Thursday, May 18, 2017

ACO Parables: Q&A with guitarist Sharon Isbin

Sharon Isbin is a multiple GRAMMY Award-winning classical guitarist, hailed as “the preeminent guitarist of our time” by Boston Magazine and “The Monet of the classical guitar ... a master colorist” by Atlanta Journal. She has appeared as soloist with over 170 orchestras and in many of the world’s finest concert halls, created and served as artistic director/soloist of several esteemed festivals, and has been profiled on television throughout the world, including CBS Sunday Morning and A&E. Among other career highlights, she performed in concert at the White House for President and Mrs. Obama in November 2009, and was the only classical artist to perform in the 2010 GRAMMY Awards. Her latest recording, Alma Espanola with opera star Isabel Leonard, will be released this July. The all-Spanish album is the first of it’s kind in 40 years and includes twelve world premiere arrangements by Sharon.

Sharon is credited with expanding the guitar repertoire with some of the finest new works of the century. She has commissioned and premiered more concerti than any other guitarist, as well as numerous solo and chamber works. Among these commissioned works is John Corigliano's Troubadours, which the Academy Award-winning composer wrote for Sharon in 1992/93.

Sharon was kind enough to speak with us about her upcoming performance of Troubadours with American Composers Orchestra and conductor Rossen Milanov at ACO Parables –Tuesday, May 23, 2017, 8pm at Symphony Space.

Classical guitarist Sharon Isbin

American Composers Orchestra: John Corigliano has said that when you first approached him about writing a guitar concerto, he was “decidedly lukewarm about the idea.” Most performers would have shied away at the first sign of “lukewarmness” from a composer. Why was it important for you to be persistent, and what did it take to eventually convince Corigliano to write Troubadours?

Sharon Isbin: When I first met John, he had little knowledge of classical guitar, its technique, repertoire or capabilities. We met by chance at a New Year’s Eve party in New York, and two weeks later, ran into each other standing in line at the post office. It was a long line. So we chatted, and I asked if he would consider writing a guitar concerto for me. He said, “what an interesting idea, please call me about it.” I did, he again expressed interest, but said he was really busy and to call him in a year. Next year, it was the same story. Undaunted – because I loved his music and believed he would write a beautiful concerto – I pursued this annual ritual for eight years. Finally, I asked his publisher at G. Schirmer, Mary Lou Humphrey, how could I convince him? She suggested I propose an unusual programmatic concept. I woke up the next morning thinking about the colorful and romantic tradition of the 13th century French troubadours, and wrote John a letter suggesting the idea. He loved it because it wasn’t Spanish, no one had ever written a guitar concerto based on this period of history, and it offered him a rich artistic tapestry to explore.

ACO: What makes Troubadours different than the other concertos in your repertoire? Corigliano mentions that its type of virtuosity is different than his other concertos. Can you talk a little bit about the virtuosity asked of you?

SI: Shortly after ghostly sonic evocations of time travel to the past that begin the concerto, I play the longest fastest scale I’ve ever encountered. Following that, I land in the 12th century playing a sensuous, lyrical song inspired by a fragment of  “A Chantar” penned by a famous female troubadour composer, the Countess Beatriz de Dia. The journey becomes ever more colorful, including rhythmically improvisatory musical interactions with an offstage dance band, and finally a return to the theme cast at the end in a sad minor key to evoke the loss of innocence, and in the case of the once celebrated troubadours, persecution, exile and death.

ACO: You have commissioned and premiered more concerti than any other guitarist, as well as numerous solo and chamber works. Why has it been important for you to bring new repertoire for classical guitar into the world? What do you most enjoy about the process of commissioning and premiering a new work?

SI: I love the creative process of working with a brilliant composer like John, and nurturing the music to life. It’s challenging, unpredictable, sometimes torturous, but ultimately exhilarating and fulfilling! More importantly, it builds the guitar literature and leaves behind a valuable musical legacy for others to perform and enjoy.

ACO: What are you looking forward to about the performance of Troubadours with ACO and conductor Rossen Milanov?

I look forward to performing with the outstanding conductor and orchestra for the first time, and sharing with them and the audience this beautiful, evocative work. For those who like to come prepared, you can listen in advance here.

And to learn more about my collaboration with John Corigliano and other composers, enjoy the documentary Sharon Isbin: Troubadour, which has aired throughout the U.S. on PBS and which won the 2015 ASCAP Television Broadcast Award.

Sharon will perform Troubadours with American Composers Orchestra and conductor Rossen Milanov at ACO Parables –Tuesday, May 23, 2017, 8pm at Symphony Space. (Use discount code ACO15 at checkout to save 15%.)

