BOSTON — One of guitarist Sharon Isbin's earliest memories is as a three-year-old dressing up for Halloween. "I dressed up as folk musician, saying that's what I wanted to be. But I was not blessed with a great voice, so I had to find another way."
That other way turned out to be the classical guitar, of which Isbin is now one of the most highly acclaimed and versatile performers in the world. Named "Best Classical Guitarist" by "Guitar Player" last year, she is also one of the busiest. She performs all over the world (more than 60 concerts in the United States alone this season) along with directing the guitar departments of the Juilliard School in New York and the Aspen Music Festival in Colorado.
Isbin fell in love with the instrument at age 9, when the opportunity to study guitar with a former student of Andrs Segovia fell into her lap. "My parents had gotten the teacher for my brother Ira, but it turned out the kind of guitar he was interested in was Elvis Presley and the Beatles," she laughingly remembers.
So it fell to young Sharon to take advantage of the musical opportunity, playing on a guitar custom-made to suit her small hands. She recalls, "I loved it immediately - the smell of the wood, the personal nature of the instrument built for me, the way you hold it, kind of cradling it, caressing it. It felt unusual and exotic."
As a performer, Isbin has always been drawn to the exotic. Her repertoire ranges from Bach (she created a first-performance edition of Bach's lute suites for the guitar with Bach specialist Rosalyn Tureck on EMI/Virgin Classics) to jazz fusion. "As a guitarist, to cross those boundaries is perhaps a built-in possibility in that a lot of music considered standard classical guitar music has roots in the folk music of Latin American countries. The next step is playing a jazz bossa nova."
That opportunity first presented itself in 1985, when jazz guitarist Larry Coryell was looking for a classical guitarist to round out his trio Guitarjam (with the late bossa-nova pioneer Laurindo Almeida).
She continues the tradition this year with Guitar Summit, a group comprising herself, jazz great Herb Ellis, blues artist Rory Block, and Michael Hedges, and now in the midst of a 25-city tour.
Isbin's remarkable range is also exemplified by numerous recordings, including a Virgin Classics re-release of her "Love Songs & Lullabies," a lovely, eclectic selection of works for guitar and voice, and another guitar/vocal recording with soprano Susanne Mentzer due in March. "It'll be everything from American folk songs to Schubert lieder," Isbin says.
Isbin also just recorded Aaron Kernis's Double Concerto for Violin, Guitar, and Orchestra with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra for London/Decca/Argo (with violinist Cho-Liang Lin). Strongly dedicated to the music of our time, she has commissioned and premired more concertos (as well as numerous solo and chamber works) than any other guitarist, including works by David Diamond, Ned Rorem, Joan Tower, Tan Dun.
"I feel like I have a responsibility to increase the literature of the guitar, since there are fewer works for guitar and orchestra than any other mainstream instrument," she says. "But in doing so, I'm creating things others can perform and enjoy as well, things that will long outlive my career."
Of her recent projects, one of the closest to Isbin's heart is the newly released "Journey to the Amazon" (on the Teldec label and set for European release in the spring). This colorful, enchanting selection of South American music features veteran saxophonist Paul Winter and percussionist Gaudencio Thiago de Mello.
Isbin's love for the repertoire started when she was only 14 and studying with the great Venezuelan guitarist Alirio Diaz.
"This music is enormous fun," she says. "It makes you feel like getting out in the aisles and dancing."