With a repertoire ranging from the Classical period to jazz, folk, and beyond, Sharon Isbin has been called “the pre-eminent guitarist of our time” —high praise for a guitarist who aspired to be a scientist when she was young. Isbin’s innate artistry with the instrument paired with her technical mastery has impressed audiences and critics worldwide. “Her brilliantly crisp articulation and her fine sense of sustained line are no less impressive than her sheer virtuosity,” wrote one critic in Gramophone magazine. Isbin has commissioned and premiered more new pieces for guitar than any other guitarist, and she created the Guitarstream festival at Carnegie Hall and founded the guitar department of the Juilliard School. Her critically acclaimed releases include Journey to the Amazon, American Landscapes, J.S. Bach: Complete Lute Suites, Nightshade Rounds, Concerti by Christopher Rouse and Tan Dun, and Dreams of a World, for which she won the first Grammy awarded to a classical guitarist in nearly 30 years.
Isbin had no intention of becoming a guitarist. Rather, she wanted to follow in the footsteps of her father, a former professor of chemical engineering. Her mother’s side of the family was rife with musical and theater talent, but Isbin planned to be a scientist who spent “hours dissecting anything that leaped or crawled,” she told Richard Dyer of the Boston Globe. But while living in Italy with her family, her oldest brother requested guitar lessons, then changed his mind when he found out they were for classical guitar. Age nine at the time, Isbin volunteered to take them instead, though she had no idea what classical guitar was. She told the Boston Globe that she “loved it immediately.” Though she had some experience on the piano, she was taken by the guitar. “The resonance spoke to me right away, the contact of fingers against the strings—there was something very sensual about it.”
Born on August 7, 1956, in Minneapolis, Minnesota, Isbin was an award-winning guitarist before she reached college. She was a student of Jeffrey Van in Minneapolis, Oscar Ghiglia at the Aspen Music School in Colorado, Alirio Diaz at the Banff Music Festival, and the legendary classical guitarist Andres Segovia. At age 14, she won a competition that gave her the chance to play with the Minnesota Orchestra, which diverted her from her scientific aspirations. She played Vivaldi’s D major Concerto in front of 10,000 people, “which was even more exciting than launching my own spaceship,” she told BBC Music magazine.That was when Isbin “decided to give up rockets and concentrate on music instead,” she continued. She won first prizes in the Toronto International Guitar Competition in 1975, the Munich International Guitar Competition in 1976, and the Queen Sofia International Guitar Competition in 1979. She earned her bachelor’s degree from Yale University in 1978 and her master’s from the Yale School of Music the following year.
In 1978, Isbin began studying with pianist Rosalyn Tureck, a leading interpreter of Bach. The two worked together to create the first performance editions of the Bach lute suites. After nearly ten years of study with Tureck, Isbin recorded them all on a release called J.S. Bach: Complete Lute Suites. Another of her pet projects was Nightshade Rounds, a collection of twentieth-century British and American solo works for guitar. The release is anchored by two pieces Isbin regards as the “major landmarks in contemporary music,” she told Gramophone —Sir William Walton’s Bagatelles and Benjamin Britten’s Nocturnal after John Dowland. On the release, wrote New York Times critic Allan Kozinn, Isbin created “a mysterious, changeable atmosphere, sometimes alluring and meditative, sometimes charged with prickly energy.” Isbin has recorded concertos written for her by John Corigliano, Lukas Foss, and Joseph Schwantner on American Landscapes, which was the first-ever recording of American guitar concertos. American Landscapes also ended up in space. Astronaut Chris Hadfield, a fan of Isbin’s, brought the release with him on the space shuttle Atlantis as a gift to Russian cosmonauts during a rendezvous with the Russian space station Mir.
As a beginning guitar player in the late 1960s, there were few places for Isbin to study the instrument in the United States, and she often had to fight for the right to enter classical music competitions that had never before considered guitar. After receiving her master’s degree, Isbin began teaching at New York’s Manhattan School of Music and later at Mannes College of Music.
Began studying classical guitar at age nine; played with Minnesota Orchestra at age 14; won first prizes at Toronto International Guitar Competition, 1975; Munich International Guitar Competition, 1976; and Queen Sofia International Guitar Competition, 1979; founded guitar department at the Juilliard School of Music, 1989; released J.S. Bach: Complete Lute Suites, 1989; released Nightshade Rounds, 1994; released American Landscapes, 1995; released Journey to the Amazon, 1991; released Dreams of a World, 2000; released Concerti by Christopher Rouse and Tan Dun, 2001.
Awards: Grammy Award, Best Instrumental Soloist for Dreams of a World: Folk-Inspired Music for Guitar, 2001.
