Live Review: Sharon Isbin & Protégés Shine at New York Guitar Festival

Sharon Isbin live review classical guitar
Isbin and Colin Davin. JULIA CROWE PHOTO

Grammy award–winning classical guitarist Sharon Isbin, founder of the guitar department at Juilliard, opened this year’s New York Guitar Festival at WNYC 93.9 FM Radio’s Greene Space this past May with a two-hour evening concert of solo and duo pieces performed with three of her protégés, Colin Davin, Tengyue Zhang, and Alberta Khoury. The event was broadcast live on the New Sounds program with host John Schaefer, who conducted onstage interviews with each of the performers before a live audience packed inside the high-tech glass fish-bowl studio, visible to all passersby on Charlton Street in the Tribeca area of Manhattan.

Isbin tuned her guitar and launched straightaway, without preamble, into a languid rendition of Miguel Llobet’s transcription of Enrique Granados’ Spanish Dance #5 (Andaluza). She imbued another Iberian-flavored audience favorite, Francisco Tárrega’s elegantly Moorish Capricho árabe, with her distinctively sweet tonal palette.  Her solo portion of the program closed with the exuberantly tricky, swirling dance rhythms of Waltz Opus 8, #4 by Agustín Barrios Mangoré, which culminated in a dramatic full-stop finish.

When Schaefer asked Isbin how she had come to study the guitar, she explained to the audience that when she was nine years old, her father’s work relocated their family to Varese, Italy, and there she took up the guitar lessons that her brother had abandoned. She did so out of duty, initially, because her parents had gone to the trouble to invest in a custom-built guitar. “Someone had to play that guitar,” she said. The rest is history.

She also told the story of encountering the Pulitzer Prize–winning composer John Corigliano standing in line at the local post office and how she finally persuaded him, after many years, to write her a set of pieces. All she had to do was fulfill his rather Rumpelstiltskin-like request of procuring a theme that did not fall into what he felt was the guitar’s dreaded trope of Spanish music. Isbin succeeded by proposing that he write music for her based on the compositions of the medieval French troubadours, and this became the title of both the piece published by G. Schirmer, Troubadours (Variations for Guitar and Chamber Orchestra), and her 2014 biographical film documentary, Troubadour.

Isbin and her former student Colin Davin performed Gentil Montaña’s traditional Colombian dance from his Suite Colombiana No. 2, “Porro,” a lively, airy, swinging piece. Davin’s playing complemented Isbin’s with considerable ease and expressiveness. Davin, who teaches at the Cleveland Institute of Music and the Baldwin Wallace Conservatory in Ohio, appeared three years ago on The Late Show with David Letterman as a musical guest along with soprano Jessye Norman.

Next, the duo played the thematic music that film composer Howard Shore had written for Isbin to record in the soundtrack for Scorsese’s film The Departed, titled Three Pieces for Two Guitars: “Madolyn,” “Beacon Hill,” and “The Departed Tango.” It was a treat to hear this beautiful music performed in this setting because in the film it is presented very subtly and takes a back seat to the action. The duo closed their portion of the program with  Aranjuez, ma pensée, the lovely adagio theme from Rodrigo’s famous Concierto de Aranjuez


Davin performed a solo piece, “Airs,” written by the admittedly “guitar-averse” American composer Mohammed Fairouz. It fit the lexicon of most contemporary, intellectual music written for the instrument, full of fast and slow angular passages, with a randomly plonking bass line and requisite spanking of the soundboard. To his credit, however, Davin has the distinct ability to wring the depths of expressiveness from all that he plays.

Jonathan Schaefer introduced Chinese-born guitarist Tengyue Zhang by his nickname of “TY,” and he took to the stage to play a solo set that included the second movement from Leo Brouwer’s Afro-Cuban Rito de los Orishas, the “Danza de las diosas negras” (“Dance of the black goddesses”), filled with dark, resonant rhythms. Zhang followed this piece with the busily beautiful third movement from Sérgio Assad’s Aquarelle, entitled “Preludio e Toccatina.” As the first few of Zhang’s plucked notes unfurled, it was clear that he is a powerhouse of a guitarist who projects a range of sonorous dynamics, effortless technical skill, and considerable artistry. [Editor’s note: Zhang was the first-prize winner of the 2017 Guitar Foundation of America’s International Concert Artist Competition in Fullerton, California.]

Alberta Khoury of Sydney, Australia, the last soloist of the evening, performed two movements from Leo Brouwer’s El Decameron Negro: “L’arpa del Guerrero” and “La Huida de los Amantes por el Valle de los Ecos.”  The piece, originally written for Sharon Isbin, swells in dramatic, propulsive arcs, which Khoury played with expressive ease and sensitivity.

To close the program, Khoury and Zhang brought the house down with their show-stopping performance of Cuban composer Ariannys Mariño’s “Parantesis” from 5 duos for 2 guitars, and the dizzyingly exuberant “Chiquinhua Gonzaga” from Radamés Gnattali’s Suite Retratos. Demonstrating a breathtaking adroitness and joyful musicality, the guitarists made it abundantly clear that they should continue to perform together as a duo.  

Below are two of the standout performances from the festival: