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EXCLUSIVE: Guitarist Sharon Isbin on PBS Documentary 'Troubadour,' '5 Classical Albums' for Warner, Females and Gays on Guitar, Bach Suites with Rosalyn Tureck

By Ian Holubiak i.holubiak@classicalite.com on Jan 29, 2015 07:33 PM EST

Multi-Grammy winner, head of the studios at both Juilliard and Aspen, responsible for more new works than any other player, yes, Sharon Isbin is the very model of a modern, major guitarist.

Not only does Ms. Isbin reign supreme as thee international heavyweight of the classical guitar, clearly, she's a woman--the undisputed, XX-chromosomed champion of, regrettably, an all too often hyper-masculinized instrument and repertoire.

To boot, Sharon Isbin is also gay.

It's a fact we first learned in 1995, back when Isbin came out, apt enough, to Out Magazine. Next to her huge discography, legacy through students and the sheer amount of notes she's commissioned for six strings, said fact reads more like a footnote curio.

Not that Isbin's sexuality doesn't come up in Susan Dangle's PBS-produced documentary about her, Troubadour. Hell, there's even a clip of her L-Word cameo alongside Pam Grier.

Of course, you won't find that footage anywhere on YouTube. As if to say that Sharon Isbin--the performer, the teacher, the impresario--are much more important roles than any gender or bedroom ones, what you will find all over the internet are glorious clips of Ms. Isbin doing and being what she's so obviously the best at.

With a 5-CD box set forthcoming via Warner Classics and Troubador being re-broadcast on nearly 200 PBS stations through April (Video Artists International will soon release the doc on DVD and Blu-ray, as well), we exchanged some emails with the one, and only, Sharon Isbin.

Classicalite: Before we re-visit Troubadour, let's talk music. Specifically, new music. There's a vast spectrum of sounds--from Pulitzer winners to then unknowns--that you've championed for decades. Growing up in Minneapolis, studying in Italy, did you ever anticipate that you'd have such an impact on the classical guitar rep (and, maybe, the women who would play it)?

Sharon Isbin: I've always followed my heart when asking composers to write for me, and I'm drawn to music that resonates emotionally and spiritually. My goal has been to nurture the creation of beautiful works for guitar so there is more to play, and to spearhead innovative collaborations with artists of various genres who inspire me. The motivation is always artistic. In looking back, I can see how all this has helped to develop new roles and horizons for the guitar.

CL: Dangle's doc focuses mostly on your many achievements as a musician. However, we see your humility, too--especially among peers like your virtuoso teacher Andrés Segovia and rocker Steve Vai to Martina Navratilova and Michelle Obama. How has that varied a friend group contributed, one, to your art? Two, as an LGBTQIA advocate...if you don't mind me assigning that title?

SI: I had to look that term up! If we choose to live our lives openly, what we experience is more fulfilling and honest. Our example can challenge prejudice head-on and educate people to be supportive and inclusive.

It's a joy to work with great artists in the classical world and as well with those in the rock, pop, folk, jazz and bluegrass worlds. Such shared experiences expand my vision of what is possible, new and exciting.

CL: Overall, do you feel that classical music has become more accommodating to women? What about for guitarists and, perhaps, even the gay community at large?

SI: Look at how many star violinists and pianists in the classical world today are women. Each who reaches the top inspires new generations to follow. It will still be some time before big numbers are reflected in conducting and composing fields. The former challenges basic power structures, and like the latter, age-old prejudices. That's revolutionary. Though the guitar world is still largely male, at least young girls now know it's a realm that's open to them.

There are so many powerful female leaders in the gay community, that's the best example of change.

CL: There's a great segment in Troubadour about your collaboration with the late pianist Rosalyn Tureck. Together, you two were able to conjure up a whole new take on J.S. Bach. For a performer so open to contemporary composition, how does he figure into your body of work?

SI: I studied baroque performance practice with Rosalyn Tureck for 10 years. Together, we created the first performance editions of the complete Bach lute suites, two of which we published, and all of which I recorded. It was a remarkable gift and honor to have been her student.

CL: OK, give all of the accolades under your belt, is there anything else left for you to do?

SI: I couldn't have predicted the amazing experiences of the last 10 years, nor can I the next 10. But I am excited about two new works coming up: a concerto written for me by Chris Brubeck (son of the late Dave Brubeck) which I'll premiere in April with the Maryland Symphony. And a new song cycle by Richard Danielpour which Carnegie Hall and the Harris Theater Chicago have co-commissioned for me and Met Opera star Isabel Leonard to perform in our Carnegie recital next November.

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TagsSharon Isbin, Troubadour, Warner Classic, LGBTQIA, PBS, Classicalite Q&A, Bach, Rosalyn Tureck, Andres Segovia Archive, Michelle Obama

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