Addresses: Record company —Teldec Classics International, Schubertstraße 5-9 22083 Hamburg, Germany, website:http://www.warner-classics.com/teldec/home2.html. Publicist —Jay K. Hoffman & Associates, 136 E. 57th St., New York, NY 10022, phone: (212) 371-6690, fax: (212) 754-0192. Website— Sharon Isbin Official Website:http://www.sharonisbin.com.
In 1989, she was asked to found and head the guitar department at New York’s Juilliard School, which had been Segovia’s dying wish to do himself. Isbin has also initiated a number of events that have helped bring the guitar into greater prominence as a classical instrument in the United States. Though the guitar is the most commonly owned musical instrument in the United States, it doesn’t often appear on a classical concert stage. Isbin created Guitarstream, a festival at Carnegie Hall, and Guitarjam, a critically acclaimed series on National Public Radio (NPR). “Persistence and determination and conviction have always taught me that I can go where I want to go,” Isbin said in an interview with Gramophone’s Patricia Reilly, “and that you just have to take a chance, leap forward, and know that you can prepare yourself to meet that challenge.”
Isbin, who has been described as “the Monet of the guitar,” is both artistically gifted with the instrument and technically astute. In a Washington Post concert review, critic John Pitcher praised her artistry: “She doesn’t so much execute her phrases as lovingly caress them….” Chicago Tribune critic John von Rhein noted her technical prowess: “She gets nuances out of the classical guitar few guitarists … have matched. Everything she performs bespeaks perfect technical control yet suggests spontaneous improvisation—the art that conceals art.” Isbin is also at the height of technology in concert. She was the first guitarist to use a specially designed wireless sound system that filled concert halls with the intimacy and the wide, dynamic range of her music captured just as the listener would hear it in a living room or on a recording. Despite the technology, though, San Francisco Chronicle critic J. Kosman called Isbin “one of the more musically sensitive … younger guitarists now performing….”
Isbin enjoys playing a range of music from around the globe. On her 1997 album, Journey to the Amazon, she explored music from Latin America, particularly Brazil. The collection, wrote a critic in Stereo Review, “is delicately balanced between traditional and contemporary, classical, and popular music.” Her Dreams of a World, released in 2000, is a collection of folk music from around the world that includes technically demanding pieces from the Appalachian Mountains, the British Isles, Spain, Greece, Cuba, Israel, Venezuela, and Brazil. Isbin “taps the timeless power of traditional melodies, yet delivers these sounds with the refined execution of an experienced concert performer” wrote one critic in Guitar Player. The release topped the Billboard classical charts, and Isbin won the Grammy Award for Best Instrumental Soloist for Dreams of a World in 2001, becoming the first classical guitarist to win a Grammy in 28 years.
Isbin has toured Europe annually since she was 17 years old, and has played in Canada, Japan and the Far East, New Zealand, South America, Mexico, and Israel. She has played at countless international festivals and has appeared as a soloist with more than 100 orchestras in the United States alone. She has appeared on the St Paul Sunday and All Things Considered radio programs, and on CBS Sunday Morning and A&E’s Breakfast with the Arts on television.
J.S. Bach: Complete Lute Suites, EMI/Virgin Classics, 1989; reissued, Virgin, 2001.
Rhapsody in Blue/West Side Story, Concord Concerto, 1990.
Brazil with Love, Concord Picante, 1990.
Love Songs and Lullabies, EMI/Virgin Classics, 1995.
Nightshade Rounds, EMI/Virgin Classics, 1994.
American Landscapes, EMI/Virgin Classics, 1995.
Journey to the Amazon, Teldec Classics, 1997.
Wayfaring Stranger, Erato, 1998.
Aaron Jay Kernis: Double Concerto, Argo/Decca, 1999.
Dreams of a World, Teldec Classics, 2000.
Rodrigo: Latin Romances (two-CD set), EMI/Virgin Classics, 2000.
Concerti by Christopher Rouse and Tan Dun, Teldec New Line, 2001.
Slonimsky, Nicolas, Baker’s Biographical Dictionary of 20th-century Classical Musicians, Schirmer Books, 1992.
BBC Music, December 1996.
Boston Globe, February 14, 1999, p. N2.
Chicago Tribune, June 5, 2000.
Elle, June 1996.
Gramophone, July 1994, p. 23; March 1996.
Guitar Player, April 2000.
New York Times, June 13, 1994.
San Francisco Chronicle, April 24, 1994.
Stereo Review, April 1998.
Washington Post, October 3, 2000.
“Sharon Isbin,” Decca Classics, http://www.deccaclassics.com (March 30, 2001).
Additional information was provided by Jay K. Hoffman & Associates publicity materials, 2001.
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