ACO Parables: Q&A with guitarist Sharon Isbin

Sharon Isbin is a multiple GRAMMY Award-winning classical guitarist, hailed as “the preeminent guitarist of our time” by Boston Magazine and “The Monet of the classical guitar … a master colorist” by Atlanta Journal. She has appeared as soloist with over 170 orchestras and in many of the world’s finest concert halls, created and served as artistic director/soloist of several esteemed festivals, and has been profiled on television throughout the world, including CBS Sunday Morning and A&E. Among other career highlights, she performed in concert at the White House for President and Mrs. Obama in November 2009, and was the only classical artist to perform in the 2010 GRAMMY Awards. Her latest recording, Alma Espanola with opera star Isabel Leonard, will be released this July. The all-Spanish album is the first of it’s kind in 40 years and includes twelve world premiere arrangements by Sharon.

Sharon is credited with expanding the guitar repertoire with some of the finest new works of the century. She has commissioned and premiered more concerti than any other guitarist, as well as numerous solo and chamber works. Among these commissioned works is John Corigliano’s Troubadours, which the Academy Award-winning composer wrote for Sharon in 1992/93.

Sharon was kind enough to speak with us about her upcoming performance of Troubadours with American Composers Orchestra and conductor Rossen Milanov at ACO Parables –Tuesday, May 23, 2017, 8pm at Symphony Space.

Classical guitarist Sharon Isbin

American Composers Orchestra: John Corigliano has said that when you first approached him about writing a guitar concerto, he was “decidedly lukewarm about the idea.” Most performers would have shied away at the first sign of “lukewarmness” from a composer. Why was it important for you to be persistent, and what did it take to eventually convince Corigliano to write Troubadours?

Sharon Isbin: When I first met John, he had little knowledge of classical guitar, its technique, repertoire or capabilities. We met by chance at a New Year’s Eve party in New York, and two weeks later, ran into each other standing in line at the post office. It was a long line. So we chatted, and I asked if he would consider writing a guitar concerto for me. He said, “what an interesting idea, please call me about it.” I did, he again expressed interest, but said he was really busy and to call him in a year. Next year, it was the same story. Undaunted – because I loved his music and believed he would write a beautiful concerto – I pursued this annual ritual for eight years. Finally, I asked his publisher at G. Schirmer, Mary Lou Humphrey, how could I convince him? She suggested I propose an unusual programmatic concept. I woke up the next morning thinking about the colorful and romantic tradition of the 13th century French troubadours, and wrote John a letter suggesting the idea. He loved it because it wasn’t Spanish, no one had ever written a guitar concerto based on this period of history, and it offered him a rich artistic tapestry to explore.

ACO: What makes Troubadours different than the other concertos in your repertoire? Corigliano mentions that its type of virtuosity is different than his other concertos. Can you talk a little bit about the virtuosity asked of you?

SI: Shortly after ghostly sonic evocations of time travel to the past that begin the concerto, I play the longest fastest scale I’ve ever encountered. Following that, I land in the 12th century playing a sensuous, lyrical song inspired by a fragment of  “A Chantar” penned by a famous female troubadour composer, the Countess Beatriz de Dia. The journey becomes ever more colorful, including rhythmically improvisatory musical interactions with an offstage dance band, and finally a return to the theme cast at the end in a sad minor key to evoke the loss of innocence, and in the case of the once celebrated troubadours, persecution, exile and death.

ACO: You have commissioned and premiered more concerti than any other guitarist, as well as numerous solo and chamber works. Why has it been important for you to bring new repertoire for classical guitar into the world? What do you most enjoy about the process of commissioning and premiering a new work?

SI: I love the creative process of working with a brilliant composer like John, and nurturing the music to life. It’s challenging, unpredictable, sometimes torturous, but ultimately exhilarating and fulfilling! More importantly, it builds the guitar literature and leaves behind a valuable musical legacy for others to perform and enjoy.

ACO: What are you looking forward to about the performance of Troubadours with ACO and conductor Rossen Milanov?

I look forward to performing with the outstanding conductor and orchestra for the first time, and sharing with them and the audience this beautiful, evocative work. For those who like to come prepared, you can listen in advance here.

And to learn more about my collaboration with John Corigliano and other composers, enjoy the documentary Sharon Isbin: Troubadour, which has aired throughout the U.S. on PBS and which won the 2015 ASCAP Television Broadcast Award.

Sharon will perform Troubadours with American Composers Orchestra and conductor Rossen Milanov at ACO Parables –Tuesday, May 23, 2017, 8pm at Symphony Space. (Use discount code ACO15 at checkout to save 15%.)

Learn more about Sharon Isbin at
Follow Sharon on Facebook and Twitter

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.