Perhaps there’s something about the humble guitar that brings people together. Take the case of Sharon Isbin. Though widely regarded as the top classical guitar soloist of our time, she keeps teaming up with other artists, often from far a field the traditional realm of so-called concert music.
One of her most recent collaborations is with heavy metal guitarist Steve Vai, better known for his work with Frank Zappa, David Lee Roth and Whitesnake. Isbin says that the two will eventually record together but for now, she’s riding on the success of her disc “Journey to the New World,” which was released a year ago and last month won Isbin her second Grammy Award.
For much of “Journey to the New World” Isbin performs with violinist and composer Mark O’Connor and the two will appear together on Sunday afternoon at The Egg. The concert will feature solo sets from each artist, and they will also perform two duets written by O’Connor — a new arrangement of his hit “Appalachian Waltz” and “Strings and Threads,” the suite which concludes Isbin’s recent disc.
“He’s a very sweet, wonderful and generous person and it’s a pleasure to call him a friend. We enjoy traveling together and have a very warm collaboration,” says Isbin. “It’s especially fun to do that last movement of ‘Strings and Threads,’ since it’s different each time with Mark improvising while I do the chord chart.”
Also on Isbin’s recent disc and an expected part of Sunday’s program is a tribute to Joan Baez, a lifelong hero of Isbin’s. Almost 10 years ago Isbin commissioned John Duarte, a British composer and guitarist who died in 2004, to write the “Joan Baez Suite.” It includes such now-standard fair as “The House of the Rising Son” and “Where Have All the Flowers Gone.”
More recently that Isbin worked with the real Joan Baez, not just her songbook. After giving a hearty blessing to the piece by Duarte, Baez agreed to sing a couple of additional songs on Isbin’s disc “Journey to the New World.”
“Our first rehearsal was extraordinary,” recalls Isbin. “She came to my home in New York and asked me to play for her before we began. So I sat down about 4 feet from her and when I was done she had tears streaming down her face.”
Isbin’s selections that afternoon included some Spanish pieces that Baez remembered from childhood, when her dad played recordings of Segovia. “It was a poignant meeting of the souls since her music has inspired me for so many years,” says Isbin.
Last November Isbin had a slightly more grandiose audience when she performed at the White House. It was actually more than just a one-evening, in-and-out concert. Isbin was one of four classical musicians who spent a full day in the building, giving classes for local students followed by a matinee concert. After that was done, they went back to their Washington hotels to dress up for the evening’s formal concert in the East Room. (Apparently there are no dressing rooms for visiting artists in the presidential residence.)
Nevertheless, says Isbin, “We practically moved in, since we were also there the previous night to rehearse. It was very elaborate with multiple bomb-sniffing dogs each time we were going in and out. I kept hoping the dog wouldn’t drool on my guitar.”
During the evening’s concert, Isbin performed a few Latin American selections and a duet with violinist Joshua Bell, which was their first collaboration. She also had a few moments with the President. But it wasn’t their first encounter.
Isbin says they met in 2005 at a memorial for Chicago philanthropist Irving Harris, at which Isbin performed. Out on the sidewalk afterward, Isbin spotted Illinois’ newest senator, went up to him and introduced herself. She recalls that Obama complimented her on the performance and said, “I wish you’d do something like that for me sometime.”
After her performance at the White House, he paid her another compliment, “He told me that one of his daughters is interested in studying the guitar. So maybe I inspired someone to go in that direction.”
(March 11, 2010, Times Union, Albany, NY)
Only in classical music could the borrowing and crosspollination of musical styles be such big and controversial thing. But “crossover” is a sometimes suspect, though often profitable category for artists and projects that blend popular and classical material.
Two of its best exponents, guitarist Sharon Isbin and violinist Mark O’Connor, appeared together Sunday afternoon at The Egg in Albany.
What makes them such an interesting pairing is that they come to the middle ground from opposites sides of the tracks. Isbin has excelled with Bach and the Spanish staples of the guitar repertoire and commissioned imaginative new concertos for the instrument. O’Connor is both composer and performer and his roots as an old time fiddler show through in practically every phrase. They share an impeccable technique and a taste for modest adventure.
The pair’s current tour follows on the success of their CD, “Journey to the New World,” that recently received a Grammy. It included O’Connor’s “Strings and Threads,” a suite of original airs and dances that ended the concert. They also teamed up for “Appalachian Waltz,” O’Connor’s tuneful and reverent hit from the early 90s.
But they were really at their best performing alone, each offering short sets during both halves of the program.
Isbin began with some Spanish material, meticulous but flavorful. After intermission she performed the “Joan Baez” Suite” by John Duarte. It touched on about a dozen folk songs, including “House of the Rising Sun,” which was given a fresh but cloudy harmonization, and “Where Have All the Flowers Gone.” A bit of “Taps,” played on hushed harmonics, was inserted into the latter, as if to reinforce its wartime message. It was all delicate and lovely, but Baez’s magic isn’t so much her material, but her voice’s unavoidable edge and presence — qualities that were missing from the homage.
O’Connor’s off the cuff, good ole boy presence makes it easy to overlook his unique gifts. Yet in the first half, he delivered with a country inflection a series of solos that were wandering, questing and demanding. He eased off after intermission, playing a series of folk songs, like “O Susannah” and “When the Saints Go Marching In.”
O’Connor spent the weekend in Albany introducing violin students to his new method of instruction based on various American material. A couple of times he pointed out to the violin students in the audience when he was playing an instrument with an alternative tuning.
(March 15, 2010, Times Union, Albany, NY)
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