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"My beautiful Antonius Mueller guitar with full-bodied Savarez strings offers an ideal voice to express my innermost feelings". - Sharon Isbin

Posted: April 3, 2024
Acclaimed for her extraordinary lyricism, technique and versatility, multiple GRAMMY Award winner Sharon Isbin was named the 2020 Musical America Worldwide Instrumentalist of the Year, the first guitarist ever to receive the coveted honor in its 59-year award history.

Photo credit: David Black

Awe Inspiring - If you describe someone or something as awe-inspiring, you are emphasizing that you think that they are remarkable and amazing, although sometimes rather frightening.

“The classical guitar has a dynamic to it unlike a regular acoustic guitar or an electric guitar. You know, there's times when you should play and there's times when you gotta hold back. It's an extremely dynamic instrument.” – Steve Vai

Would you anticipate hearing quote from Steve Vai about holding back? Certainly not if you hear him perform. I don’t seem like he holds back during his guitar performances. Often thrashing the guitar with ease and without regret. Today, we are not interviewing Steve Vai. We did that in 2023. We will chat with someone that has performed with Steve Vai, but with a different element of surprise. Her gift of using the guitar to deliberately express her emotions. Sharon Isbin is “awe inspiring”. Remarkable and amazing. However, I would never use the word frightening. She is delightful in every sense of the word. She is gifted, and everyone would benefit from listening to her classical style of playing.

The heart and ears are quick to tune into the sounds coming from her classical guitar playing. She is truly refreshing to listen too. Communication comes easy for her, when she is playing her 6-string acoustic. 

ABOUT SHARON ISBIN

Acclaimed for her extraordinary lyricism, technique and versatility, multiple GRAMMY Award winner Sharon Isbin was named the 2020 Musical America Worldwide Instrumentalist of the Year, the first guitarist ever to receive the coveted honor in its 59-year award history. She received the 2023 Hall of Fame and Artistic Achievement Award from the Guitar Foundation of America. Hailed as “the pre-eminent guitarist of our time”, she is the winner of Guitar Player magazine’s Best Classical Guitarist award, Germany’s Echo Klassik, Concert Artists Guild’s Virtuoso Award, the Toronto, and Madrid Queen Sofia competitions, and the first guitarist to win the Munich ARD Competition. Isbin has appeared as soloist with over 200 orchestras and has given sold-out performances in many of the world’s finest halls across 40 countries, including New York’s Carnegie and Geffen Halls, Boston’s Symphony Hall, Washington D.C.’s Kennedy Center, Philadelphia’s Kimmel Center, London’s Barbican and Wigmore Halls, Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw, Paris’ Châtelet, Vienna’s Musikverein, Munich’s Herkulessaal, Argentina’s Teatro Colón, and Madrid’s Teatro Real. She has served as Artistic Director and soloist of festivals she created for Carnegie Hall and the Ordway Music Theatre (St. Paul), New York’s 92NY, and the national radio series Guitarjam.
 
American Public Television’s presentation of the acclaimed one-hour documentary Sharon Isbin: Troubadour has been seen by millions on over 200 PBS stations across the U.S. and abroad. Winner of the ASCAP Television Broadcast Award, the film is available with bonus performances on DVD, Blu-ray, and Amazon streaming. Watch the trailer at: www.sharonisbintroubadour.com Other recent national performances on PBS include the Billy Joel Gershwin Prize with Josh Groban, and Tavis Smiley. A frequent guest on NPR’s All Things Considered and A Prairie Home Companion, Isbin has been featured on television throughout the world, including CBS Sunday Morning, Showtime’s The L Word, and as soloist on the GRAMMY-nominated soundtrack of Scorsese’s Oscar-winning The Departed. She performed at Ground Zero for the first internationally televised 9/11 memorial, in concert at the White House by invitation of President Obama, and as the only classical artist in the 2010 GRAMMY Awards. She has been profiled in periodicals from People to Elle, The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times, as well as appearing on the covers of over 50 magazines.
 
