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An accidental guitarist: Sharon Isbin at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral

An interview with the classical guitarist about her upcoming Spanish-inflected concert and masterclass.

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Sharon Isbin is at the pinnacle of the classical guitar world. She has won three Grammys, the 2020 Musical America Worldwide Instrumentalist of the Year, and numerous international awards. The New York-based artist leads the guitar programs at Juilliard and the Aspen Music Festival. Her concertizing has taken her to 40 countries; she has played with over 200 orchestras (including the Oregon Symphony) and made over 30 recordings. Her CDs have even accompanied astronaut Chris Hadfield into space on the Space Shuttle Atlantis!

U.S. Classical Guitar is bringing Isbin to Portland for a master class (May 5) and a solo recital (May 6) at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral. Tickets available here. Please Note: At the request of the artist, proper masks completely covering your nose and mouth must be worn at all times while in the building of the concert and master class. Our conversation with Isbin has been edited for clarity and flow.

Guitarist Sharon Isbin.

Oregon ArtsWatch: One of the pieces on your program is the terrific “El Decameron Negro” by the great Cuban guitarist and composer Leo Brouwer.

Sharon Isbin: I was fortunate to receive this work from him. His “El Decameron Negro” is based on African love stories that were collected in the 19th Century by a German ethnologist. There are three movements-ballads that comprise the piece. They describe a warrior and his tribe and their adventures.

The piece really came out of the blue one day. I had met Brouwer when I won a competition. I have recorded it on my album Affinity, which came out in 2020. All of the pieces on the program have a Spanish heritage.

I will open with a Spanish dance by Enrique Granados, who never wrote for the guitar, but the instrument clearly inspired him. The concert includes works by Spanish composer Francisco Tárrega, Venezuelan composer Antonio Lauro, and Paraguayan composer Agustín Barrios. 

I will play Lauro’s Waltz No. 3, which he dedicated to his daughter Natalia. When I visited her in Caracas, Venezuela, she accompanied me on that piece by improvising on a folk instrument, the cuatro. That was quite thrilling. 

Barrios was a very colorful character of Indian background. He wrote hundreds of works for guitar. I have chosen some of the ones that I find particularly inspiring for the program. One of them, “La Cathedral,” came about when Barrios heard the music of Bach in a cathedral.

OAW: You will also perform a piece by Tan Dun?

Isbin: You might wonder how Tan Dun from China fits with all of this. Tan Dun wrote a guitar concerto for me, and he loved the way I played it. Then he asked me if I was open to a solo work based on that concerto. It’s called “Seven Desires for the Guitar.” In this piece, the guitar desires to be a pipa, which is an ancient Chinese lute. It is a picked instrument that uses a plectrum. The guitar uses fingernails. The pipa uses bent notes to create ghostly avocations. Guitarists use bent notes for Jimi Hendrix-style blues avocations. There’s a lot of strumming that both pipa and the classical guitar use. So they have many techniques in common. 

What Tan Dun has accomplished in a fascinating way is to honor the Spanish heritage of the guitar, and to bring some of those gestures from flamenco, such as the strumming, stomping of the dancers, and the lyricism, and he melds that together with Chinese folk music, which is part of the world of the pipa. It’s a really unique and special piece.

During China’s Cultural Revolution, Tan Dun was forced to abandon Western music. He was sent to become a rice farmer by the Chinese government. He used that time to study whatever he could get his hands on, and ended up researching a lot of Chinese folk music. But at one point, a freak accident happened and the boat that contained the Peking Opera Orchestra capsized so that many were drowned. The government called back people like Tan Dun to the capital to play in the orchestra, and from there he made his way to New York. We know him from his score for the movie Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

OAW: Do you have to apply some kind of substance to your nails to make them super hard?

Isbin: I don’t have to do that. You have to take care of your nails because it is what you use to pluck the strings in the right hand. By having well-groomed nails that are shaped in the appropriate way and very smooth, you have at your disposal an infinite number of color possibilities, depending on how much nail you use, what angle you play it on the string, what position on the string, how much pressure you add. All that is a remarkable opportunity to create color and emotion in the context of the music.

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If a nail were to break, you have to use crazy glue and silk and sometimes even fake nails in order to repair them. The main idea is to keep your nails in great shape, and you won’t have to do all that. 

OAW: Do you own a lot of guitars?

Isbin: I don’t. But I still have the first one that I started with when my family moved from Minneapolis to Italy for my father’s work at the University of Minnesota. I had an instrument that was built for me. I was only nine years old. It’s on a smaller scale; so it is a keepsake. My parents had heard about a wonderful teacher who had studied with Segovia. 

My brother, who is seven years older, when we arrived in Italy said that he wanted guitar lessons. His fantasy was to be the next Elvis, but my parents didn’t know that. So, while they located an amazing teacher, my brother decided that classical guitar was not for him. I volunteered to take his place out of family duty. So, I began as an accidental guitarist. 

Classical guitar appealed to me immediately. I had already abandoned two years of piano lessons. I loved holding the guitar. You cradle it. There’s the scent of the wood. You play directly on the strings without keys and without pedals. It is intimate and special. 

After a year in Italy, my family moved back to Minneapolis, and the next pivot point was when I entered a competition at the age of 14 and the award was to solo with the Minnesota Orchestra for ten thousand people. Literally overnight that became more exciting than my passion for model rockets. My father would bribe me to practice by saying that I could not launch my rockets until I put in an hour on the guitar. 

Playing with the orchestra was so thrilling that I abandoned my dreams of being a scientist. I put all my effort into being a musician. 

Right now, I am playing on a guitar that was made in Germany specifically for me.  But for a period of time, I was the spokesperson for the SoloEtte Travel Guitar, which is made by Rossco Wright in Eugene. I was fascinated by this guitar because I would often take trips to the Amazon Forest and jungles, and I wanted a guitar that was small and indestructible. You can take it apart and carry it over your shoulder. I’ve used it in concert with electric players like Steve Vai and Stanley Jordan. 

It has always been my interest to explore the world. I’ve performed in over 40 different countries. You can explore musically and artistically. For me, music is what brings people together and makes us one human race, which is a beautiful thing.

James Bash enjoys writing for The Oregonian, The Columbian, Classical Voice North America, Opera, and many other publications. He has also written articles for the Oregon Arts Commission and the Grove Dictionary of American Music, 2nd edition. He received a fellowship to the 2008 NEA Journalism Institute for Classical Music and Opera, and is a member of the Music Critics Association of North America.

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