitarist to win the Munich Competition. She spent five summers studying at Aspen, where in a class of 50 guitarists, only two were young women. At 17, having already developed an individual sound – lyrical and full of subtle colors — she toured Europe for the first time and then enrolled at Yale University, where she received a B.A. and a Master of Music degree. Later she spent 10 years studying Baroque performance with pianist and Bach scholar Rosalyn Tureck, preparing performance editions of the Bach lute suites for guitar and recording them for Virgin Classics.

Performing in Brazil for the first time in 1984, Isbin initiated a lifelong love for the music of Latin America, especially the sounds of Brazil, eventually recording beguiling CDs such as “Brazil With Love” and “Journey to the Amazon” with many of that country’s foremost musicians. She formed a trio with Laurindo Almeida and Larry Coryell, an ensemble that toured for five years playing a mix of Latin and jazz. Earlier, in Madrid, she met – sort of by accident — Joaquin Rodrigo, whose “Concierto de Aranjuez” is the most often performed concerto written in the 20th century.

Composer tracked her down

She was playing a competition there that was broadcast on the radio. Rodrigo heard it live and called the competition office, asking where Isbin was staying. He tracked her down and invited her to his home. It was the start of a 20-year friendship with a man Isbin calls “the greatest composer for guitar that ever lived.” Isbin’s definitive recording of the Rodrigo concerto with the New York Philharmonic was that orchestra’s first-ever recording with a guitar soloist.

By 1989, when Isbin was asked to create – and direct – a guitar department at the Julliard School, she had won Guitar Player magazine’s “Best Classical Guitarist” award and was hailed by Boston Magazine as the “pre-eminent guitarist of our time” (Boston Magazine).

Though she kept up her classical repertoire, playing as many as 60 concerts a year, she continued exploring new idioms in jazz and rock, working with Herb Ellis, Michael Hedges, Stanley Jordan and, in a duo concert in Paris, the rock guitarist Steve Vai. In 1993 she began using a custom-made wireless sound reinforcement device for concerts that allows her to project her sound over an orchestra, or at least be equal to it.

Dangel’s documentary also touches on more personal matters. In 1995 Isbin did an interview with the gay magazine Out. She says on camera, “it was a bit terrifying. I had never discussed any aspect of my personal life in the press. I thought, ‘Oh, my God. Everybody’s gonna know now.’ A week later I was performing in Atlanta. I walked onstage and got practically a standing ovation before I had played a note. I thought, ‘This is amazing. I’m the only one having a problem with it.’ I had to realize that I had within me layers of homophobia that I had to let go of so that I could accept myself as a gay woman as much as everyone around me seemed to be doing. And once I did, it was as if a burden had been lifted, and I could feel free to be myself. That was it. The door was open, never to shut again.”

Subsequently, she was asked by the producers of the gay-themed Showtime series “The L Word” to play a role in an episode. She agreed to do it. She played herself in a scene in a nightclub where she is performing, and later she did a scene with the actress Pam Grier. A brief excerpt is shown in the documentary.

‘A part of who I am’

“The scene’s not much more than a blink of an eye in the film, and that’s how it should be,” Isbin said, speaking by phone from her home in New York City. “It’s not central to my existence as a musician, but it’s certainly part of who I am. These days there’s still so much prejudice against gay people, it’s important that that those of us who can speak out do so. We need to be open.”

In the case of Isbin’s brother Neil, who died of AIDS in 1996, a gay identity was more all-consuming. Living in Albuquerque, Neil spent his last years working for gay rights, Isbin said, and he was the prime mover in the passage some years after he died of a gay-rights bill in New Mexico.

“I learned the night before Neil died that he had asked that the slow movement of the Rodrigo concerto be played at his memorial,” she said. “What’s strange is that two days after his passing, I was scheduled to play just that movement with the Baltimore Symphony in Washington, D.C. It was the first time that I had been asked to play just that movement. It felt like something had been commandeered from beyond, and it ended up being a very powerful moment. Everybody in the audience was in tears, but they didn’t know why. I didn’t even tell the conductor because I feared that if he gave me any kind of a sad look, I would fall apart. I was the only person who knew what I had been through, and yet everyone else felt it.”

She’s pleased, she said, that the excerpt of the Rodrigo concerto shown in the documentary is from a performance she did with the Minnesota Orchestra, Osmo Vänskä conducting. It was the first orchestra she ever performed with, “and it was the one responsible for my becoming a guitarist,” she said. “I feel that so much of who I am is due to the opportunities that came to me because I was a Minnesotan.”

Packed seasons

In any given season, Isbin prepares at least seven concertos, two recital programs and several chamber music programs. She credits much of her energy and creative spark to her daily practice of Transcendental Meditation, which she first adopted at the age of 17.

“It’s tough to juggle all those programs, plus running a heavy guitar department at Juilliard and Aspen and all the administrative work that goes with that, creating projects, working with composers, finding funding. Sometimes,” she said, “I‘m like 10 people combined into one. So for me, travel is almost a relaxing thing. I do a lot of mental work when I’m on a plane. I visualize the fingering when I’m hearing the music, and so when I land somewhere I’ve got the memory thing down and then it’s just a matter of practicing.”

Having performed with over 170 orchestras around the world and recorded 25 albums, Isbin thinks of the many works, large and small, that she has brought to life through commissions as her greatest accomplishment. “They will last far beyond my lifetime,” she said. “I believe they have changed the landscape of the instrument. That’s what I’m most proud of.”

Last month Warner Classics released a box set, “Sharon Isbin: 5 Classic Albums.” The 43 tracks include concertos, Latin music and the solo collection “Dreams of a World.” 

Few females students following her footsteps

Perhaps Janis Ian is right when she says in the documentary: “There are thousands of little girls out there who have seen Sharon and now know that that’s open to them,” meaning the guitar. Maybe so, but they’re not beating down the door to Isbin’s studio at Juilliard. Most of her students have been men. This year, though, two of her three students are women, one from Korea and one from Australia. “My female students over the years have all been from foreign countries,” Isbin said. “I think that’s because in this country the guitar is still connected to the rock world, and that’s primarily a male thing.”

Isbin gave up her dream long ago of becoming a rocket scientist and traveling to the stars. Life creates circles, however. In 1995 astronaut Chris Hadfield took one of Isbin’s CDs, “American Landscape,” into space, along with a travel guitar she had endorsed, as a present for a Russian cosmonaut who was an amateur guitarist himself.

“It all comes around,” Isbin said, laughing.

“Guitar Passions” with Sharon Isbin and Romero Labumba. 7 and 9 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 25. Dakota Jazz Club, 1010 Nicollet. $35-$50. 612-332-5299.

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