Sharon Isbin is the first guitarist to be named
Musical America’s Instrumentalist of the Year, but firsts
are hardly new to her. When the ARD International Music
Competition, in Munich, was opened to guitarists for the
first time, in 1976, Isbin became its first winner, and when
The Juilliard School decided, after years of resistance, to
offer a performance degree in guitar, Isbin was invited to
create its curriculum and to teach. Her 1995 “American
Landscapes” album, which included the first recordings of
concertos composed for her by John Corigliano, Lukas Foss,
and Joseph Schwantner, was the first album devoted fully
to contemporary American guitar concertos. And with her
2004 recording of Joaquín Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez,
Heitor Villa-Lobos’s Guitar Concerto, and Manuel Ponce’s
Concierto del Sur, she became the first guitarist to record as
a soloist with the New York Philharmonic.
You could call Isbin a trailblazer without fear of
contradiction, and the description would not apply only
Instrumentalist of the Year
By Allan Kozinn
to her imposing list of firsts. Isbin has also reconfigured the
guitar’s repertoire and updated the ways classical guitarists
present themselves and their instrument.
Some of that is through a vital commissioning program.
Besides those on her “American Landscapes” disc, the
program has yielded guitar works by Christopher Rouse,
Tan Dun, Joan Tower, David Diamond, Aaron Jay Kernis,
Ned Rorem, Leo Brouwer, and several others. Among her
current projects are recordings of new concertos composed
for her by Chris Brubeck—the son of the legendary jazz
pianist Dave Brubeck—and Richard Danielpour.
But she has also, since the 1980s, been importing music
and timbres from non-classical music into the classical
At first, her experiments were fairly low key and
followed in the footsteps of the Brazilian classical guitarist
Carlos Barbosa-Lima. Taken with some of Barbosa-Lima’s
transcriptions of Brazilian jazz, she began including some—
Photo (facing page): Darnell Renee.