March 14 2012 12:00 AM

Grammy winner Isbin picks up on 'Passion'


When classical guitarist Sharon Isbin played a prestigious concert at the White House for the Obama family, she was able to honestly say afterward, “I wasn’t nervous.” 

That confidence is a testament to her steadfast skills with the nylon strings and her poised on-stage coolness. At the November 2009 show, Isbin performed just feet away from the First Family and did what she does at every show: sat, guitar in lap, masterfully nailing each note. 

Perhaps the Grammy winner’s interest in transcendental meditation helps to ensure no sour notes will be plucked, but after watching her fingers fluently glide across the fret board, one quickly realizes why she’s often called “the Monet of Classical Guitar.”

"In her hands, the guitar takes on the precision of a diamond, each note a clear, shining facet that catches, prismlike, a glimpse of the spectrum," noted The New York Times´ Anne Midgette. 

Isbin plays Sunday at the Pasant Theatre at the Wharton Center. 

While the 55-year-old Minnesota-native is regarded as one of the best classical players, after 46 years of playing, she prefers to mix it up. Isbin’s catalogue includes over 25 recordings, extending from Baroque and Spanish/Latin to 20th century to crossover and jazz-fusion. Isbin said she embraces her versatility.

“I’ve never seen that as a problem,” Isbin said, in a phone interview. “It’s really an asset in that I’ve drawn so many different kinds of music. For me it’s all under one umbrella, which is ‘good music.’ That way, I don’t see boundaries and I’m not limited by them.” 

Having no borders means Isbin can collaborate with an assortment of players from all genres, including numerous collaborations with virtuoso rock ‘n’ roll guitar slinger Steve Vai, who is featured on Isbin’s new album “Guitar Passions.” So what sets Isbin’s style apart from Vai’s?

“He’s playing steel strings with a pick and I’m playing nylon strings with my fingernails — that’s the first major difference. Also, he’s improvising,” Isbin explained. “We bring our worlds together in a way that has to do with the kind of music we choose to play. He and I have been collaborating for almost 10 years now.”

That´s not out of the ordinary for Isbin.

“I was doing unusual collaborations long before that was even considered to be popular, dating back to the 1980s,” she said. “I really learned how wonderful it is to be able to mix steel string with nylon and to mix improvisation with a classical style.”

While “Guitar Passions” features guest spots from the likes of Nancy Wilson of Heart, obviously Isbin also frequently connects with artists within the modern classical scene.  

“I have worked with many contemporary composers to have works written for me,” she said. “One is called the ‘Joan Baez Suite,’ inspired by songs that she made famous in the early part of her career. In fact there’ll be two of those on the concert I play in East Lansing.”

Isbin’s 2009 album, “Journey to the New World,” breathed new life into centuries-old folk music. The disc, which features violinst Mark O’Connor and vocals by Joan Baez, also snagged a 2010 Grammy for best instrumental soloist performance (without orchestra).

“That was an exploration of folk music, starting in the 16th century in the British Isles and then crossing the ocean with the immigrants and their music and their dreams to the New World,” Isbin said of the “Journey” album. “After the success of that album, Sony asked if I would consider doing something that would be a tribute to the guitar and would honor people from the past as well as the present. That was how ‘Guitar Passions’ was born.” 

Isbin said she plans to play some selections off the new record at the Wharton Center, giving East Lansing a first-hand view of her ability to seamlessly blend genres.

“The CD has a very Latin American/Spanish flare to it,” she said. “Most of the music comes from those roots. We wanted to create something that would be really unique and it would combine the classical world and bring into that world people from the rock, pop, and jazz genres.”

Her journey into music started when Isbin was 9. Her discipline at an early age enabled her to gain notice while still in her teens; she never looked back.

“When I was 14, I won a competition and the award was to perform with the Minnesota Orchestra,” she recalled.

“I walked out on the stage in front of 5,000 people, and I decided this was more exciting than what I had been spending my time doing, which was building and launching model rockets and sending little worms and grasshoppers up into space. So I switched gears and started to practice five hours a day on guitar, and things sort of went from there.”

Sharon Isbin

7 p.m. Sunday, March 18

Pasant Theatre at Wharton Center


$35; $15 students (two per MSU ID and one per non-MSU college ID