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Sharon Isbin—Timothy Muffitt Extended Interview

Credit: J. Henry Fair — Timothy Muffitt
Sharon Isbin and Maestro Timothy Muffitt

An extended interview with guitarist Sharon Isbin and Maestro Timothy Muffitt about her upcoming projects, creating unique concert opportunities, and learning more about why Maestro Muffitt chose the pieces he did for the upcoming "From Spain to the Americas" concert February 11th at the Wharton Center.
The original version can be found here.

She is arguably the greatest living guitarist of any genre and this weekend, Sharon Isbin will be at the Wharton Center playing the Concierto de Aranjuez by Joaquin Rodrigo with the Lansing Symphony, a piece she’s played once or twice, or three… hundred times. But does she keep track anymore?

"I don't." says Isbin. "But it's definitely many hundreds of times at this point. And I had the pleasure of actually knowing Rodrigo and enjoying a friendship with him for 20 years."

The Concierto de Aranjuez is the most performed concerto of the 20th century and it’s one of those rare works where the story behind its composition is just as moving as the music itself.

"[Rodrigo] would console himself with this beautiful theme from the Adagio" - Guitarist Sharon Isbin on the Concierto de Aranjuez

"The music is not only compelling on a technical level but deeply so emotionally. It really captures the essence of the Spanish soul with all it's yearning and its pathos and its jubilation. Part of the reason for that, you have outer movements that are very jubilant and you have an inner movement that came at a very critical time in Joaquin Rodrigo's life. He and his wife were expecting what would have been their first child. She miscarried, they lost the child, she became very ill and nobody knew if she would live or die. So Rodrigo would visit her at the hospital and come back every night unable to sleep and would console himself with this beautiful theme from the Adagio."

[A sample of music from the Concierto de Aranjuez 'Adagio' by Joaquin Rodrigo]

Isbin continues, "Fortunately she did recover. They went on to have many years together. The piece is imbued with that sense of loss and the sadness, but yet the hopefulness and it's just very moving to play and to hear every time.  I had the honor of recording this several times. The most recent recording I did with the New York Philharmonic. It's on an album of all Latin Guitar Concerti. The other two being by Manuel Ponce from Mexico and Villa-Lobos from Brazil. It's the only recording of the over 2000 that the New York Philharmonic has made, it's the only recording they've done with a guitar soloist."

Sharon Isbin’s recording with the New York Philharmonic and the Concierto de Aranjuez by Joaquin Rodrigo is part of her recent 5 album collection released by Warner Classics… but you can also see and hear the genuine article Saturday night at the Wharton Center as Sharon Isbin joins the Lansing Symphony and Maestro Timothy Muffitt. Although this is the 2nd collaboration guitarist Sharon Isbin will have with Maestro Muffitt this concert season, since she also joined him with his OTHER capital city ensemble, the Baton Rouge Symphony a few months ago. But she says the nature of live concerts means they’re all unique experiences.

"Well like any conversation between two people, it will be different each time. And that's the beauty of live performance. You go there expecting to have a visceral experience and when you have wonderful partners, it never disappoints. It's something that is of the moment, exciting and very meaningful. So, I encourage everybody to embrace this show on the 11th and join us in what will be a very special evening." assures Isbin.

In addition to her successful performing career, there is another side of guitarist Sharon Isbin which also, if you’ll pardon the pun, tugs at her heart strings.

"I don't know how I could be at any higher point than the most important conservatory in the world." - Guitarist Sharon Isbin

"I was asked to create the first guitar department ever at the Juilliard School in 1989 and I had the honor and pleasure of working with amazing students there from over 20 different countries. It's a very intensive program. I also head the guitar department at the Aspen Music Festival every summer. So, pedagogy is certainly something that I believe in, that I enjoy, and that is very important to continue to generations. I don't know how I could be at any higher point than the most important conservatory in the world which is Juilliard where I've taught now for over 25 years and where I will continue to teach and at the Aspen Music Fest which is the biggest music festival in North America where we attract students from all over the world."

It was during one of those very famous Colorado retreats that the seeds were sown for one of Sharon Isbin’s next projects, one being released later this year, where she’ll perform with opera star Isabel Leonard.

