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Sharon Isbin

August 1, 2009
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SINCE PERFORMING VIVALDI’S “CONCERTO in D Major” with the Minneapolis Orchestra at the age of 14, Sharon Isbin has emerged as one of the world’s preeminent classical guitarists. Isbin, the creator and director of the Guitar Program at Juilliard School of Music, has recorded more than 25 albums with material including the Bach lute suites and Rodrigo’s “Concierto De Aranjuez,” as well as works she has commissioned from leading contemporary composers. She plays between 60 and 100 concerts annually worldwide, and has performed with more than 160 orchestras.

But Isbin has never confined her musical pursuits to the classical guitar world. Besides her recordings of South American, folk, and various forms of world music, she has performed with rock, jazz, and fingerstyle guitarists including Stanley Jordan, Steve Vai, and the late Michael Hedges.

Isbin continues to explore fresh musical territory on her most recent album, Journey to the New World [Sony Classical], which charts the migration of 16th, 17th, and 18th century British music to the United States, where it shaped much of America’s folk music. The CD is both a testament to Isbin’s dazzling virtuosity and the musical eclecticism that has long marked her career.

What was the concept behind Journey to the New World?

The late British composer John Duarte had written the “Appalachian Dreams” suite for me, and I recorded it on Dreams of a World, which won a Grammy in 2001. I liked that piece so much I asked John to write an homage to one of my musical heroes, Joan Baez, with songs from the early part of her career such as “Lily of the West,” “House of the Rising Sun,” and “Where Have All the Flowers Gone,” and he was delighted with the idea. We both contributed source material and he came up with a seven-movement suite that used more than a dozen of these songs in very creative settings. So, my original idea was to do a solo album using the suite as a centerpiece, along with other music from folk sources.

How did Joan Baez come to sing on the CD?

She had given me her blessing before the “Joan Baez Suite” was even written because I wanted to be sure that she would be okay with it. Then, after she heard the music, she offered to sing on the recording.

Tell us about the suite that violinist Mark O’Connor wrote.

I’d heard his “Strings and Threads Suite” that he wrote for solo violin and I thought it would be perfect arranged for guitar and violin. It’s really a folk history of violin in the U.S., going back to the old Irish jigs and reels and his own Celtic background. Being an excellent guitarist himself, Mark made an extraordinary arrangement that really utilized the versatility of the guitar, and we worked to make it completely idiomatic for the instrument. The guitar part is an equal partner rather than an accompaniment, and very challenging to play.

The CD opens with four Renaissance lute duets on which you play both parts on guitar.

Yes. I decided to do both parts myself so that the concept would be perfectly matched musically, artistically, and sonically. I used a capo on the second fret to get a more lute-like sound.

What is the connection between the lute pieces and the folk material?

The lute pieces are a combination of the plucked sound that later became such a big part of British and American folk music, and music celebrating the songs and dances of the 16th century. Some of the folk songs in the “Joan Baez Suite” go back directly to England, which is the origin of many familiar folk songs, so lute music was a great place to start the journey.

You follow the lute pieces with guitarist Ed Flower’s arrangements of two folk songs, “Drunken Sailor” and “Wild Mountain Thyme.”

Yes. “Drunken Sailor” was originally a 17th century Irish song and “Wild Mountain Thyme” evokes the 18th century Scottish song, “The Braes of Balquidder.” So, it seemed like a great way to continue that journey from the 16th century lute songs. I followed these with Andrew York’s “Andecy,” which is a really haunting work.

The arrangement of “Drunken Sailor” sounds challenging.

I found it pretty tough. When I first heard a recording of it I was sure it was two guitars. I kept thumbing through the music thinking, “Where’s the second guitar part? He must have forgotten to send it.” Then I realized it was one guitar!

What guitar did you use for the recording?

I played a 2007 Thomas Humphrey Millennium with a North Western cedar top and Brazilian rosewood back and sides. It’s called La Sacrifice, named for the painting on its back by the artist Tamara Codor.

How did you achieve such clarity when playing the harmonics that occur throughout the “Joan Baez Suite”?

I play lightly near the bridge, without forcing the sound. That maximizes the bell-like ringing of the harmonic and minimizes finger noise. After striking a note, I use either a rest stroke to accent and project the sound, or a free stroke, which lends lightness and fluidity. I often mix the two, and the trick is to do so seamlessly. I include an exercise in my Classical Guitar Answer Book to make this come naturally and without changing your hand position.

What right-hand techniques do you use to get so many tonal colors in the Renaissance duets?

To get the most metallic sound, I use only the fingernail and no flesh, and I strike perpendicular to the string, playing as close to the bridge as possible. Using a fingering in the first position instead of higher up the neck will also add brightness. If I want to play sweetly and caressingly, I’ll divide the string in half and strike midway between the fretted note and the bridge, or at the 12th fret if it is an open string. I’ll also add flesh and angle the nail, though it is important not to bounce from flesh to nail, as that produces an annoying click. You want to have the nail and flesh both touching the string before moving your finger to sound the pitch. Another way to add warmth is to play a note in a higher position, say, the E on the third string 9th fret rather than open E first string. And when using the thumb, playing with just the flesh produces a super-mellow sound.

What would you tell classical guitarists who want to explore other styles of music?

We all have to discover our own path. Doing what you love, what you’re passionate about, that’s the first priority. Finding something new that no one else has done before is so inspiring, and you’re making a contribution to the music world. It’s a wide-open field and the only limitation is one’s own creativity.

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