Sharon Isbin has been acclaimed for expanding the guitar repertoire with some of the finest new works of our time and has premiered over 80 works written for her by world-renowned composers, including more concerti than any other guitarist, as well as numerous solo and chamber works. Works for her by John Corigliano, Joseph Schwantner and Lukas Foss are featured on her American Landscapes, the first-ever recording of American guitar concerti. (In November 1995, it was launched in the space shuttle Atlantis and presented to Russian cosmonauts during a rendezvous with Mir.) She premiered Concert de Gaudí by Christopher Rouse with Christoph Eschenbach and the NDR Symphony, followed by the U.S. premiere with the Dallas Symphony. Among many other composers who have written for her are Joan Tower, David Diamond, Aaron Jay Kernis, Leo Brouwer, Howard Shore, Ned Rorem, and Ami Maayani, with highlights including John Duarte’s Joan Baez Suite, and a duo by rock guitarist Steve Vai which they performed in Paris’ Théâtre du Châtelet. Recent premieres of works written for her include Of Love and Longing by Richard Danielpour co-commissioned by Carnegie Hall for its 125th anniversary and by Chicago’s Harris Theater; Affinity: Concerto for Guitar & Orchestra by Chris Brubeck which honors his father Dave Brubeck; Song of a Dreaming Sparrow by Schwantner which she premieres with the Pacifica Quartet in New York City and on tour in November 2022; and the North American premiere of Tan Dun’s Yi2 concerto in January 2023.
  

INTERVIEW WITH SHARON ISBIN AND GUITAR THRILLS MAGAZINE

Guitar Thrills: Hello Sharon. It is delightful to have you interview with Guitar Thrills Magazine. I would quantify it as a privilege.

I believe emotion, and power comes into play to describe the sounds coming from your guitar. Not everyone is able to manipulate the strings to accommodate how they feel. How do you do it? What are you feeling when you play?

Sharon: Thank you, it is an honor to talk with you! One of the amazing things about a nylon string guitar played with right hand fingernails is the remarkable array of colors and dynamics it offers. When you add left hand vibrato and multiple fingering choices, a magnificent universe of diverse timbres and expressive possibilities emerges. Without pedals, keys, implements or electronics, the instrument feels like an extension of my being.

Guitar Thrills: What is it about the acoustic guitar that enables you to perform like you do? Is it in the nylon strings, is it the brand that you perform with, what gives you that edge that other guitarists do not have?

Sharon: My beautiful Antonius Mueller guitar with full-bodied Savarez strings offers an ideal voice to express my innermost feelings. The instrument invites a wide range of expression, while its sustain and resonance enables me to shape melodic lines lyrically like a singer. Like actors who make choices to fit the characters and scenes they portray, so must musicians understand the structure, history and character of the music they play to make informed decisions about phrasing, fingering, articulation, dynamics, shaping, colors, nuances, embellishments, and more. They must also have something emotionally compelling and passionate to say that reflects a composer’s vision and emerges from the heart.

Guitar Thrills: My guitar teacher used to perform using a nylon string guitar. I heard melodies that were inspiring. I learned playing with steel strings, but it never could match the sound coming from a nylon string guitar. What is your preference in strings and why?

Sharon: I find Savarez Cantiga high tension basses to be amazingly powerful, and their polished versions ideal for minimizing squeaks in recordings. For trebles, I use normal tension Savarez Alliance 3rd, normal-tension New Cristal 2nd, and high-tension New Cristal 1st.

Guitar Thrills: I heard you say, “when you play the guitar, it is like being transported to another world”. I understand the reference. However, tell me about your reference to how this applies.

Sharon: I have practiced Transcendental Meditation since age 17. It’s a simple, ancient technique taught in just five one-hour sessions and requires only 20 minutes every morning and afternoon. Unlike mindful meditation, it is effortless and extraordinarily effective in releasing stress, calming the mind and body, and enabling access to one’s own inner core of creativity. When performing at my best, I feel a similar otherworldly immersion, in this case in the flow of music and energy. The energy from an audience is part of that process, and one of the reasons why every performance is different.

Guitar Thrills: You had the opportunity to play before an audience at the World Trade Center after 9/11. How did it make you feel before the live performance? Did you see it as an opportunity to help heal others through the sound of your music?

Sharon: Given how devastating 9/11 was and how being in New York City at the time rendered indelible the depth of emotion and fear, I wondered how it would be possible to hold it together while performing at the first Ground Zero Memorial in 2002 during the internationally televised broadcast of the reading of names of the nearly 3000 murdered. When I walked onstage, however, and looked out onto the sea of 40,000 family members and survivors gathered for the first time, with many holding up posters of their lost loved ones, a calm came over me and I understood my mission that day, and every day forward, would be to help heal through music.

Guitar Thrills: We often talk about other artists being an inspiration. However, countries or cities can be an inspiration as well. Often times, it will change the way an musician plays. They want to develop a particular style or sound. What country has defined the way you play the guitar and why?

