Sharon Isbin and Her Never-ending Legacy

A recent DVD and new CD add insights and break new ground to the guitarist’s singular accomplishments


Sharon Isbin long ago earned the right to drop the word “female” from the phrase “greatest (female) classical guitarist.” If anyone cares to argue the point, just hand them a copy of the 2015 DVD “Sharon Isbin: Troubador”—it shouldn’t take more than ten minutes to close the case.

There’s a good chance you might want to hand a few of the DVDs out, as holiday season is close upon us. Better still for Madisonians, Isbin is about to grace the stage of Overture Hall with the Madison Symphony Orchestra and John DeMain for concerts Friday and Saturday nights and Sunday afternoon.

We will get to hear her play not only the ubiquitous “Concierto de Aranjuez” by Joaquin Rodrigo, but also the Chris Brubeck guitar concerto written for her, “Affinity.” This latter is a reminder of one quality in which the DVD abundantly illustrates: Isbin’s tireless work in expanding the repertory for her instrument has been virtually lifelong and incredibly successful. In the course of the documentary, we get to hear reminiscences from composers such as John Corigliano who, when first asked by Isbin to write for her, flat-out refused. Turns out that more than one successful composer had little or no understanding of the instrument itself…but Isbin (pictured above, courtesy of J. Henry Fair) managed to overcome those obstacles time and again.

Of course there are many wonderful moments of her playing solo and with orchestra, and the former category is made so vivid and compelling by the cinematography of Rob Fortunato. And if those all-too-brief glimpses of her impeccable technique in close-up leave the viewer wanting more, well, we get more, with some bonus material that includes an unforgettable “Asturias” of Albeniz. There are nearly 30 minutes of bonus material in all.

The one-hour documentary couldn’t be more engaging in telling the story of her childhood and youth, including her almost accidental introduction to the guitar. Isbin first fought to rise to the top of a male-dominated genre, but ultimately has become a worthy successor to Andres Segovia in more than just her playing: It is not just that she is a true master of the instrument, but jsut as he won the fight to elevate the guitar to concert hall status, Isbin has built on that and added a legacy of enriching the repertoire and even crossing over to work with jazz and rock musicians. This Video Arts International release is a fitting testament to a career which is happily still going strong.

Isbin’s latest CD is “Alma Española,” the result of a wildly successful pairing of her guitar artistry with the unique voice of Isabel Leonard. The Bridge disc overflows with remarkable arrangements of songs by Federico Garcia Lorca and Montsalvatge, arranged by Isbin. Leonard is the owner of an incredibly earthy, smoky mezzo-soprano voice, and more than once on this disc, it is easy to close one’s eyes and feel transported to Spain (or beyond!).

Isbin is also featured on some short solo works by Granados and Tarrega. Surely one of the highlights for many listeners will be Rodrigo’s vocal version of the great slow movement from his “Concierto de Aranjuez.” Among the many historical footnotes that accompany this release is the fact that it was Rodrigo’s wife who wrote the lyrics, following the death of their child; Isbin had a 20-year relationship with the Rodrigos beginning in 1979, and it was their daughter, Cecilia, who asked Isbin to be the first to record this version.

Anyone who takes a moment to start listing all that they are thankful for at this time of year quickly has a sizable list…but Madison music lovers can add one more in advance of the official holiday, thanking everyone involved for giving us the chance to hear Isbin in person…and have a second helping of gratitude in being able to experience her artistry in our own homes as well.

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