Sharon Isbin
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Classical Guitar?  She Wrote the Book

Among God's creatures two, the dog and the guitar, have taken all the sizes and all the shapes, in order not to be separated from the man.

- Andre Segovia

The piano is a monster that screams when you touch its teeth.

- Andre Segovia (again)

Ms Guitar, Inc - Sharon Isbin

By Barrymore Laurence Scherer

The guitar's versatility and ability to produce harmony as well as melody have lent themselves to a wide range of musical genres, from old Spain to the Old West to rock.  The guitar also has a1ong though overshadowed tradition in classical music.  Yet, despite its wide popularisation by Andres Segovia (1893-1987), the classical guitar lingered at the edge of standard concert life - till now.  The change is due largely to the American guitarist Sharon Isbin.

Despite her virtuoso technique, Ms Isbin's concerns transcend display.  "Emotion is the most important thing to me as a performer," she says.  "And performance is about making beautiful music and making music beautiful, something I learned when I heard Artur Rubinstein play Chopin in concert when I was 14."

Ms Isbin's repertoire embraces everything from Renaissance masters to jazz.  Since 1989, Ms Isbin has headed the Juilliard School's guitar department, which she established, and between her many concerts she gives master classes worldwide.  She is author of the Classical Guitar Answer Book, which addresses everything from how to memorise pieces more effectively to how often to change strings to the differences between spruce and cedar guitar tops.  She also collaborated with the eminent Baroque keyboardist Rosalyn Tureck on the first performance editions for guitar of JS Each's lute suites.

Faced with a limited concert repertoire for her instrument, Ms Isbin has regularly commissioned new guitar works from a variety of major composers including Ned Rorem, Joan Tower, Aaron Jay Kernis and Christopher Rouse.  Necessity has also obliged her to become a technological innovator: to make the soft-toned acoustic guitar practical for orchestral concerts in major halls, Ms Isbin helped create a unique amplification system for it.  Meanwhile, in what little spare time she allows herself, she maintains an active website (  Is it any wonder that some of her intimates call her "Ms Guitar, Inc"?

The daughter of a chemical engineering professor at the University of Minnesota, she began studying guitar at nine.  After winning her first competition at 14, she eventually went to Yale, and though she worked sporadically with a variety of guitar masters, Segovia among them, she was essentially self-taught after age 16.  Now 46, she is always eager to think independently, a result of which is her portable amplification system, designed to her specifications by Cane Audio Systems.  Her aim was to let the audience experience the guitar's natural sound with sufficient volume for a large auditorium.  "Sound systems provided by the halls are unpredictable and impossible to fine-tune," she says, "especially when you have to depend on sound engineers who don't play the instrument."

Ms Isbin's system uses a wireless microphone clipped inside the sound hole of the guitar and a small omnidirectional acoustical box containing speakers, batteries and other electronic components, placed about 10 feet behind her among the orchestral players.  A built-in graphic equaliser lets her adjust the system to a wide range of frequencies to suit any hall.  In performance, the audience hears a "great big guitar" sound emerging naturally from the orchestra, while the speaker placement lets the orchestra musicians hear her clearly as well.  She's now the only one using this system but hopes it will catch on.

Ms Isbin's discography reflects broad musical interests and include Journey to the Amazon, with Brazilian percussionist Thiago de Mello and saxophonisl Paul Winter, and Wayfaring Stranger (Erato), with that fine American mezzo-soprano Suzanne Mentzer.  Dreams of a World: Folk-Inspired Music for Guitar (Teldec) earned her a 2001 Grammy, the first 'awarded a guitarist since Julian Bream's in 1972.  The next year, her recording of concertos she commissioned from Tan Dun and Christopher Rouse won another.  Her latest release, Baroque Favorites (Warner Classics) with conductor Howard Griffiths and the Zurich Chamber Orchestra, features elegant, nuanced performances of familiar music by Vivaldi, Albinoni and JS Bach in arrangements or transcriptions she has either made herself or overseen.

Addressing the fact that none of the works on this disc were originally composed for guitar, Ms Isbin notes that, "much Baroque music was conceived in terms of overall structure rather than particular instrumental sonorities."  Bach himself, she notes, arranged over 800 of his own works for a variety of instruments.  For Ms Isbin, "an important principle of making transcriptions or arrangements is that the piece should sound at least as good as, if not better than, it does in the original form."

A fundamental characteristic of Baroque music is its contrapuntal texture - that is, with several melodic lines played against one another - as contrasted with the homophonic texture of classical style, with a single melody supported by an accompaniment.  Ms Isbin relishes the challenge of playing 4- or 5-voice Baroque counterpoint on the guitar.  "You're only using 4 fingers on the right hand and various configurations of the left, so you have to find ways to achieve the independence of the lines and the control that allows you to do so."  She attributes her present skill at it to the 10 years she spent studying with Ms Tureck.  "She's not a guitarist, so as she imparted creative ideas about embellishment, articulation and dynamics, I had to find ways to realise them through guitar technique."  Indeed, every measure of Baroque Favorites bespeaks the abundant success of Ms Isbin's solutions to contrapuntal conundrums.

Mr Scherer last wrote for the Journal about Turkish and Western music.

Source: The Wall Street Journal Thursday 10 July 2003 photo credit J Henry Fair

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