Feb. 8 2017 12:36 AM

Sharon Isbin joins Lansing Symphony for a night of Latin American music

Lansing Symphony guest soloist Sharon Isbin headlines a night of cross-cultural music spanning from Spain to Latin America.
Photo by J. Henry Fair

CORRECTION: Due to a reporting error, an earlier version of this story stated that Sharon Isbin will be the first guitar soloist to perform with the Lansing Symphony. That honor belongs to Christopher Parkening, who appeared with they orchestra in 1973.

As a child, Sharon Isbin wanted to be a scientist. She shot bottle rockets 1,500 feet across her backyard and built cloud chambers that detect subatomic particles.

Instead, she ended up becoming the world’s foremost classical guitarist.

“My father bribed me by saying I couldn’t launch another rocket until I’d put in another hour on the guitar,” she said.

Isbin, the Lansing Symphony Orchestra’s biggest-name soloist in many years, will lead off a unique night of music by Spanish and Latin American composers Saturday night.

Isbin often graces high-profile venues, including the White House in 2010, and was the first and only guitarist to record with the New York Philharmonic.

Yet she is delighted to visit places like Lansing, Sioux City and Baton Rouge, where she and Muffitt performed together last September.

As far as Isbin is concerned, there’s “no difference” between playing for New Yorkers and Lansingites.

“People are people,” Isbin said.

In fact, it can be even more exciting to play for people who don’t get to hear live guitar concertos often — or ever. Saturday is the first time since 1973 the Lansing Symphony will feature a guitar soloist.

“That feeling of newness and discovery is really crackling in the air,” she said. “I love it that I’ll be able to bring something for people to hear that will be totally new.”

Muffitt compared Isbin’s visit to the days when Columbia Records would send great artists like Van Cliburn into the hinterlands.

“It’s important that someone of Sharon’s stature is willing to do that kind of work,” he said. “She’s uncompromising in her artistic expectations but also wonderful to work with. She has a wonderful sense of give and take. She plays with us, rather than at us.”

Isbin “accidentally” took up the guitar at age 9, when her family had moved to Italy and her older brother was about to start lessons from a famous guitar teacher.

When her brother found out the lessons were for classical guitar, he bailed.

“He wanted to be Elvis Presley,” Isbin said. “I volunteered to take his place. Otherwise, I’m sure I would have ended up at the (NASA) Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena.”

In a sense, Isbin has gotten to have it both ways. In 1995, when the Atlantis space shuttle zoomed into space to dock with the Russian Mir space station, astronaut Chris Hadfield, a fan of Isbin’s, took a guitar and one of her CDs into space. Isbin and Hadfield have become pals since then.

“I didn’t become an astronaut, but I did have some part of me make it into space,” Isbin said.

Isbin’s many firsts, both for women in music and for the classical guitar, are detailed in “Troubador,” a PBS documentary on her life and music.

“When I was a student, all the major role models in guitar were men,” said Isbin, who took lessons from the greatest of them all, Andrés Segovia. “It’s important for young people to be able to envision that they can be an astronaut, an architect, a conductor, any profession they want to be a part of.”

Isbin created the first guitar department at the Juilliard School. Not content to master the classical repertoire, she branched into a series of adventurous collaborations.

On her CD “Journey to the Amazon,” she plays with Thiago de Mello, a percussionist from the Maué tribe of Brazil who makes music with turtle shells, cocoons and tapir toenails.

On her most recent CD, “Guitar Passions,” Isbin stretched her circle of collaborators to include rock shredder Steve Vai, who introduced Isbin to the whammy bar, and Heart guitarist Nancy Wilson. Isbin is also one third of a multi-genre guitar supertrio with Brazilian guitarist Romero Lubambo and jazz guitarist Stanley Jordan.

In Lansing Saturday, Isbin will return to music she’s played nearly all of her life, the doleful “Concierto de Aranjuez” by Spanish composer Joaquín Rodrigo.

“It’s one of those works you can immerse yourself in and simply become part of the music,” she said. “It has this incredible sense of loss, beauty, nostalgia and passion.”

Muffitt loves to spelunk in the concerto’s languorous strata of somber sounds.

“Rodrigo had a really great style, rooted in ancient music, with old dances like the fandango that have been around for centuries,” Muffitt said. “It’s all tonal, but there’s a little spikiness that give it a distinctive color and feel.”

Saturday’s concert is free cultural trade at its finest, a mélange of European classical music, gypsy songs and even the music of the Moors, North African Muslims who first brought guitar-like instruments to Spain.

What is more, all the music is from the 20th century, a rare occurrence in the world of regional orchestras. Two of the composers are still around and write lively postmodern music. Venezuelan-born composer Alfonso Tenreiro lives in Utah, and Arturo Márquez, grandson of a Mexican folksinger, lives near Los Angeles.

Among Saturday’s bigger works is the Symphony No. 2, “Sinfonia India,” by Mexican composer Carlos Chávez, a blend of indigenous music of Mexico with the Spanish style. A big name on the program, Argentinian Alberto Ginastera, was a titan of 20th century music and a close friend of American composer Aaron Copland. Muffitt compared Ginastera’s ballet “Estancia” to Copland’s “Rodeo.”

“They were written about the same time. They both take place on ranches, and they both have cowboys,” Muffitt said.

When Muffitt put this unusual program together more than a year ago, he knew it would be a welcome tropical breeze in February.

What he couldn’t have known is how timely an evening of unfettered musical trade with Latin America, and especially Mexico, would be.

But he noticed it now. Music has a way of floating over walls, imaginary or built.

“There is certainly a humanitarian element to this program,” Muffitt said. “The message is timeless.”


Masterworks 4: From Spain to the Americas
Lansing Symphony Orchestra with Sharon Isbin, guitar
8 p.m. Sat., Feb. 11
$20-50 Wharton Center
750 E. Shaw Lane, East Lansing
(517) 487-5001, lansingsymphony.org

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