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St. Louis played a big part in renowned classical guitarist Sharon Isbin’s career

J. Henry Fair

Sharon Isbin, a renowned classical guitarist, will come to St. Louis next week. Isbin has performed with over 170 orchestras around the world, often joins Garrison Keillor’s “A Prairie Home Companion,” and has received multiple Grammy Awards.  

Although she started playing guitar when she was only nine years old in Italy and primarily grew up in Minneapolis, her return to St. Louis will be a bit of a homecoming.

“The first American orchestra to commission a concerto for me was actually the St. Louis Symphony [in 1987],” Isbin told “St. Louis on the Air” host Don Marsh. “It was a work by Joe Schwantner that was written for me and I premiered with Leonard Slatkin and the symphony.”

Although the number of symphonic compositions for guitar has increased over the last few decades, concertgoers are not often treated to the guitar’s mellifluous sound. That is partly because an orchestra’s traditional instruments can overpower the guitar’s softer sound and because, with rare exception, great classical composers from generations ago did not write for the guitar.

Isbin acknowledged that she encountered several obstacles early on as a young female classical guitarist. She had to convince the Minnesota Orchestra to let her enter competitions.

“I think I learned pioneering techniques at that time by just having to stand up for the instrument,” Isbin said. “The turning point was performing with the Minnesota Orchestra at age 14.”

Isbin credits the famous musician Andrés Segovia for helping popularize the classical guitar.

“Segovia is really the grandfather of it,” she said. “He brought it to the mainstage…and it took time to get composers who were really well known and respected to write for the instrument.”

In 2010, Isbin’s CD, “Journey to the New World,” featuring Joan Baez and Mark O’Connor, won a Grammy. She has also played with popular musicians such as Sting and Josh Groban.

“As long as I pursue what is of genuine musical interest to me and find the kinds of pieces and selections and arrangements that we can all work together on, doing what we do best, that the result is something very special and different,” Isbin said.

Isbin is known as the “face of classical guitar.”

“I’ve always felt a tremendous responsibility because playing the guitar is an instrument that automatically translates to mean that you’re constantly breaking boundaries,” she said. “If I’m going to be the first guitarist to record with the New York Philharmonic, which I was… I really have to always be with my best game because I’m not just representing myself, I’m representing the instrument.”

Related Event

What: Radio Arts Foundation Presents Leonard Slatkin and Friends
When: Tuesday, March 8, 2016, 8:00 p.m.
Where: Sheldon Concert Hall, 3648 Washington Blvd., St. Louis, MO 63108
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St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary Edwards, Alex Heuer and Kelly Moffitt give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region. 

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Alex is the executive producer of "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.