Strings attached

November 11, 2004|by KATE COLEMAN

Sharon Isbin hasn't shaken anyone's hand in more than 20 years.

It's not that she's unfriendly or shy.

She takes care and protects the hands and the fingers that are her connection to the instrument through which she makes music.

The classical guitarist will perform with the Maryland Symphony Orchestra this weekend in "Mediterranean Magic," the second of the MasterWorks concerts of the MSO's 23rd season.

Isbin will be featured with the orchestra in three works: "Fantasa Para un Gentilhombre," by Joaquin Rodrigo; Tomaso Albinoni's Adagio; and Antonio Vivaldi's Concerto for Guitar in D Major.


"Most guest artists are exhausted by one piece," said Elizabeth Schulze, MSO music director and conductor. Isbin's playing three is really rare, she added.

The program, conceived in part in response to audience requests, will offer nice variety, according to Schulze.

"The guitar is a very intimate instrument," she said.

A Friday, Nov. 12, performance at the Weinberg Center in Frederick, Md., will provide an opportunity for a broader audience to hear the Maryland Symphony Orchestra, as did a performance in Frostburg, Md., last month.

"We love going east, we love going west," Schulze said.

Isbin's performances with the orchestra will be her third stint as soloist with the Maryland Symphony. She was in town in 1991 and 2001, and she had played under Schulze's baton with three other symphony orchestras.

She called Schulze a fabulous conductor - very sensitive musically - adding that the MSO music director knows how to lead the orchestra to interact with and complement a soloist.

Isbin is a hard-working performer. In a phone interview from her New York home last week, Isbin, who had returned from a recital tour in Italy just a day before, mentioned she had stayed up until 5 a.m. responding to e-mails. After her performances here, she will travel to Memphis, Tenn., then Los Angeles, to perform. She plays 50 to 100 dates a year, she said, and acknowledged that she has a lot of energy. She has toured Europe annually since she was 17, and also has toured Canada, Japan and the Far East, New Zealand, South America, Mexico and Israel.

Isbin is the author of the "Classical Guitar Answer Book" and is director of the guitar departments at the Aspen Music Festival and the Juilliard School - which she created in 1989, becoming the first and only guitar instructor in the institution's 100-year history.

She said she tells her students to try to be like the human voice - legato, and lyrical but also with good rhythm and true colors. Isbin began to play the guitar at age 9 while her family was on sabbatical in Italy. She volunteered to fill in for her brother who decided he didn't want to take the classical lesson.

In June, Isbin performed with the New York Philharmonic, the first guitarist to do so in 26 years. She then recorded three guitar concertos with that orchestra, the Philharmonic's first recording with a guitarist; the disc will be released in January.

The guitar is still an unusual orchestral instrument, Isbin said, explaining that, compared to the violin, the guitar is relatively new as an accepted classical music instrument.

She is an ardent advocate for the guitar, having commissioned and premiered more concertos than any other guitarist, and solo and chamber works as well. In 2001, Isbin was the first classical guitarist in 28 years to win a Grammy Award, the award for best instrumental soloist without an orchestra for her "Dreams of a World" CD. In 2002, she won another Grammy, for best instrumental soloist performance with an orchestra.

There are more than 20 recordings in her catalogue, and the titles reflect her versatility. Isbin said she has many favorites.

"I love playing anything that's beautiful," she said.

"I only play things that I love."

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