This past autumn, Grammy-award winning classical guitarist Sharon Isbin quietly broke ground as the first guitarist ever to record with the New York Philharmonic, and the first guitarist to perform with the hallowed orchestra in 26 years. Historically, one of the pitfalls of recording classical guitar with an orchestra has been in defining the right balance of guitar with the other instruments. For this reason, many orchestras have been reluctant to record or perform with guitarists. That is slowly changing, given the quantum leaps in sound technology in recent years. Isbin, however, who has performed with over 150 orchestras worldwide, leaves nothing to chance. Prior to tracking, she spent two hours working on her recorded tone before the orchestra even arrived.
“These concerti have such beautiful writing for the instruments—you can’t just have the guitar blasting,” says Isbin, whose new release is entitled Rodrigo: Concierto de Aranjuez, Ponce: Concierto del Sur, Villa-Lobos: Concerto for Guitar [Warner Classics]. “There has to be a carefully nuanced mixture of guitar and orchestra that allows the full beauty of the composer’s writing to come forth in the other instruments while allowing the guitar to be heard properly. It’s not a simple task.
“I viewed the entire experience as a huge responsibility. I’m an ambassador for the guitar and if you can’t hear the guitar well, or if it just sounds awful, the orchestra won’t have a guitarist come back. That’s why I go the extra length before rehearsal to ensure that I’m doing everything I can to make the sound as good as possible.”
After two live performances, Isbin and the orchestra holed up in New York’s Right Track Studio to record the pieces. They were given just over two and a half hours to record each concerto. During the first take, producer Tobias Lehmann and engineer René Moeller were able to make minor adjustments to the mic positions and to the relative levels of each guitar mic. Isbin performed a few feet in front of the orchestra, facing them, with a clear baffle placed to her right to provide more separation for her guitar track. To record Isbin’s 1988 Thomas Humphrey Millennium guitar, Lehmann used two different stereo setups on four tracks; two Neumann M149 tube mics were switched to a cardioid pattern and sent to two tracks, while a pair of Sennheiser MKH60 hypercardioid mics were sent to another two tracks. “This combination of mics delivers a very natural and warm color,” says Lehmann.
The main mics for the orchestra included a stereo pair of Schoeps MK3s, two Neumann KM143 mics for side fillers, and three Neumann M50 mics attached to a Decca Tree, a
T-shaped mount that was placed behind the conductor’s head. Other microphones included Schoeps MK4s for the strings, Neumann KM84s for woodwinds, Neumann U47s for bass, and Neumann KM140Fs for timpani, percussion, and brass. All mic signals were sent to a 24-track Pyramix system with 24-bit Euphonix converters.
For the recording project, Isbin chose to work with conductor José Serebrier from Uruguay. Serebrier had conducted the UK premiere of Ponce’s Concierto del Sur years ago with John Williams. Not only was Serebrier familiar with the piece but he was dedicated to mapping out the music, giving special consideration to each instrument’s needs in order to save time during the recording process. “José spent dozens and dozens of hours creating fresh parts for the musicians so they would have everything marked clearly,” says Isbin. “He corrected hundreds of mistakes in the Villa-Lobos, Ponce, and the Rodrigo. There are four pages of errata for the Rodrigo alone.”
The extensive preparation and pre-production work by Isbin and Serebrier made for a refreshingly smooth recording process, according to Isbin. She adds that the ease of recording was also due in part to feeling at home performing with a number of the New York Philharmonic musicians, such as principal cellist Carter Brey and principal bassist Eugene Levinson, with whom she had played at various festivals. “It was like family—nothing of the austere negativity you often hear associated with some of the major orchestras. And having performed the repertoire with José over the years allowed us to be completely in sync.”
After the session ended, Isbin stayed with the producer and engineer to see if anything needed to be re-recorded the next day. “Overdubbing was not allowed, and wouldn’t have worked for this situation anyway,” Isbin says.
Lehmann and Moeller made the first edits on the recording and Isbin and the conductor flew to Berlin for two days in August to supervise the final mix. “I worked with the
producer to make sure the recording would be from a guitarist’s perspective, not from the traditional, ‘Where is the guitar?’ perspective,” she says.
Even while under the extreme pressure of limited recording time, Isbin and the other musicians managed to enjoy the process. “When it was announced the first session had ended, Glen Dicterow, the concertmaster, looked up and said, ‘So soon? I wish we could keep playing!’” Isbin says, “José told me this was the greatest compliment.” •