Sharon: Since audiences are different in each venue, situation and performance, I can’t generalize by country. But there will always be many standout memories!

Guitar Thrills: Now these days, there are more musicians becoming guitar teachers online. Have you thought about following suit?

Sharon: I prefer teaching in-person. Doing so enables me to hear, see and experience a student from various vantage points accurately, and facilitates immediate exchanges. When my master classes are shared with permission online or livestreamed, it’s an opportunity to reach an even larger audience.

Guitar Thrills: Tell us about your experience with Steve Vai. I would never have thought about pairing you both together. Styles are so different. However, when you are a great guitarist, you can play anything. This is a reference to both you and Steve. What was the collaboration like? What was your impression of him? Did he give you any input about your strengths?

Sharon: The Recording Academy first brought us together to perform at Grammy events in New York City and Atlanta. We bonded instantly like brother and sister and became fast friends. Not only is Steve a brilliant guitarist, but he is also a beautiful, generous and wonderful human being. When I was asked to perform a week of concerts at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris, their equivalent of Carnegie Hall, the venue offered to commission a composer. I invited Steve to write a duo for us to premiere in one of the evenings, and to my astonishment he said yes! His Blossom Suite was a hit, and it was an amazing, memorable night for me and the Châtelet, which had never presented a rock guitarist before! The walls were practically busting out with a sold-out house that included fans of his who’d flown in from all over Europe and as far away as Mexico and Asia. Steve improvises to a Paraguayan work I play on the Sony album, SHARON ISBIN & FRIENDS: GUITAR PASSIONS – he’s magical!

Guitar Thrills: I must admit, listening to you play requires little effort. Because it relaxes me and allows the mind to be at peace. However, my interest in your guitar playing gets me to start asking questions. How did she come up with that? And one moment, you are playing Flamenco, and next I hear what sounds country in nature. Wow, what a wide range of genres. Did you ever think about playing a different genre, or have you always loved classical music?

Sharon: I started on classical guitar by chance at age nine when my family lived in Italy for a year and my older brother reneged on his lessons! I love many styles of music and have been fortunate to record and perform with amazing artists like Joan Baez, Heart’s Nancy Wilson, Stanley Jordan, Mark O’Connor, Romero Lubambo, Amjad Ali Khan and Paul Winter. My first touring trio was with jazz greats Larry Coryell and Laurindo Almeida!

Premiering a dazzling concerto that Chris Brubeck wrote for me in a jazzy, Middle Eastern style with a ballad by his father Dave Brubeck, and recording it on my 2020 album AFFINITY was another thrilling experience.

Guitar Thrills: I must ask you, what brand of guitar do you play with? Is there a difference based upon the sound you are trying to achieve?

Sharon: I’ve played guitars by many makers, but for the last fourteen years my instrument has been a gorgeous handmade cedar double-top by Antonius Mueller from Germany. The soundboard’s thin top layer generates a fast response from the right hand, and the supporting layer beneath is separated by thin strips of balsa wood. You can see the distinctive pattern reflected on the surface in my videos: www.youtube.com/sharonisbin  I love the instrument’s resonance, clarity, full round rich tone and powerful projection.

Guitar Thrills: Thank you from the bottom of my heart for interviewing for us today. It has been a pleasure. I will continue listening to you play. I am hooked. Do you have any projects, or something that you are currently working on?

Sharon: You are the first to hear the news that my new album LIVE IN ASPEN will be released this June! It’s an exciting sold-out concert I performed at the 2022 Aspen Music Festival with the world’s foremost sarod virtuoso Amjad Ali Khan, his brilliant sons Amaan and Ayaan Ali Bangash, and tabla whiz Amit Kavthekar. Our first album, STRINGS FOR PEACE, was released in 2020 on the ZOHO label following our debut tour in India the year before. The Aspen Music Festival, which celebrates its 75th anniversary this summer, is one of North America’s largest summer classical festivals. I’ve been directing their guitar department and performing there every year since 1993, and look forward to the upcoming July 30 show.

Later this year I will record an album of works by Karen LeFrak, including her wonderful Latin dance-influenced Miami Concerto for Guitar and Orchestra which I recently premiered with the National Symphony and Miami Symphony.

Guitar Thrills: Please do not hesitate to reach out to us. We want to ensure that you get as much coverage on what you are working on. Truly “awe inspiring”. Thank you.

Sharon: It has been a joy and honor to talk with you, thank you for the invitation!




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