"I was asked to do our first concert together at the Aspen Music Festival two and a half years ago and it was such a success that we decided to really tour all over the country and made a recording of our all-Spanish repertoire that we've been performing." says Isbin. "That will come out sometime later in 2017. It's very exciting to work with a singer of her stature. She's an opera star on the major stages across the world and you've probably seen her in the HD broadcasts from the Met Opera, and because she's [of] an Argentinean background, Spanish is a native language for her. So that's really wonderful when we're doing music by Manuel De Falla, Montsalvatge, Joaquin Rodrigo and Garcia Lorca."

If that last name sounds familiar, that is indeed the same Garcia Lorca best known for his contributions to the poetic art form rather than his compositional ones. But as for these songs, Isbin describes them succinctly.

"They're very beautiful. Lorca was instrumental in taking a lot of these folk songs and setting them harmonically. And actually there's a recording of him playing them with a singer before he was killed and it's extraordinary that, of course, we know him as a great poet, but very few people realize his musical bend as well.

[Music of Garcia Lorca at the piano playing Nana de Sevilla]

Garcia Lorca at the piano heard there in anticipation of the upcoming album featuring a few of Lorca's arrangements with guitarist Sharon Isbin & vocalist Isabel Leonard.

Isbin also will be appearing this weekend with the Lansing Symphony Orchestra playing Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez in a concert devoted to composers deriving from the Spanish diaspora westward, a program called "From Spain to the Americas," which includes a relatively unknown work called Fuentes, written by a Venezuelan composer, featuring a great trumpet line for the Lansing’s Symphony’s Richard Illman.

"... there's a slightly different filter because of what those different cultures bring to it." - Lansing Symphony Maestro Timothy Muffitt

"Yeah, we have a terrific 1st trumpet in Rich Illman," says Maestro Muffitt. "and this also features our principle oboe, Jan Eberle, and it's a wonderful piece of music. Alfonso Tenreiro is a Venezuelan composer.
Just to back up a little bit, this program looks at basically the Spanish style and how it migrated across the Atlantic Ocean and how that Spanish style is perceived through the filters of the different cultures that are represented by the different countries in the program. So we have obviously some Spanish music and then we have Venezuelan, and we have Argentina and we have Mexico. And so each one of these, we can hear the Spanish influence, but we also hear that there's a slightly different filter because of what those different cultures bring to it."

[Music from Tenreiro's Fuentes plays]

Regarding the rest of the program, Muffitt continues, "We have two pieces from Mexico. We have the Danzon No.2 of Marquez which is a really super famous piece, and very... I think, what one would expect to hear when hearing a piece of Mexican orchestral music. The Chavez [Sinfonia India] is, to me, a fascinating piece because it's his tribute to the First World people of Mexico, and the Native Latin Americans, except take the Latin out, the First World peoples of Mexico, and as such it's full of very interesting percussion sounds and instruments we don't hear otherwise and Chavez (he wrote this in the 1930's), knowing that it might be difficult for a modern Symphony Orchestra to acquire some of these instruments, he also wrote it for just traditional snare drum, bass drum, tenor drum, but he gives you the option of exploring instruments that are closer to the native cultures and so we've taken that option and we're really looking to, through the percussion expression, to bring this piece to the roots, which is what he was trying to celebrate.

[Music from Carlos Chavez' Sinfonia India plays]

The concert begins with a fairly well-known work, the Malaguena by Ernesto Leucona.

"Right," says Muffitt "wel,  I wanted to set the tone and it was a difficult program in that when we have a guitar concerto, we have to bring the audience into the world of the guitar which is a very intimate form of expression. But a concert of Spanish and Latin America music I thought needed to begin with a splash, so we begin with Malaguena. Which is exactly that. I mean it's exactly what one's going to expect in hearing Spanish music, but we had to get from that, beginning with the big splash, down to the intimacy of the guitar concerto and that's where Mr. Tenreiro's piece, Fuentes, comes into play because it is a very intimate piece. It's a look at some Latin American music of today, by a living-breathing composer of today. So it has a very different feel to it, but we still hear that Spanish influence.

The concert "From Spain to the Americas" with the Lansing Symphony and guest guitarist Sharon Isbin happens Saturday night at 8 in the Wharton Center of East Lansing. More information at LansingSymphony.org.

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