There she was: Joan Baez in classical guitarist Sharon Isbin’s New York home – crying.
After some chitchat, the renowned folk musician asked Isbin to play for her. And then, as she began strumming, Baez scooted her chair closer, deeply captured until “she had tears streaming down her face,” Isbin remembers.
“It was such an incredibly powerful and intimate moment of shared souls,” she continues, “and to think that this was the woman that’s made me cry for so many years – it was remarkable. It was just one of those wonderfully powerful private and poignant moments that makes you very much in touch with the magic and the power of music. ”
After rehearsing, the two cut a pair of tracks, including the timeless “Wayfaring Stranger,” for Isbin’s latest LP released earlier this year – “Journey to the New World,” which bridges Renaissance lute and folk music. One of the album’s solo suites – a work written especially for Isbin and world premiered on this disc – is even named after Baez. But instead of performing that or any of the other disc’s pieces for her three-day DSO debut Sept. 24-27 at Orchestra Hall, she’ll play “Fantasia para un Gentilhombre” (“Fantasy for a Gentleman”), which will be conducted by Isbin’s longtime friend and DSO Music Director Leonard Slatkin.
“He is one of the most exciting, dynamic, brilliant conductors on the planet today,” she says, “and I’m thrilled to be working with him again.”
The piece they’ll perform together was made popular by Spanish composer Joaquin Rodrigo, who Isbin calls “one of the great composers of guitar.”
After Isbin met him in 1979, the year Rodrigo tracked her down after hearing her live – and award-winning – broadcast of his Concierto de Aranjuez, the two forged a 20-year friendship. She recorded it in 2004 with the New York Philharmonic, which was the first time they made a guitar recording, Isbin notes.
“There’s still history to be made being a guitarist,” she says. “It’s an instrument that has a more recent span of concertizing than, I would say, the violin or the piano, but one that is very rich and endearing in its repertoire.”
And also suitable for crossover success, as the guitar remains one of the most – if not the most – ubiquitous instruments. As she’s traipsed from folk to Latin and jazz-fusion, Isbin’s career, which began shortly after studying guitar in Italy at age 9, epitomizes that.
“One of the great things about playing guitar is that its roots are really in all kinds of genres of music from folk to pop to rock to bluegrass and of course classical and Baroque. All of that is very much a part of the mix and the freedom we have, so I have been doing crossover projects long before it was considered acceptable.”
But breaking barriers has served her well. She’s recorded over 25 albums, graced over 40 magazine covers (and that’s just music ones) and picked up oodles of accolades along the way, including a Grammy in 2001, making her the first classical guitarist in 28 years to score one of the prestigious music awards. In 2006 she was nominated alongside Melissa Etheridge for a GLAAD Media Award. Just a few months ago, pro-women organization Power Up named her one of 10 amazing gay people in showbiz, along with talk show host Rachel Maddow and actress Kelly McGillis.
“I’m in some great company,” Isbin says.
The guitar goddess came out almost 15 years ago, in 1995 – well into her career, and only because of her own personal issues with her sexuality. No one else cared but her, she told The Advocate in 2003.
“It’s a non-issue. It’s not even interesting,” she says now. “It has nothing to do with my music, and it’s not something that ever really comes up.”
But she’s still happy that she opened up about it.
“It’s just great that those who feel comfortable being who they are, and being open about their lives, have that freedom. It’s certainly a healthier way to live.”
And it might have had something to do with a guest role on the long-running lesbian drama “The L Word,” in which Isbin – during a second season episode, which also included Jennifer Beals and Pam Grier – played herself as she performed for the close-knit gaggle at their hangout, The Planet.
“It’s remarkable how many hours it takes to shoot a few minutes,” she says, “because they have to use different angles and lights, and there’s a lot of downtime. So I would just entertain all the actresses and all the crew. I just sat down and played.”
Oh, to be a fly on the wall.
Isbin Plays Rodrigo
Sept. 24-27, Orchestra Hall at the DSO
3711 Woodward Ave., Detroit