Guitarist Sharon Isbin and opera singer Isabel Leonard reimagine Spanish art songs at the Aspen Music Festival
IF YOU GO …
Who: Shaton Isbin with Isabel Leonard
Where: Harris Concert Hall
When: Thursday, Aug. 9, 8 p.m.
How much: $65
Tickets: Wheeler Opera House and Harris Concert Hall box offices; aspenmusicfestival.com
More info: The program features Spanish art songs from Isbin and Leonard’s album ‘Alma Española;’ Isbin will also conduct guitar master classes on Aug. 11 and 14
Classical guitarist Sharon Isbin and mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard first performed together in Aspen four summers ago, sparking a fruitful creative partnership that sent the pair on tour and led to their Grammy-winning 2017 album “Alma Española.”
Isbin and Leonard will return to the stage at Harris Concert Hall on Thursday night, performing selected Spanish art songs from the record. Before their 2014 performance in Aspen, the pair found they shared an interest in the Spanish guitar music tradition, and a hope to revive songs by the poet Federico Garcia Lorca and composers like Manuel de Falla with new arrangements and their first recordings in decades.
“I’d heard her in concert and she has a magnificent voice,” said Isbin, noting that Leonard is Argentine-American. “Being a Spanish speaker was important. It’s been 40 years since this kind of repertoire has been commercially recorded in a major way by a major Spanish-speaking singer with guitar. So it would be historic.”
Most of the composers featured on the album were murdered by or were made to flee from fascists. The songs include the Catalan folk traditions and regional Spanish styles that were forbidden under Francisco Franco’s military dictatorship. Our current moment, as far-right governments rise to power across the West, lent the project urgent geopolitical resonance, Isbin said.
“Given the political climate in which we’re living, we could relate a lot to their struggle and heartbreak,” she explained.
Lorca, legendary as a poet but little known as a composer, was murdered in 1936 at the outset of the Spanish Civil War. With Manuel de Falla, Lorca — author of the iconic poem “La Guitarra” — founded the hugely influential flamenco festival Concurso del Cante Jondo in Grenada in 1922.
Lorca did not write down his arrangements for his songs. Their very existence is only known because Lorca made recordings of himself performing them on piano with a singer in the 1930s.
“They survived somehow,” Isbin said. “By listening to these recordings, people have been able to write down the versions that he recorded.”
Manuel de Falla, likewise, was inspired by guitar but composed on a piano.
“It’s a natural thing for them to be done on this instrument,” Isbin said. “It’s like bringing them home.”
Isbin has built new guitar arrangements for songs on the “Alma Española” project. A visit to Manuel de Falla’s home in Grenada, from which the composer fled in 1939 when Franco seized power, provided an artistic key for Isbin and inspired her new arrangements.
“When you visit the home, which is very modest and very simple, it’s pretty much as he left it,” she explained. “That enables an artist to really dream the experience of meeting the composer in a way that, certainly now, isn’t possible. It makes me feel a little bit closer.”
Isbin has, however, met another composers who she is honoring with Leonard. After winning a guitar competition in Madrid in the late 1970s with a performance of a Joaquin Rodrigo adagio, Isbin got a call from Rodrigo himself. He and his wife, the pianist Victoria Kamhi, had heard a radio broadcast of the concert and invited the young Isbin to their home. It began a friendship that lasted two decades until Rodrigo’s death in 1999.
Rodrigo’s story from the Franco era includes fleeing both fascist Spain and Nazi Germany, a trauma that led Kamhi to have a miscarriage. Singing to her during her recovery inspired Rodrigo’s “Aranjuez, me pensée,” which Isbin and Leonard will perform Thursday.
“We’ve got monumental experiences coming from all ends,” Isbin said of the refugee composers she and Leonard are honoring. “It should help us appreciate the value of life and the value of being kind and respectful of other people. That’s what makes life worth living.”
Like this ambitious project, much of Isbin’s artistic life has roots in Aspen. The guitarist — often called the greatest living classical guitarist — has been on the faculty of the Aspen Music Festival and School for 28 years and studied here herself as a teenager.
“It’s really a place that I feel like I’ve grown up with,” Isbin said.
Her next two recording projects also have roots in Aspen. This fall she’ll record a guitar concerto written for her by Chris Brubeck that premiered in Aspen last summer. And early next year she is making a collaborative album with the Pacifica String Quartet, the fellow festival regulars she met in Aspen and has recently toured with.
“All of these exciting things have taken their journey through the Aspen Music Festival,” she said.
Isbin may take more pride, however, in seeing her students rise in the ranks and join her on the world stage as they emerge from the Aspen guitar program she leads. Most recently, emerging stars include such musicians as Bokyung Byun and Tengue Zhang, who are assisting Isbin in the guitar program this summer, and Colin Davin, who Isbin has mentored since he came to Aspen at age 15 and who returns to perform here next week.
“They’re taking over the world and it’s great to be able to share their knowledge with students at the Aspen Music Festival,” she said. “Aspen has been a very important place not only for my own growth but for that of my students.”
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