Learn more about Sharon Isbin at
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Monday, May 15, 2017

ACO Parables: Composer Spotlight - John Corigliano

John Corigliano is one of the most celebrated composers of the last 40 years. He won the 1991 Grawemeyer Award for his Symphony No. 1, the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for his Symphony No. 2, three Grammy Awards, and an Academy Award for his score for François Girard’s 1998 film The Red Violin. Corigliano’s extensive body of work—including three symphonies and eight concerti among more than 100 chamber, vocal, choral, and orchestral works—have been performed and recorded by many of the most prominent orchestras, soloists, and chamber musicians in the world.

One of the few living composers to have a string quartet named for him, Corigliano serves on the composition faculty at the Juilliard School of Music and holds the position of Distinguished Professor of Music at Lehman College, City University of New York, which has established a scholarship in his name.

At ACO Parables – Tuesday, May 23, 2017, 8pm at Symphony Space – American Composers Orchestra will perform Corigliano's Troubadours: Variations for Guitar & Orchestra featuring star guitarist Sharon Isbin, for whom the piece was written. 

Corigliano was kind enough to answer a few questions about the piece.

Composer John Corigliano

American Composers Orchestra: You write that when Sharon Isbin first approached you about writing a guitar concerto, you felt that the instrument was one you didn't fully understand. Can you talk about your process for coming to understand the instrument better? Were you surprised by anything you learned about it?

John Corigliano: Actually, Sharon approached me many years before I wrote her my guitar concerto. There were three things that put me off writing for guitar:
  1. I knew nothing about how to write for this highly idiomatic instrument.
  2. It is such a soft instrument that I could not conceive writing a virtuoso piece that could balance the soloist with an orchestra (even if the guitar was amplified).
  3. Because of the tuning, everything strummed on the instrument took on a Spanish flavor, and I did not want to write yet another “Spanish” guitar concerto. 
To solve “1” I found a fine classical guitarist who was also a composer. He wanted to study composition with me, and so we exchanged lessons for a summer. I helped him work on an opera, and he was my “living guitar.” Every time I wrote something I thought was idiomatic, it turned out to be awkward, and we fixed it. The entire concerto was written and corrected before Sharon ever saw it. In fact, she said it was the first piece written by a non-guitarist that she didn’t have to alter in any way. But I still don’t know how to write for guitar ...

ACO: You write that the virtuosity in Troubadours is quite different from that of your other concertos. Can you talk about this difference? What kind of virtuosity is asked of the guitarist in Troubadours?

JC: To solve “2” I had to re-think what virtuosity a guitar can provide. All my other concerti were for instruments that could compete with a full orchestra when necessary. This instrument had to have a miniature but exciting kind of energy. The entire orchestra had to be reduced, and often instruments played offstage so that the soloist was in the forefront of the ensemble.

ACO: Other than, obviously, asking you to write a guitar concerto and presenting you with troubadours as an inspiration for the piece, what role did Sharon have in your compositional process?

JC: Sharon saw the concerto when it was finished. She did, however, inspire the work.

My reluctance to write a concerto had to do with the kind of “Spanish” sound that the guitar inevitably makes. I resisted writing a concerto for that reason for many years. Then Sharon, who knew of my resistance, came to me with the idea of writing a piece about the troubadours who sang and accompanied themselves with a guitar. This took place well hundreds of years before the instrument was co-opted by the Spanish (to very good effect). The lute tuning in a guitar tunes the lowest tone down a step, and the melodies that have been notated in medieval manuscripts are quite beautiful. Not only that, but there was a famous female troubadour, La Comtessa (Beatritz) de Dia, who wrote a beautiful melody that so inspired me that I incorporated it (A chantar) into my concerto.

Listen to A chantar m'er de so by La Comtessa (Beatritz) de Dia:

ACO: Your incredible body of work spans more than four decades. Can you talk about any particular influences, techniques or styles that were especially important for you while writing Troubadours?

JC: I have always been fascinated by spatial music in the concert hall. Earphones or stereo speakers cannot capture the beauty of music that comes from unexpected places. In Troubadours, two French horns are backstage on one side, while a “Shawm” (early music oboe or bassoon) band and percussion are on the other side. I also used a chamber orchestra to give the soloist a better chance with the balance.

ACO: What do you hope the audience will feel during Sharon's performance of Troubadours at ACO Parables, and what do you hope they will take away from it?

JC: I hope they will hear the piece as a journey to the past (and a return to the present.)

ACO and guitarist Sharon Isbin will perform Corigliano's Troubadours at ACO Parables – Tuesday, May 23, 2017, 8pm at Symphony Space. Book now!

Learn more about John Corigliano at