Jazz and Classics return

Grammy winner Sharon Isbin: A world of music at her fingertips

Posted: Thursday, May 16, 2002

W hen Juneau Jazz and Classics artistic director Linda Rosenthal was looking for a guitarist for this year's festival, Sharon Isbin was at the top of the list.

"We're very lucky to have her," Rosenthal said. "We had requests for solo guitar, and for her specifically."

Juneau classical guitarist Dan Hopson is a fan of Isbin. He called her one of the leading guitarists in the world today.

"She has a wonderful dramatic style and a wonderful touch and tone," he said. "She plays music from all over the world - South American, Greek, Israeli, Brazilian folk tunes and then really modernistic stuff. I admire somebody like that who doesn't just play the standard repertoire, although she is quite an expert on Bach."

Over her nearly 30-year career as a classical guitarist, Isbin has graced the covers of 27 magazines in seven countries.

The German magazine Akustic Gitarre shows her winning a Grammy Award last year. An older copy of La Guitara shows her as a young virtuoso in her 20s. Acoustic Guitar shows her at age 9 in Italy with her first guitar.

And Frets, Guitar Classique, Guitart and Inside Jazz and Classical show her more contemporary look - a woman in her mid-40s firmly established as one of the world's leading classical guitarists.

Isbin has more than 20 recordings to her credit. She has commissioned new compositions for the guitar, including work that pioneered new ways a classical guitarist performs with an orchestra. She's been nominated for three Grammy Awards and won the 2001 award for Best Instrumental Soloist Performance for her latest CD, "Dreams of a World: Folk-inspired Music for Guitar."

"She's always exploring new material, commissioning works, arranging new material for herself," Rosenthal said. "She seems to be one of those musicians who is always growing."

Isbin grew up in Minnesota. Her father, a professor of chemical engineering at the University of Minnesota, took the family to Italy when she was 9. Her older brother requested guitar lessons but backed out when he discovered that the teacher was offering classical lessons, not rock and pop. She stepped in and fell in love with the instrument. At 14 she won her first competition.

At 17 she toured Europe as a classical guitarist, and has toured that continent every year since. By the time she earned her bachelor's and master's degrees in music from Yale University she was an established professional with awards from prestigious international music competitions to her credit.

She has toured the world performing solo and with orchestras. She has sold-out Carnegie Hall in New York and the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. She is a frequent guest on nationally-broadcast radio programs such as "All Things Considered" and Garrison Keillor's "A Prairie Home Companion."

When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, May 22.

Where: JuneauDouglas High School auditorium.

Tickets: $20 for general audience, $16 for students and seniors. Available at Hearthside Books and the door.

Free concert: noon to 1 p.m. Wednesday, May 22, at the State Office Building.

In 1989 Isbin founded the guitar department at the Juilliard School in New York, becoming the first and only guitar instructor in the institution's 90-year history. She lives in New York and continues to serve as the head of the department.

Isbin commissioned "Troubadours," a concerto for guitar and orchestra in which the soloist begins playing offstage and then strolls, troubadourlike, around the stage. To be sure the guitar could be heard as she moved around the orchestra, Isbin used a concealed wireless pickup in the guitar. The system proved so effective she's used it ever since.

Isbin said some programmers have balked at the idea of a classical musician using amplification, but none have objected once they heard her in action.

She said 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 - in the living room or on a recording, are very different than 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 recording," she said in an interview with the Boston Globe.

She added, "It has revolutionized my career. It has not proved controversial - quite the opposite. Critics who had no idea it was there write about how easily my unamplified guitar filled the hall.

"It's not much fun for a performer to struggle to be heard; this way the audience can feel the energy of the instrument. I enjoy performing a lot more - I can do everything I have in my mind, and know it will come across."

Local guitarist Hopson has been enlisted to help Isbin with her sound check Wednesday.

"I'm going to play her guitar on stage and then she can stroll around the auditorium, get back to the corners and hear how it sounds," he said. "She strikes me as really prepared and meticulous to want to do that, and I understand it's something she does whenever she plays. I can't believe I'm going to be playing her guitar."

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