Sharon Isbin is an anomaly.
Yes, she’s a female guitarist in the classical genre, and that is very rare. But even more rare and impressive is the fact that when she saw a dearth of compositions for guitar with orchestra, she found a way to have them created. For her. By some of the top composers in the world.
To say she is persuasive is an understatement. To say she is a precious, virtuosic and tenacious talent is not.
Currently Isbin is celebrating the imminent release of a documentary on her life and career, presented by American Public Television and set to air in November and December of 2014. The one-hour special, titled “Sharon Isbin: Troubadour,” is a wonderful piece that artfully shares this artist’s passion for musical creation and exploration.
Isbin has a pioneering spirit and has often found a way around obstacles and embraced genre-bending projects.
Here we had the opportunity to talk with her about this new film, and some of her other experiences and projects as well.
How did this documentary project come about?
Well, it began about six years ago. I was invited by the composer John Williams to hear a rehearsal of his with the New York Philharmonic. I was so blown away by the videos that were accompanying his conducting. At one point, I exclaimed, “Wow, that’s extraordinary. Who did that video?” And a voice behind me said, “I did.”
I turned around and there was only one other person in the hall because it was a rehearsal. And that turned out to be the producer Susan Dangel, who has worked for many, many years with John Williams. So we began to talk and one thing led to another and she offered to explore the idea of creating a documentary on me. Five years filming later, and another year of post-production, here we are.
The quality is fantastic. She definitely knows what she’s doing.
And the director of photography Rob Fortunato is really considered one of the top in the business. I feel very fortunate that she has had a wonderfully creative input into what she has designed and put together and that she has assembled an outstanding team in the process. The editor Dick Bartlett is an Emmy award-winning editor.
They did such a great job of telling your story. It was really wonderful to watch. How do you feel when you watch that?
I’ve seen it a lot of times now. Normally now when I go to a screening, if I’m performing after the screening, I usually go to another room and I don’t watch it. But I have really enjoyed it and it always makes me smile. It’s something that really communicates a lot of joy, and there’s a lot of humor. I remember telling Susan, “Please make it funny.”
I think what struck me as interesting is that you seem to like a challenge. We’ll talk about the whole “female guitarist” thing later, but you pick an instrument that it’s a stretch to find even works for you to play, and then you...
What a dumb choice to pick guitar, in other words (laughs). It’s true!
Watch the trailer for “Troubadour”
Well, I’m guessing you didn’t realize that there weren’t many classical ensemble pieces created for that instrument when you started.
I think the first composer I ever talked to about writing for me when I was 17, Ami Maayani, and his response when I said, “Would you like to write a guitar concerto for me?” He said, “A guitar – what a silly, stupid instrument. No way!” And eventually, I talked him into it after he heard me play. So I think that kind of sums up the odds that I have been facing really all my life. If you think that with the New York Philharmonic, I’m still the only guitarist they have ever recorded with.
I had two battles in the classical world.
I’ve had to really work to create the respect that the instrument deserves and one of the ways of doing that is getting composers who are well-established in the mainstream to write for me, and their popularity, their integrity, their claim has helped to launch the guitar into a lot of spheres it hasn’t been before.
And then I love how you sort of stepped sideways, if you will, into working with Steve Vai, Stanley Jordan, some of the other artists that were in your recent album, Sharon Isbin & Friends: Guitar Passions. Why don’t you talk about that a little bit? Was that because you needed another challenge?
Actually, that happened very organically. Back in the 1980s, when crossover was considered a dirty word, I was asked by Larry Coryell and Laurindo Almeida, to join them in a concert and my first thought was, “What will we play together?” And they said, “Don’t worry. We’ll make arrangements. We’ll make sure you have things to do that you can do really brilliantly and it will all work out.”
I was a bit skeptical but the end result was so much fun that we ended up touring together for five years, making a recording, and that was really the beginning by accident of going into this other world.
I had since worked with people like Antonio Carlos Jobim and his music, and with doing tours even with Herb Ellis and Michael Hedges, his last tour before he was killed in the car accident, and the current guitarists and musicians I’ve been working with, who are not from the classical world like Steve Vai, you mentioned, and Stanley Jordan, Nancy Wilson from Heart, Steve Morse, and for a long time, Paul Winter from the Paul Winter Consort – these are musicians I’ve been drawn to because I have enormous respect for their artistry.
