Illini Insider | Classical guitarist Sharon Isbin returns for Ellnora

By Chicago 6 Min Read

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Welcome to “Illini Insider,” your regular dose of University of Illinois news from beat writer Luke Taylor. Fresh out of college himself, he’s always looking for story tips, photo ideas and social media mentions. Email him at [email protected] and he’ll give chase.

On Monday, she was playing at the U.S. Capitol. On Saturday, she’ll be at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts.

Sharon Isbin is back for another year at Ellnora: The Guitar Festival, just off playing with the National Symphony Orchestra for its Labor Day concert.

I had the chance to talk with her a bit earlier this week, — and it sounds like she’s happy to visit C-U once again.

She said she enjoys not only the chance to meet up with friends in the area — including her first roommate, who coincidentally lives in town — but to perform at Krannert.

“It’s a unique place because it has an extraordinary layout physically,” Isbin said. “The audience really gets into this because they congregate throughout the building and are able to stroll into one performance or another. … I’ve never seen another festival that is set up in this way.”

She said this gives people a chance to check out different genres and artists without having to commit to one.

Isbin also enjoys getting to meet with the audience after her show, but she makes an effort to do that at all of her performances.

She said her performance at this year’s show will include pieces by Vivaldi, Boccherini and pieces from Spain and South American countries like Venezuela and Paraguay.

She said she makes an effort to learn the history behind the music she performs; talking over the phone, Isbin had no trouble rattling off background information on the artists and inspiration behind specific compositions.

Right now, she said, she’s playing a lot of music from Spain and Italy, especially because she released an album called “Souvenirs of Spain and Italy” with the Pacifica Quartet, who will join her at Ellnora.

“It is a way to bring together two cultures that have a lot of similarities and composers who have extraordinary contributions to our world,” Isbin said.

Isbin is a guitarist who mostly plays classical music.

That means that some of it has to be rearranged to fit her instrument, she said, but it isn’t always that easy; the sound needs to be something the guitar can re-create without disrespecting the original piece.

Isbin highlighted a Vivaldi concerto, originally written for lute and a string trio, that she’ll be performing at Ellnora.

“It works so beautifully because of the entire Baroque element and the style, and of course lute being a not-very-distant ancestor of the guitar,” Isbin said. “It’s something that is really representative of how to make a transcription work beautifully.”

Isbin’s music choices aren’t limited to European classical, though; her work with Sting, North Indian classical musician Amjad Ali Khan and Brazilian composer Antônio Carlos Jobim stands out.

She said her early opportunities to travel inspired this appreciation for diversity in music.

“I was really exposed to the idea of multiculturalism at a young age and came to appreciate how inspiring it is to learn from people of different lands,” Isbin said. “That has carried through into my music not only in terms of countries but genres.”

Isbin doesn’t focus on the setting of her performances.

“I never want to compare one thing with another because the real enticement and joy is to immerse yourself in the moment and be part of what is present,” Isbin said. “I think we have entered a world in which everyone is quick to jump on another and instead, Ellnora is the ideal representation of bringing artists and the public together in a very special and beautiful way.”

Isbin is definitely the first Grammy winner I’ve ever spoken to – not to mention her numerous other accolades – and I have to say she sets a high standard for the rest, in my book, with her passion for her art.

If you want the chance to listen to her play and maybe talk with her yourself, catch her and the Pacifica Quartet in a free concert at 11 a.m. on Sept. 9 in the Foellinger Great Hall in the Krannert Center.

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