It was back in 1994 that Sharon Isbin, the preeminent classical guitarist of today, first disclosed to the press that she was a lesbian. The decision followed several years of agonizing over the possible implications, and the internal dialogue continued well after word was out.
“Each time I would walk in a room I thought ‘they know,’” she told me a few years ago. “This deep echoy bass voice kept saying ‘they know.’”
But if the public knew something, they seemed to approve. That was certainly the message she got at her first New York concert after making the leap into full disclosure.
“I remember walking out on the stage and thinking ‘they know.’ And what happened is that they wouldn’t stop clapping. I sat down and they wouldn’t stop clapping and I hadn’t played a note,” recalled Isbin of the sold-out performance. “I really needed to experience that to get over any questions I had in myself. It was such a positive experience I can only say how grateful I am that this is what ensued from my taking that first step.”
Isbin has made it over plenty of hurdles since then. She’s toured the world and championed new works, taught at the Juilliard School and even appeared on the hit Showtime series “The L Word.” Among her two dozen or so recordings is “Dreams of a World,” which received a Grammy Award in 2000, making her the first classical guitarist to be so honored in 26 years. Four years ago, she recorded with the New York Philharmonic the concertos Rodrigo, Villa-Lobos and Ponce, essential repertoire for guitarists.
Her latest is “Journey to the New World,” just issued by Sony Classical. The new disc brings Isbin together with one of her professed heroines, the folk music legend Joan Baez. Eleven of Baez’s best known songs, like “The House of the Rising Son” and “Where Have All the Flowers Gone,” are incorporated in the “Joan Baez Suite.” Written for Isbin in 2002 by the now deceased composer John Duarte, it’s a lovely 20 minutes or so of music that Isbin has performed widely in recital alongside more traditional classical works. On the new disc, a performance of the suite is bookended by the real Baez, who Isbin accompanies in subdued but stirring versions of “Wayfaring Stranger” and “Go ‘Way From My Window.”
Isbin is also joined by violinist and composer Marc O’Connor in his “Strings and Threads Suite.” According to O’Connor’s notes, the 13 short movements trace his family’s musical inclinations over several generations, from Irish reels to Appalachia folk styles, on to “Texas Dance Hall Blues” and ending with some easy going jazz. Perky and folky music delivered with the highest classical refinement, it brings the disc to a lively finish.
Isbin opens the disc in the Old World, with “Four Renaissance Lute Works,” followed by “Two English Folksongs.” The latter includes “The Drunken Sailor,” just one of the many delightful tunes sprinkled liberally throughout the collection.
“Born to Strum,” my 2004 portrait of Isbin, is available in my book Artists & Activists: Making Culture in New York’s Capital Region.