Sharon Isbin brings her 'Guitar Passions' tour to Livermore
By Lou Fancher Correspondent San Jose Mercury News
Fans of Grammy Award-winning guitarist Sharon Isbin, who performs Tuesday at Livermore's Bankhead Theater, should thank the gods of classical guitar her older brother didn't want to grow long fingernails.
His reluctance to do so allowed Isbin, at the age of 9, to inherit her sibling's rejected guitar lessons while living in Italy, where her scientist father was working as a consultant. Training first with Aldo Minella, she graduated to Minella's teacher, Andrés Segovia, then went on to earn degrees from Yale University and Yale School of Music. Then she founded the guitar department at The Juilliard School in New York City.
Which brings us to Tuesday, when she will angle her incomparable nails along the strings of her cedar double top Antonius Mueller guitar, in a concert of Latin and jazz music titled "Guitar Passions," joined by electric guitarist-pianist Stanley Jordan and Brazilian jazz guitarist Romero Lubambo.
With her "Classical Guitar Answer Book" and her directorship of the Juilliard department and of the Aspen Music Festival, 25-plus recordings, six-months-per-year touring, an active online presence on multiple platforms and a habit of hiking in Aspen and in Latin American jungles, it's fair to say Isbin is an accomplished person.
And that doesn't address her technical mastery, a dexterity that turns a box and strings into a near-human songbird and a "tune" into a buttery auditory treat or pepper-hot spicefest for the ear. Genre-stretching jaunts like the one she is engaged in now with Jordan and Lubambo prompted the Washington Post to credit her with pushing the guitar "into provocative, edgy new realms."
Beyond the acclaim, there's the significance of a woman excelling with an instrument more commonly associated with male players.
But in a phone interview during a tour stop, Isbin says the gender issue has "actually been an advantage, being a woman, because it's been unusual."
"As a result," she adds, "I've had to fight for the importance of the instrument itself. Being a woman has in no way held me back at all."
But she notes that in her 25 years heading Juilliard's department, she has not had a single female student from the United States.
"I guess it's going to take some time" for American female students to gravitate to the instrument in the way Europeans have, she said.
Isbin has certainly not waited to make her mark on the field. She has commissioned more than 10 orchestral pieces and expanded guitar literature with works from composers like John Corigliano, John Duarte, Argentina's Quique Sinesi, and violinist Mark O'Connor.
The Guitar Passions tour is supporting an album of the same name. In it, as Jordan often taps the strings of his electric guitar like a keyboardist strikes piano keys, Isbin's velvety guitar tones wrap like wisteria, then skirmish like a flamenco dancer around Jordan's sturdy column of sound. With Lubambo, Isbin renders the calm seascape from which his bubbling Brazilian notes burst.
Isbin said recording and touring with the jazz improvisers -- one Brazilian, the other American -- gives her a "freeing, go-with-the-flow" energy.
At the Bankhead, the three musicians will rotate through solo, duet and trio configurations while playing Latin, jazz, classical, Brazilian and Spanish music.
"There's everything from Bach to (Antonio Carlos) Jobim to (Joaquín) Rodrigo and a dozen others in between," Isbin said.
A centerpiece is Laurindo Almeida's arrangement of Rodrigo's Adagio from "Concierto de Aranjuez." "I love it because it's imbued with deep passion," she says. "Rodrigo and his wife lost their first child to a miscarriage. He would console himself by playing the solo. It's soulful, full of nostalgia, beauty and passion."
After the tour, Isbin will turn her attention to a new work commissioned from Chris Brubeck and the release of "Sharon Isbin: Troubadour," a one-hour documentary showcasing Isbin and some of the many composers and artists with whom she has collaborated.