Poster Sharon Isbin
Sharon Isbin
J Henry Fair/c J Henry Fair
Classical Minnesota Stories

Guitarist Sharon Isbin lives in NYC but stays true to her Minnesota roots

Despite living away from the Twin Cities for most of her life, Sharon Isbin still has some Minnesota in her. That might be easiest to tell when she goes cross-country skiing in New York City's Central Park, in walking distance from her apartment on the Upper West Side. When she is not traveling the world to perform or teach, you might find her there. Her neighborhood is the home of the Juilliard School, where she has headed the guitar department for nearly three decades; and Lincoln Center, a hub for classical music, including her own.

While visiting the city, I had the opportunity to meet her one cloudy March day when there was not enough snow to think of skiing. Walking into her living room, I didn't even see the two Grammy Awards nestled on top of custom-made speakers, but there they were. That setup speaks to Isbin's character, or what I noticed in the short time I got to talk with her: She might be among the world's premier classical guitarists, but she also is an astute, productive and ever-curious person.

We talked about shows to see on Broadway, her travels and Transcendental Meditation — which has kept her focused since her teens and for which she donates her time with the David Lynch Foundation. She mentioned her misadventures, like that one time in her hometown of Minneapolis' Theodore Wirth Park when she and a friend got lost cross-country skiing and hitchhiked back; and that other time in the Swiss Alps when she accidentally hiked off the trail onto a cliff with a storm coming in. Eventually, we also talked about music: She released her newest album, Alma Española, in 2017. Its producer, David Frost, just won a Grammy to put on his speakers too.

The album features Isbin and mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard performing a collection of Spanish folk songs.

"More than half the composers on Alma Española either had to flee from or were murdered by fascist governments, so that certainly is a very timely topic right now. And I had interactions either directly or indirectly with several of them," Isbin said. She and Leonard recorded the album in June 2016. "We're dealing with fascist issues in this country on every level and worldwide now, so we had no idea this would become so relevant."

One of those people was Joaquín Rodrigo, one of Spain's most celebrated composers, who invited her to his home after hearing a live broadcast of hers on the radio, starting a 20-year friendship. He and his wife, Victoria Kamhi, who was Jewish, had to flee first Franco and then Hitler. In the terror of the war, she miscarried their first child and became gravely ill. Rodrigo would console himself by sitting at the piano and playing the somber adagio theme, which became the centerpiece of his 1939 landmark Concierto de Aranjuez. Kamhi, a former pianist, recovered, and in 1988 wrote the lyrics. Rodrigo and Kamhi died in 1999 and 1997, respectively. Their daughter, Cecilia, asked Isbin to be the first to record it. Alma Española is her second recording of the piece.

While visiting Rodrigo in Spain, Isbin took a trip south to Granada to see the famous Alhambra. Taking in local flamenco music in the gypsy caves overlooking the palace, she was offered a guitar.

Sharon Isbin
Sharon Isbin
Hiroyuki Ito

"I was their captive for the next hour playing Spanish music. I think of that all the time whenever I play this music," she said.

Two of the pieces she played in the caves are on Alma Espanola — one by Francisco Tarrega and the other by Enrique Granados, another victim of the fascists. In 1916, Granados' ship was torpedoed by a German U-boat on his trip back from seeing his opera Goyescas' U.S. premiere. He had extended his stay after President Woodrow Wilson invited him to play at the White House and drowned while trying to save his wife.

"How could you not think of all this when you play this music?" Isbin said.

Isbin's life is an intricate balancing act of touring, teaching and traveling, so staying productive is a top priority. The meditation helps — after the second of her daily 20-minute sessions, she said she feels like she's ready for a whole other day — which makes sense because sometimes she works for about that long. When I met with her, Isbin was working on "the kind of thing that makes you want to pull your hair out," or editing a concerto for guitar sent to her four months late. With less than a month to go until the premiere, she was working late into the night.

"If I get in a groove, I'm not going to walk away from it. I'll just keep focused. I don't drink caffeine at all, so anything that I do is on my own energy," she said.

Isbin is premiering the Concierto de Granada, written for her by Enric Palomar, on April 7 and 8 with the Colorado Springs Philharmonic. She said she encouraged Palomar to lean into his Spanish heritage, so the piece has farruca rhythms and other flamenco components.

She has honed her teaching at Juilliard to three students. One of them, Tengyue Zhang from China, won the 2017 Guitar Foundation of America International Concert Artist Competition. She is coming up on 30 years as the head of the guitar department for the school, which is also seeing a change in presidents. But Isbin doesn't see that altering her vision for the department.

"I've been able to really mold it and direct it as I wanted to, and it's thriving," she said. "I've raised a lot of funds for it. I've had students from over 20 different countries, many of whom have gone back and become the premier players where they live, and it's been a very exciting program to create and nurture."

Having three students allows her to travel when she needs to, and Juilliard's four months off in the summer lets her lead the Aspen Music Festival's guitar department, which she has done since 1993.

But she still finds time for Minnesota. She visits a few times a year, to see her family and play with music ensembles. She also donates her time to give concerts at the senior living community where her father lives.

Like when playing flamenco in the gypsy caves and getting lost in the Swiss Alps (or in Wirth Park), Isbin maintains a sense of openness that belies her decades on the international stage.

"You can't plan this stuff; it just happens. But if you're open to it, then you fly with it," she said.

As much as I would love to attribute her humility and cold-weather resilience to being Minnesotan, it's just who she is. Her strength and adventurous spirit stem from the hard work she has put in throughout her career, from grade-school guitar lessons to long hours of concerto editing — and it was quite a thing to witness. To put it as Minnesota humbly as possible, it was not a bad first trip to New York.

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