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Tuning Up the Strings

This year's chamber festival features renowned guitarist Sharon Isbin.


If you're a county resident who has been out of town or in reclusion, you may not have noticed anything special about the Ventura classical music scene this month. For everyone else, the signs are everywhere, literally: The Ventura Chamber Music Festival, now in its sixth annual edition, will consume our attentions and continue a bold lineage.

All told, the festival, running through May 14, looks to be a well-balanced display of chamber music.

The first several days of the festival include a residency by the Shanghai String Quartet, which appeared last year, and a special Stravinsky-based piano recital by Christopher O'Riley on Tuesday night.

On Saturday night, various performance entities, including the Channel Islands Ballet and pianist Vicki Ray, converge in the new Serra Center Auditorium behind the Ventura Mission for a varied program that includes Stravinsky's classic "L'Histoire du Soldat" and music by composer-in-residence John Thow.

Ray will return Wednesday afternoon for a performance of Schubert's great song cycle, "Die Winterreise," sung by tenor Jonathan Mack.

And then there is the festival's all-important guitar chair, which has been a critical cog in programming each year since its inception. Fortuitously, and perhaps inevitably, the festival has finally signed one of the eminent--and eclectic--classical guitarists, Sharon Isbin.

Isbin has proved her worth in traditional classical forms over the years, including her noted Bach Lute Suites and a total of nine Guitar Concerti she has commissioned over the years (her latest was by Christopher Rouse, which premiered in Germany in January and will soon be recorded).

But she has also explored offbeat avenues from classical norms, as heard on her last two recordings, the Grammy-nominated "Journey to the Amazon" from 1998 and last year's "Dreams of a World: Folk-inspired Music for Guitar," both on the Teldec label. Sunday night's concert at the Serra Center will lean toward eclectic mode, with Isbin playing mainly pieces from both recent albums.

Outside the classical guitar field, Isbin has also collaborated with Laurindo Almeida--who introduced her to the beauties of Brazilian music--and then the Brazilian master himself, Antonio Carlos Jobim.

She also worked with Larry Coryell, and, two years ago, did a multi-genre "Guitar Summit" tour with jazz guitarists Herb Ellis and Stanley Jordan, and art folk hero Michael Hedges, who died not long after that tour.

Needless to say, deviating from classical convention is nothing new for Isbin, and the music world may have caught up with her.

As she explained this week from her home in New York City, "when I started doing what we now call 'crossover music,' it was kind of a dirty word, back in the '80s. It was something that was unusual for a classical musician to do, without getting branded somehow. But because I was still pursuing all the other interests that I had, which included commissioning composers, and was still doing my Bach Lute Suites, it would be hard for anyone to then claim that I had sold out, or gone off to do Brazilian samba and jazz and other things."


More than other instrumentalists, classical guitarists may feel the natural inclination to expand the still fairly small repertoire for the guitar.

The fascination with commissioning new works, Isbin said, "was a lesson I first came to appreciate when I was about 17. By instinct, when I heard an Israeli composer's harp concerto, I asked him to write me a concerto.

"That was my first. And I've never recovered from the addiction to wanting to bring new works into the world, because it is fun to vicariously experience that thrill of creation, without any of the responsibility that the composer has. I have to make sure that it works and I guide them along the right path, but I'm not facing the blank page like they are. I don't think I ever want to face a blank page. I like it to be filled with black."

In fact, one of her more recent commissions, John Duarte's "Appalachian Dreams Opus 121," will be performed in Ventura.

Pursuing an interest in Appalachian music, Isbin researched over 100 tunes from that area, which she forwarded to Duarte.

One fresh aspect of the piece is hearing the songs performed on classical guitar, as opposed to the indigenous format of flat-picked steel string guitar.

"One of the beautiful things about classical guitar, because the strings are nylon and you have the ability to use your nail rather than a pick, the palette of color is enormous," Isbin said.

"One can apply that in many different ways to create different moods and impressions and forms of expression."

Joining Isbin in Ventura will be percussionist Guadencio Thiago de Mello, an Amazonian Indian with whom Isbin has collaborated for many years and who composed and performed on the "Journey to the Amazon" recording.

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