Saturday, November 29, 2014

Sharon Isbin, classical guitarist

I never quite know what to do when I read a piece about a well-known, though not particularly admired (by me) guitarist. There is always the need to counter the "sour grapes" reaction, but also the awareness that I am capable of certain amount of objectivity when it comes to the classical guitar. So I read this recent article in the Wall Street Journal about classical guitarist Sharon Isbin reluctantly and sighed heavily afterwards. This is a puff piece, of course, meaning a piece of journalism meant to burnish the image of an artist with no real attempt at balance or accuracy:
As a guitarist in the classical music world, and as a woman in the guitar community, Ms. Isbin has had a steep climb in her career. This month, American Public Television will release a new documentary called “Sharon Isbin: Troubadour,” tracking her rise as a musical pioneer.
In a way this reminds me of those articles about a particular female politician who is usually presented as being the "inevitable" next President of the US. So what do I have against Sharon Isbin? I've always felt with her that there was a promotional agenda that never had too much to do with music. That whole Bach thing for example:
Ms. Isbin went on to Yale University, and after graduation in 1978 she started studying Bach interpretation with Rosalyn Tureck, a pianist. Ten years later, she released the compilation “J.S. Bach: Complete Lute Suites,” and has since released over 25 albums, including “Journey to the New World” (2009) and “American Landscapes” (1995), which Mr. Hadfield brought up to the Russian space station Mir. She has personally won two Grammys and contributed to a third Grammy-winning album.
Is she a good Bach player? Not particularly, in my view. I've just never found her to be particularly convincing as a musician. She is certainly a good technician on the guitar, a thin, naily tone aside, but there are lots of those out there. If you want just to focus on women guitarists (and why?), there are lots better artists like Ana Vidovic and Margarita Escarpa.

Here is a clip of Sharon Isbin playing the Double to the Gigue to the Lute Suite, BWV 997 by Bach:

You might think that I searched long and hard to find a performance so uncongenial, but no, this was the first clip that came up when I searched on YouTube for "sharon isbin bach". What's wrong with this? Well it is, sort-of, technically virtuoso, yes, but it is also very harsh and insensitive. This is playing Bach like you hate him! Normally that is not something I would say is technically praiseworthy. A technically polished performance also includes the need to make a good sound, to phrase, and to play with some grace. This is one of the most graceless performances of Bach I have ever heard with harsh accents pounded out on every downbeat. To be fair, let's listen to a different Bach performance. Here are the bouree and gigue from the Lute Suite No. 1, BWV 996:

Yes, that is much nicer, a studio, not a live recording, but it is still rhythmically unpleasant with excessive downbeats chopping up every phrase.

Am I just jealous of her career success? Well, to be honest, yes and no. Yes, because she has undeniably had more success than I have, no, because the only thing that really counts is the quality of what you do, not the raw numbers of how many people actually notice...

Let me find two other guitarists that play Bach rather better in my view, for comparison. Here is Göran Söllscher playing that same bouree and gigue:

Here is John Williams playing the gigue and double from the Lute Suite No. 2. The double starts around 2:51:

Williams can be a tad heavy-handed, as in the gigue, but I think the double shows how to play virtuoso Bach without crushing it in the process.

And to establish that there really isn't any kind of gender bias going on here, let's hear some better Bach from a female guitarist. Here is Margarita Escarpa playing the Fugue in A minor:

I heard her win the Guitar Foundation of America competition in Quebec in 1995 playing the most fluid, lovely and compelling Bach I have ever heard on guitar.


Jon said...

Hi Bryan,

After reading the Wall Street Journal article, I did get the feeling that the author’s primary intent was to advertise the upcoming APM documentary on Ms. Isbin. I watched the trailer, and I thought it had a dual story-line: a woman working for recognition and achievement on an instrument long associated with male players by the public at large, and a guitarist working for recognition of the guitar as a serious classical instrument. From what I have read, that second story-line was also a major feature of Segovia’s career as a performing guitarist. As a performer yourself, do you feel the guitar has gained ground in this area? I wondered if that second story-line about the guitar might have been dramatized just a bit in 2014.

On a different note, I think these compare and contrast posts are some of the best posts that you share here at the music salon. Its one thing to talk about differences in phrasing, but it is so much more valuable to be able to hear that difference as well. You make a very clear case by contrasting Ms. Isbin’s performance with Mr. Williams. It seems to me that guitarists must work very hard at becoming a “good technician” on their instrument due to the nature of the guitar. I think showing how the musical intention (or lack thereof) comes through above and beyond the technical performance is a component of music appreciation and education that isn't talked about much outside of professional music circles. Do keep sharing these kinds of posts, I find them so interesting!

In my own musical upbringing, it wasn't until I started working with a vocal teacher that I became aware of how important our intentions are in how we phrase all the “right” notes on the page (i.e. don’t play Bach like you hate him!). Once I gained an awareness of this aspect of music, I felt like I had discovered this whole other world – reading this post really brought me back to that happy place and time.

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks for the very thoughtful comment, Jon. Yes, a great deal of journalism is simply to promote upcoming events. You might also be surprised to learn that a fair number of glowing reviews of classical recordings are actually paid for! Genuine music criticism is a lot rarer than you would suppose. So thanks for mentioning that I do some here!

What you call the story-line I would probably describe as The Narrative. The media are always framing things in terms of a very restricted set of narratives. I first noticed this when a photographer from a local newspaper came by to take publicity shots of my class at the conservatory. He was very intent on creating a certain kind of image. The narrative about a woman working for recognition in a male dominated world is of course an ongoing narrative that is constantly being hammered at us. How true is it? Not very, as I hope I indicated in the post. Note that a far earlier female performer on the guitar was Ida Presti and while she may have encountered some resistance, she clearly built a successful career despite it. It has always been very evident that in the duo Presti/Lagoya, with her husband, she was the dominant figure and real virtuoso.

Now, about the position of the guitar in the classical music world (it is important to specify, because in pop music it is a dominant instrument). I was just talking about this with a fellow guitarist. The basic problem is repertoire. The classical guitar has no really good core classical repertoire! Sorry to say. But Sor and Giuliani are not in the same league as Mozart and Beethoven. Same for the 19th century. In the 20th century we have some good repertoire, but that does not make up for not having much from the 18th and 19th centuries. So the position the guitar can aspire to is hampered by simply not having enough really great music to play.

I have to run, but thanks for the very pertinent questions!