I think they’re brilliant and I can imagine how a collaboration might sound, and that’s why it really has come together.
I wouldn’t say that happened by accident. I think you seem to have this open vision, so yes, perhaps, what sparked that vision was accidental, then what you did with it was no accident.
Well, thank you, thank you. Steve Vai, for example, we were introduced by The Recording Academy and were asked to play together on a program called “Nothing But Guitars.” We just really struck a wonderful friendship at that time and musical collaboration that has continued to this day.
So, what do you see happening next? You’ve got this documentary coming out and you’ll be doing some events I saw on your site around that, but do you have some other new challenge that you might want to share?
Oh yes. After I promised myself no more, they are coming. And what I’m excited, too, about the documentary is that American Public Television is presenting the national broadcast this November and December, that will be carried by nearly 200 public television stations.
Video Artists International will be releasing the documentary with bonus performance material as a DVD on Blu-ray, also sold this year.
And the new projects coming up: the first one, Chris Brubeck, is writing a concerto for me for guitar and orchestra that I’ll premiere in April, that will be a tribute to his late father, Dave Brubeck, and uses some material from his father. They were very close and Chris is a jazz artist and composer and making quite a name for himself these days. He’s had many prestigious commissions, from the Boston Pops, to the BBC London Proms. It’s very exciting to see what’s happening for him and the work that he’s writing will incorporate his love of jazz and those influences as well as some other really interesting Middle Eastern ideas and of music that relates to his late father Dave.
Well, that’s exciting!
It is, that will be next April. The next challenge there will be to bring that to life.
Another composer is working with me on a piece that has been commissioned by Carnegie Hall, in collaboration with the Harris Theater in Chicago. Richard Danielpour is writing a song cycle that I’ll be premiering with one of the hot opera stars at the Metropolitan Opera, Isabel Leonard. We’re doing a lot of touring this year and next. The premiere will be a year from now.
Let’s talk a little bit about you as a “female guitarist.” Does it bother you that you’re called a “female classical guitarist,” not just a “guitarist”?
I’m amused by it. Of course, you wouldn’t say, “and the male guitarist,” but because it’s still something of an anomaly in the music world, I think highlighting that just brings it to people’s attention that we still have a ways to go, and that it’s important to acknowledge the pioneering and groundbreaking efforts that are apart of being a woman in this business.
Has it ever cause some concern for you?
I’ll never know the things that I don’t know. What I do know is that it has inspired me in a very positive way to be the absolute best that I can be. So that I would eliminate any question based on gender.
Do you see yourself as a role model for other girls and women?
I do see a number of young women and girls have been drawn to become musicians, become guitarists because they tell me that I have inspired them. I am sure that there is some element of truth to that, but I think that what is important is that we really follow our passion, do something that we believe in but do it with integrity in the highest possible standards, and that good things will come from that.
As I watched your documentary, there was one quote that really stood out for me. You said, “No just means try harder.”
Warner Classics just released a box set of five of Isbin's most popular albums on October 14. The collection brings together cornerstones of the guitar concerto repertoire by Rodrigo and Villa-Lobos performed with the New York Philharmonic; arrangements of perennial Baroque favorites; music from South America with organic Brazilian percussion and guest Paul Winter; two GRAMMY Award-winning discs: concerti by Christopher Rouse and Tan Dun (written for Isbin and featured in the documentary), and her imaginatively-programmed solo disc 'Dreams of a World.' More info: http://bit.ly/1v3K9BM
Isbin will be touring in the U.S. for the remainder of 2014. Find out more at sharonisbin.com
Laura B. Whitmore is the editor of AcousticNation.com and a singer/songwriter based in the Boston metro area. A veteran music industry marketer, she has spent over two decades doing marketing, PR and artist relations for several guitar-related brands including Marshall and VOX. Her company, Mad Sun Marketing, represents Peavey, Dean Markley, MusicFirst, SIR Entertainment Services, Guitar World and many more. Laura is the founder of the Women's International Music Network at thewimn.com and the producer of the She Rocks Awards. More at mad-sun.com.