March 14, 2013 | by Joey DiGuglielmo
The classics and beyond
Sharon Isbin, music, gay news, Washington Blade

Classical guitarist Sharon Isbin says blurring the lines between classical and pop/rock has been a hallmark of her career. (Photo courtesy Isbin)

Guitarfest: Sharon Isbin Concert
Tonight
8 p.m.
A Levine School of Music event
at Church of the Epiphany
1317 G Street, NW
Washington
$25 ($12 for 12 and under)

In the world of classical acoustic guitar, the lines between “high” art and pop are not as isolated as they are for other instruments.

Classical guitarist Sharon Isbin, who’s done everything from found a department for her instrument at the Juilliard School in New York to appear as a guest on “The L Word,” says embracing both arenas, collaborating with pop/rock musicians and delving even further into jazz and Latin terrain, has been a hallmark of her career.

“Guitar is really an instrument of the people,” the 56-year-old Manhattan resident says during a quick phone interview from her apartment last week. “It’s figured so much in the balladry of various cultures and has been a big part of the storytelling. If you look at Latin American and Spanish culture, it’s really been a centerpiece of the expression of the history and storytelling. Its very versatility has been influential in the evolution of many genres.”

Isbin, who came out as a lesbian in a 1995 Out magazine profile, is in Washington tonight for a recital presented by the Levine School of Music at Church of the Epiphany (1317 G Street, NW). In homage to the centennial of composer Benjamin Britten, Isbin will perform his nine-movement 1963 piece “Nocturnal,” the only solo piece he wrote for guitar in addition to works by Isaias Savio, Isaac Albeniz, Bruce MacCombie and others. On Saturday she’ll give a master class for guitar students at the Levine School of Music that is open to the public and free to attend.

Isbin calls the Britten piece “very accessible” to audiences. With a contemporary work by Tan Dun that she calls “Chinese folk music,” and some Latin American pieces, Isbin says the program will be highly eclectic.

Isbin’s accomplishments are rather dizzying. She’s recorded many albums, two of which have won Grammy Awards. Her latest, “Guitar Passions” features guest appearances by rock guitarist Steve Vai and Heart’s Nancy Wilson. Her previous effort, “Journey to the New World” featured Joan Baez and Mark O’Connor. Isbin has won numerous awards and competitions, been featured on nearly 50 magazine covers and has performed major symphony orchestras all over the world. She’s performed at the White House and is on the soundtrack of Martin Scorsese’s Oscar-winning film “The Departed.” Her credentials seem to never end.

“I’ve been really lucky to be able to record many kinds of music,” she says. “I’ve done a lot of crossover work, the complete Bach lute works, some baroque music and contemporary, works with major orchestras … the best thing to do is just go to my website, listen to all the sound samples that are there and see what you like.”

Isbin is in a relationship but declines to comment further. She says although her manager was nervous about her coming out in the mid-‘90s, she was eager to be out publicly.

“I had wanted to come out a year earlier but my manager said no,” she says. “In the meantime, both Melissa Etheridge and k.d. lang came out and sold platinum, so the following year they said yes. Sometimes it takes some time to convince others. … The only repercussions I got were positive.”

Isbin says her technique — she uses no pick and uses nylon strings — is different from pop/rock guitar virtuosos. She does use her own amplification system when she’s playing in certain venues, such as with full orchestra when the acoustic guitar would get overwhelmed. She travels widely, as one would expect, and credits her years of transcendental meditation with maintaining her teaching, recording and touring work and keeping her life balanced.

“It really helps me access my inner creativity,” she says. “It’s something that facilitates deep immersion when I’m on stage.”

Joey DiGuglielmo is the Features Editor for the Washington Blade.

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