Isbin’s Troubadour

Sharon Isbin at the Bruno Walter Auditorium, Lincoln Center. Photo by Julia Crowe.

Sharon Isbin at the Bruno Walter Auditorium, Lincoln Center. Photo by Julia Crowe.

Troubadour, a documentary on Sharon Isbin’s storied career premiered earlier this month at Lincoln Center. Filmmaker Susan Dangel, who has worked on such projects as James Taylor’s One Man Band show and the Boston Pops and Boston Symphony for PBS, skillfully captures, with great warmth and humor, how Isbin’s talent, fortitude and tenacity brought her a wealth of rare achievements.  Not only is Isbin recognized as the finest classical guitarist of her generation, she has expanded the guitar’s repertoire with landmark commissions from renowned composers and founded the guitar department at Juilliard. She is also the first guitarist in 43 years to receive a second classical Grammy.

The film covers the artist’s beginnings, including grainy backyard home movies in Minnesota, where Isbin engaged in her favorite pastime of launching model rockets manned by grasshopper astronauts. Her family eventually moved overseas for her father’s work on a science project so Varese, Italy became the backdrop of all things new, including learning the guitar at age 9. When Isbin was 17, she approached Israeli composer Ami Maayani to ask if he would write a guitar concerto for her, not long after he had written a harp concerto. “I thought harp? That’s close to the guitar,” Isbin says in the film.

During the film’s Q&A session, filmmaker Dangel remarked to moderator Elizabeth Healy, Senior Executive Director of the New York Chapter of the Recording Academy, “What were the rest of us doing when we were 17? Making necklaces, I think.” Turning toward Isbin, she asked, “What on earth made you think to ask a composer for a concerto at that age?”

“I just wanted the music,” Isbin responded.

The film includes footage of Isbin at work with various composers as well as featuring her work at both the Juilliard School and the Aspen Music Festival. Performances range from highlights of her appearances at the Grammys to international concert halls and at the White House, with an introduction from Michelle Obama. Guest interviews include Joan Baez, John Corigliano, Garrison Keillor, Steve Vai, Janis Ian, Christopher Rouse, Joan Tower and Martina Navratilova.

Composer Tan Dun, known for his film score for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and the medal ceremonies of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, speaks onscreen of Isbin’s “fearlessness.”

Caught onscreen a couple times with a pile of laundry draped over his arm, Isbin’s neighbor, the comedic actor David Hyde Pierce, offers a few bon mots within the film of what it’s like to live next door to a world-renowned classical guitarist. “She needs to use the freight elevator for all the awards.”

One of the testaments to Isbin’s strength as a musician is her ability to win over the reluctant with her willingness to not only speak their musical language but to prove she is adeptly skilled to do so. In one humorous moment of the film, Steve Vai cackles over Isbin’s attempt to use a pick on an electric guitar as we hear her unflappable voice rise ever so slightly to insist she must be doing something wrong because it “doesn’t feel right.” But then the camera pans up to her delighted smile after she pulls it off.

During the Q&A session, Isbin said, “I enjoy diversifying repertoire and taking risks. The guitar is an instrument that is not inside a box. It takes you different places.”

It took her eight years to convince the Pulitzer Prize-winning composer John Corigliano to write a guitar piece for her. The kryptonite that prevented him from warming to the idea is that the classical guitar always sounded too “Spanish” to him. Isbin finally won him over by relaying the history and music of celebrated French women troubadours of the 12th century who knew their way around a guitar. Inspired, Corigliano wrote a piece of variations for guitar and chamber orchestra reflecting this theme and he speaks admiringly onscreen of Isbin’s unerring precision to dynamic markings.

Of course, this was after he gave her the piece in its proper notation. Corigliano recounted with impish glee after the film screening how he initially mailed Isbin a completed score of two pages filled with doodles and random tablature, which he autographed with a fine flourish. When Isbin phoned him to ask where the rest of the concerto was, he said that was it–those two pages–and asked how she liked it.  “I told her I was leaving a lot of the artistic decisions up to her,” he laughed. Corigliano confessed to the prank and then delivered the proper score.

At the Q&A after the screening, Isbin recalled watching the film with her 94-year-old father at the Minneapolis Film Society. When a little girl in the audience asked her how long she practices, Isbin admitted there are evenings when she doesn’t start practicing until after midnight.

In April of 2015, she will premiere a new concerto which is being written for her by Chris Brubeck, the jazz musician/composer son of the late Dave Brubeck.

Troubadour is expected to broadcast later this year in the U.S. on public television channels and be released on DVD.  It should also come with an accompanying kit for one needlepoint stitchery-worthy quote Isbin makes in the film: “In the guitar world, I always had to fight as a woman.  In the music world, I always had to fight as a guitarist.”

A quick preview:

Sharon Isbin is an interviewee in My First Guitar: Tales of True Love and Lost Chords from 70 Legendary Musicians.

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