Instrumentalist of the Year:
Sharon Isbin

By Allan Kozinn

She is a trailblazer, reconfiguring the guitar’s repertoire and updating the ways classical guitarists present themselves and their instrument. She invariably brings a warm tone, precise technique, and a lively but thoughtful interpretive style to her performances.

2020 Muscial America Instrumentalist of the Year:<br>Sharon Isbin
@Darnell Renee.

Sharon Isbin is the first guitarist to be named Musical America’s Instrumentalist of the Year, but firsts are hardly new to her. When the ARD International Music Competition, in Munich, was opened to guitarists for the first time, in 1976, Isbin became its first winner, and when The Juilliard School decided, after years of resistance, to offer a performance degree in guitar, Isbin was invited to create its curriculum and to teach. Her 1995 “American Landscapes” album, which included the first recordings of concertos composed for her by John Corigliano, Lukas Foss, and Joseph Schwantner, was the first album devoted fully to contemporary American guitar concertos. And with her 2004 recording of Joaquín Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez, Heitor Villa-Lobos’s Guitar Concerto, and Manuel Ponce’s Concierto del Sur, she became the first guitarist to record as a soloist with the New York Philharmonic.

A trailblazer
You could call Isbin a trailblazer without fear of contradiction, and the description would not apply only to her imposing list of firsts. Isbin has also reconfigured the guitar’s repertoire and updated the ways classical guitarists present themselves and their instrument.

Some of that is through a vital commissioning program. Besides those on her American Landscapes disc, the program has yielded guitar works by Christopher Rouse, Tan Dun, Joan Tower, David Diamond, Aaron Jay Kernis, Ned Rorem, Leo Brouwer, and several others. Among her current projects are recordings of new concertos composed for her by Chris Brubeck—the son of the legendary jazz
pianist Dave Brubeck—and Richard Danielpour. 

But she has also, since the 1980s, been importing music and timbres from non-classical music into the classical guitar’s realm.

At first, her experiments were fairly low key and followed in the footsteps of the Brazilian classical guitarist Carlos Barbosa-Lima. Taken with some of Barbosa-Lima’s transcriptions of Brazilian jazz, she began including some—most notably, pieces by Antônio Carlos Jobim—on her concert programs. Then she and Barbosa-Lima teamed up for several albums—more Brazilian jazz, as well as duo transcriptions of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue and dances from Bernstein’s West Side Story.

It was, in its way, a stealth approach to crossover. Gershwin has long been a part of the classical repertoire; Bernstein’s theater works have been embraced by opera houses; and Jobim and other Brazilian pop and jazz composers use such distinctive and sophisticated harmonies and rhythms that they easily slipped  into the contemporary classical canon. 

From there, Isbin’s steps grew gradually bolder. She began collaborating with jazz musicians who did not have a foot in the classical-music world, among them the saxophonist Paul Winter and the guitarists Larry Coryell, Herb Ellis, and Stanley Jordan. Moreover, she toured and recorded with Guitarjam, a trio she formed with Coryell and the Brazilian jazz and classical guitarist Laurindo Almeida.

A wide range: film, folk and fiddlers
You can hear her playing the solo guitar lines in Howard Shore’s soundtrack score for Martin Scorsese’s Oscar-winning film The Departed and on recorded collaborations with the folk singer Joan Baez, as well as the country fiddler Mark O’Connor and the rock guitarists Steve Vai and Steve Morse. Vai and O’Connor have also written duo works to perform with her, balancing their instruments and styles with Isbin’s rich tone and precise technique. 

And having practiced Transcendental Meditation since she was 17, she has performed in several of the starry benefit concerts staged by the David Lynch Foundation, which promotes the meditation technique for at-risk students. 

These are commercially savvy projects. As Isbin has pointed out, when she shares the stage with a jazz or rock musician, she and her duo partner each attracts their own audience, and if these listeners were dazzled at the concert, they will leave with an appreciation for a new style and, perhaps, a yen to explore further. Still, Isbin is also keenly aware that crossover projects have had a spotty history in the classical-music world, so she has been careful to work with players she admires and music she loves.

And it is not as though she has neglected the standard classical repertoire. She plays plenty of straightforward recitals and concerto appearances, and most of her 30 recordings (and counting) are devoted to the established guitar canon, to which she invariably brings a warm tone and a lively but thoughtful interpretive style.

Among them are an exemplary traversal of the four Bach lute suites (which she transcribed during a decade-long collaboration with the harpsichordist Rosalyn Tureck), works composed for predecessors like Andrés Segovia (including Rodrigo, Joaquín Turina, Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco favorites) and Julian Bream (most notably Britten’s Nocturnal), transcriptions of Baroque pieces, and Spanish keyboard works, a broad selection from the Latin-American repertoire, and, of course, the contemporary scores she has commissioned.

There are also projects with singers, including Thomas Allen, Benita Valente, Susanne Mentzer, and Isabel Leonard, and some chamber music, most recently with the Pacifica Quartet.

Guitar by accident
Isbin came to the guitar almost by accident. Raised in Minneapolis, where her father was a professor at the University of Minnesota, Isbin spent a year in Varese, Italy, with her family (her father was on sabbatical) when she was nine, and decided to take guitar lessons when her brother, who had originally agitated for them, decided he didn’t want to practice.

Her teacher, Aldo Minella, had studied with Segovia, and engendered an interest in the classics in young Sharon, who went on to earn both her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in music at Yale University, while studying with a stellar list of players that includes Jeffrey Van, Sophocles Papas, Oscar Ghiglia, Alirio Díaz, and, not least, Segovia. Competition victories in Toronto, Munich, and Madrid led to her first recordings and helped get her concert career on track. 

Many of Isbin’s musical adventures are chronicled in the 2014 documentary, Sharon Isbin: Troubadour, which was shown on PBS and released on DVD and Blu-ray. For Isbin, the film was a rare retrospective moment. For the most part, she is more interested in what new ground she can cover, than in looking back. And for those of us who follow her exploits, the one sure thing is that it won’t be predictable. •

Allan Kozinn, for many years a music critic for the New York Times, now lives in Portland, Maine, and writes about music and musicians for the Wall Street Journal, Opera News, and other publications. He is also an accomplished guitarist.