Last night Rockport Music hosted a screening of the documentary film, “Sharon Isbin: Troubadour” (2014), followed by a Q&A with Susan Dangel, producer/director, and the guitarist. Thereafter Sharon Isbin took to the Shalin Liu stage and shared her incomparable musical prowess.
This original date had been cancelled due to “an act of God” (borrowing language from insurance contracts). During the storms on that early September night, lightning struck an electrical transformer not once but twice, about 20 seconds apart. No power, no film premiere—instead, Isbin played an impromptu recital in the foyer. Some in yesterday’s audience were returnees, but unsuccessful juggling of schedules must explain why the Shalin Liu Performance Center audience was the smallest I have ever seen. Pity; it was quite an event.
The hour-long documentary film is part biography and part hagiography of Isbin. Drawing on a wealth of resources, including family footage from her childhood, this documentary traces her route to the classical guitar beginning during one of her father’s sabbatical years in Italy—initially as a proxy for her brother who wanted to play rock not scales (and seemed to have been averse to growing his fingernails on his right hand). From childhood interest to all-consuming passion to be the best guitar player she possibly could, we followed Isbin’s studies, including her time with Rosalyn Tureck working on Bach and musical interpretation more generally, and her meteoric rise. Not everyone gets hired to start an entire department at Juilliard when in her early thirties. The film includes concert footage and some truly remarkable editing; clips of Isbin practicing at home merge seamlessly with her public performances while the music plays on. (Dangel remarked how that particular edit took two weeks to perfect. I am surprised it didn’t take longer.) Like Isbin’s playing, the documentary and its editing flow effortlessly. It helps that the guitarist has led a remarkable life and the wealth of cameos from composers, students, even her neighbor David Hyde Pierce, make this a delightful portrait.
After the film, Isbin gave a worldwide tour of old and new music written or transcribed for classical guitar. Beginning with Granados’ “Spanish Dance, ‘Andaluza,’” op. 37, no. 5, we heard a range of colors and dynamics and beautifully articulated lines. Tárrega’s Recuerdos de la Alhambra and Capricho Arabe combined judicious use of rubato with Isbin’s ability to make the melody stand out. Her skill with voicing multiple parts and lines reminds me of the awe that greeted the Polish pianist Rafał Blechacz; both musicians have created new techniques at their instrument to better serve the needs of the music. This was certainly true in Tan Dun’s Seven Desires for (solo) Guitar (2002), drawn from his guitar concerto, Yi2 (both works written for and premiered by Isbin). Combining East and West, guitar and pipa musical traditions and sounds, microtonality and a wide range of articulations, this is a virtuosic foray which Isbin dispatched with ease and pleasure. Andrew York’s Andecy (both composer and music a discovery for me) is a bridge of English and Irish influences (the music of York’s childhood, heard played by his father and uncle) written by an American composer and named after a French village. Folk and art music merge in a piece that captures the architecture of Medieval French towns. Albéniz’s Mallorca (transcribed by Segovia) was sheer happiness. Savio’s Batucada contained rhythmic precision and flowing melody, a delightful turn to South American music. The evening concluded with La Catedral and Waltz, Op. 8, No. 4, both by Agustín Barrios Mangoré, the so-called “Paganini of the Jungle.” Combining love for Bach, Chopin and other Romantic composers, and Latin American folk music, this composer deserves a following beyond devotees of the guitar. La Catedral manages to be reverent, structural, and ecstatic. Isbin brought this tour de force to vibrant life—as throughout the concert.
Recalled to the stage, Isbin offered as encore Gentil Montaña’s Porro, based on a traditional Colombian dance.
The documentary film includes rock guitarist Steve Vai, who is asked what the difference is between his playing and Isbin’s. He responds, “It’s not like apples and oranges. It’s more like apples and beef yogurt.” What makes Isbin so remarkable is that she bridges a number of different performance styles and traditions (even if she remains personally unsatisfied with her skills at improvisation), she brings her high level of musicality to all music, and she never loses sight of music being an emotional and communicative medium of expression. With the nuances and sensitivity of her playing, she is fluent in making music that touches hearts and minds, reaching wide audiences and recruiting worldwide to the joys and delights of the classical, and not-so-classical, guitar—even if the idea of beef yogurt remains less than palatable.
“Sharon Isbin: Troubadour” is being distributed by American Public Media and will be aired on PBS affiliates beginning this November.