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'Sharon Isbin: Troubadour' documents the 'fearless' classical guitarist

Following Thursday’s New York premiere of the 57-minute documentary Sharon Isbin: Troubadour at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts’ Bruno Walter Auditorium, its producer Susan Dangel, calling Isbin a “one-of-a-kind artist,” invoked the “fearless” tag ascribed to her in the film by composer Tan Dun.

Sharon Isbin
Sharon IsbinJ. Henry Fair

How, asked Dangel, was Isbin, a once shy and serious little girl from Minneapolis who as a youngster was as interested in launching model rockets as playing guitar, able to convince composers like Dun, John Corigliano, Christopher Rouse and Joan Tower--not to mention world-class musicians including Joan Baez, Stanley Jordan, Steve Vai, Paul Winter, Mark O’Connor, the Minnesota Orchestra and Nashville Symphony--to compose and/or collaborate with her, a female classical guitarist on her determined way to becoming the world’s best?

At 17, noted Dangel, Isbin boldly confronted established composers to write music for her.

“I tried to get to what’s inside you,” she said to Isbin, “[to] what made you see that and do that. I hope it came out [in the film].”

“I didn’t know any better!” Isbin contended, though averring that she learned early on not to take “no” personally, and in the case of Corigliano, who was in the audience and quickly agreed, “drive him crazy.”

“The thing about Sharon,” he said, “is she always comes to you with an idea”—in his case, writing her a concerto, even though “I don’t know anything about guitar—and still don’t!” He also felt that everything she played sounded "Spanish," and intentionally came up with something that didn’t in “Troubadours (Variations for Guitar and Orchestra),” from her 1995 album American Landscapes and now the slightly modified title of her documentary.

As for Dangel’s idea of doing Sharon Isbin: Troubadour, she recalled her chance meeting with Isbin at a rehearsal at Lincoln Center by John Williams, who was playing live to Dangel-produced videos.

The Troubadour project, then, began six years ago, and took over five years of filming at venues, locales and events around the world and including the Grammy Awards, the White House and a Garrison Keillor program.

“I’m fascinated with classical musicians and how hard they work,” said Dangel, the longtime producer of the Boston Pops and Boston Symphony on PBS as well as other PBS specials, and videos for James Taylor. “I wanted to show what it takes to be a classical musician, and wanted people to see Sharon perform—so there are big stretches of music.”

Narrated by NPR’s Susan Stamberg, the film also has plenty of archival footage of Isbin’s childhood and teen years that shows her initial guitar achievements as well as toy rocket play.

Isbin saluted her supportive parents for their encouragement of her career, and Dangel for her documentation of it.

“She made great decisions along the way,” she said. “I’m glad I wasn’t part of it. I wouldn’t know what to do.”

Dangel succeeds in showing how Isbin blazed the trail in rising to the top of the traditionally male-dominated field of classical guitar, as well as the overall music world as a classical guitarist.

“I think I just wanted the music,” stated Isbin, summing up her lifelong focus.

Moderating the conversation, the Recording Academy’s New York senior executive director Elizabeth Healy noted how inspiring Isbin is for people in the music industry who likewise choose to go their own ways, especially young people who may meet the same obstacles that Isbin always surmounted.

“The music industry is changing every day,” Isbin noted. “Everyone must be creative--myself included—in order to [continue to] express ourselves and share with everybody, and still make a living.”

Taking questions from the audience, Isbin clearly impacted a young girl, who asked how long she practiced each day, with her response of “zero to 10 hours.” Singer-songwriter Tom Chapin didn’t so much ask a question as convey his sense of being overwhelmed by her guitar sound in the movie.

And Isbin’s building neighbor David Hyde Pierce was there, having appeared in the movie and complained that all of Isbin’s awards should be carted to her apartment via the freight elevator instead of interfering with fellow tenants’ laundry lugging via the regular ones.

Next up for Isbin, she said, was a “cross-genres” guitar concerto written by the late Dave Brubeck’s son Chris Brubeck, to be debuted next year with the Maryland Symphony.

Sharon Isbin: Troubadour, meanwhile, will eventually be shown on American Public Television and released on DVD.

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