Five questions with Sharon Isbin, the ‘high priestess of the guitar,’ ahead of her Des Moines concerts

Sharon Isbin with Des Moines Symphony

Sept. 24, Des Moines Civic Center, 7:30 p.m.

Sharon Isbin with Des Moines Symphony

Sept. 25, Des Moines Civic Center, 2:30 p.m.

Sharon Isbin — J. Henry Fair

Sharon Isbin has been called “the pre-eminent guitarist of our time,” “finer even then Segovia,” and “the high priestess of the guitar” by news outlets across the world. The Minnesota native has received four Grammy nominations and two wins and has released 30 albums in her impressive classical guitar career. Working with composers and artists from all over the globe, Isbin is no stranger to the road.

Ahead of her performances at the Des Moines Civic Center, she answered five questions for Little Village about touring, collaborating with other composers, and the guitar’s role in classical music.

At 9 years old, you began your journey into classical guitar by studying it in Italy. Being a Midwest native yourself, what was the catalyst for deciding to go so far away?

My father, a professor at the University of Minnesota, was invited to consult for a scientific project in Italy, and moved our family there for his sabbatical year when I was 9. When we arrived, my older brother asked for guitar lessons. My parents were excited to discover that a student of Segovia’s was concertizing in Italy and commuting weekly from Milan to teach in our town. But my brother’s fantasy was to be the next Elvis, so he turned down the lessons! Out of family duty, and because it would surely be more exotic than continuing with piano, I volunteered to take his place.

Composer Chris Brubeck composed Affinity: Concerto for Guitar and Orchestra — which you’ll be performing in Des Moines — specifically for you. Tell us about that process.

Chris Brubeck, a brilliant jazz performer and composer, had been in touch some years before about writing a concerto for me. The opportunity finally presented itself when a patron of the arts heard a concert of mine and asked if she could commission a concerto for me. I thought of Chris immediately! Chris’ father, the great jazz pianist and composer Dave Brubeck, had recently passed, and to honor him, Chris orchestrated a beautiful ballad by Dave as the slow movement. I premiered the concerto in 2015 with the Maryland Symphony conducted by Elizabeth Schulze, and our world premiere recording was released in 2020 on my album titled Affinity, which also includes works from Cuba, Venezuela, China and Persia.

Chris Brubeck isn’t the only composer who has composed for you. Your 2020 album features music written for you from composers across the globe. When composers write for you, how collaborative is that process typically?

I’ve been honored to have over 80 works composed for me. Sometimes I propose a concept to the composer, as in the case of John Corigliano’s concerto inspired by 13th century French troubadours, Duarte’s Joan Baez Suite, or country fiddle player Mark O’Connor’s Strings & Threads Suite for Violin & Guitar. But often the composer has something specific in mind, as in Leo Brouwer’s El Decameron Negro inspired by African love stories, Tan Dun’s Seven Desires which draws from his country’s rich folk heritage of the ancient Chinese lute (pipa), or Chris Rouse’s concerto inspired by the phantasmagorical Spanish architecture of Gaudí.

Touring has brought you all over the world. Can you tell us one of your favorite tour stories?

A dozen years ago, India’s legendary sarod virtuoso, Amjad Ali Khan, wrote to me inquiring about collaborating. He wanted to write something we could play together for guitar and sarod. We met and a wonderful friendship developed with him and his two sons, Amaan and Ayaan Ali Bangash, also brilliant sarod virtuosos. I suggested they find someone skilled in both North Indian classical music and classical guitar who could notate the music he had in mind. But as the years passed with no music, I was convinced the project wouldn’t happen.

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Then one day in November 2018, my inbox filled with ragas Amjad had composed, beautifully arranged for guitar, sarod and tabla! The music was gorgeous! Ayaan was delighted to hear that I liked it because he said they had already booked a tour for me to do throughout India with them in two months, including Delhi, Kolkata and Mumbai! He said delaying wouldn’t be possible, so I moved mountains, canceled other engagements, all to make this happen. The few days together in India before the tour was a total immersion for me, learning details of interpretation and embellishment. What an amazingly inspiring experience! Excited by the results, we then made an album two months after the tour, Strings for Peace, which was released in 2020 and became a bestseller on World Music Charts.

You’ve said in other interviews that guitar is relatively new in the world of classical music. How does the stylistic versatility of the guitar advance our understanding of what “counts” as classical music?

The guitar is an instrument with deep roots in folk, rock, jazz, Latin, bluegrass and pop styles, which makes it possible to successfully collaborate in many genres, if one is adventurous and creative. Performing and recording with artists as diverse as Steve Vai, Heart’s Nancy Wilson, Joan Baez, the Khans and many more has opened up my world in awesome ways!