Guitar goddess: classical guitarist Sharon Isbin talks about hiking the Rockies, nurturing talent at Juilliard, and playing J.S. Bach and Joan Baez – music

Joseph Dalton

After classical guitarist Sharon Isbin came out in Out magazine in 1995, she didn’t think people would be all that interested. She found out differently a week later at a concert in Atlanta.

“I remember walking out onstage, thinking, They know,” Isbin says. “And what happened is that they wouldn’t stop clapping. Everyone around me–the presenter of the concert, the record company, the radio station–was totally supportive and complimentary, and the only person having any trouble with this was me.” That was eight years ago. “What’s so strange is that it has never come up again in any of the many profiles I’ve done. So I can only deduce that when an artist in the classical world comes out, no one gives a damn.”

If audiences give little regard to Isbin’s sexuality these days, her music garners plenty of attention. Her last three albums earned Grammy nominations, and one of them–Dreams of a World, a collection based on folk music released in 2000–made her the first classical guitarist in 28 years to receive the coveted award. Her latest, Sharon Isbin Plays Baroque Favorites for Guitar (Warner Classics), is a return to some music she loves. “What I really enjoy about baroque music is that it was the jazz of their day,” she says. “Like a jazz musician, you improvise; you don’t just read what’s on the paper.”

Isbin not only conceived of the record–which includes such jewels as Albinoni’s “Adagio” and Bach’s “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring”–she also art-directed the CD’s lushly gorgeous cover, which she based on a photo of Greta Garbo she saw in The Girls: Sappho Goes to Hollywood. “I wasn’t going to get all dolled up in 1940s chiffon,” she quips, “but I wanted to capture the essence and the sensuality of that photo.”

Isbin makes time for a formidable array of pursuits outside her concert schedule. She has headed the guitar department at Juilliard since 1989. Thanks to her long-running column for Acoustic Guitar magazine, she has become “sort of the Dear Abby of acoustic guitars.” Then there’s the Aspen Music Festival, where she heads the guitar department and makes use of each summer’s nine-week festival to get outdoors. “If I’m not trekking through the jungles, the Rocky Mountains will suit me fine,” she says. Having made an expedition to the Amazonian rain forest, she’s speaking literally.

Isbin is also in a long-term relationship, although she won’t elaborate beyond saying, “I’m fortunate to be able to make room in my life for that.”

Typically, Isbin has chosen her next project worlds apart from the baroque. This October in San Francisco, she’ll premiere “The Joan Baez Suite,” a seven-movement arrangement of the folk singer’s best-known songs.

“I’ve always loved folk music,” says Isbin, who actually took up classical guitar as a 9-year-old only because her older brother turned down the opportunity. “I thought it couldn’t be that bad because I loved folk guitar. Now, later in life, a lot of the music I’m doing is folk-inspired. I’ve come full circle.”

COPYRIGHT 2003 Liberation Publications, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2003 Gale Group

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