Chamber Music with Guitar: Sharon Isbin Interview

Diana Castelnuovo-Tedesco / News /
Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco Guitar Chamber Music Sharon Isbin

We are thrilled to begin our series of conversations about Mario’s Guitar chamber music with Sharon Isbin, multiple Grammy Award winner, Musical America’s 2020 Artist of the Year, and the director of the guitar departments at the Aspen Music Festival and the Juilliard School. Sharon recently recorded the Quintet for Guitar and Strings Op. 143 with the Pacifica Quartet (Simin Ganatra, violin; Austin Hartman, violin; Mark Holloway, viola; Brandon Vamos, cello) on their CD, Souvenirs of Spain & Italy (Cedille). 

Diana Castelnuovo-Tedesco interviewed Sharon Isbin in December 2021 about her experience recording the Quintet.

Sharon, you had collaborated and toured with the Pacifica Quartet before this CD project came about. What attracted you all to include Mario’s quintet in the repertoire? 

I had performed Mario’s magnificent Quintet several times in the past, including at the Aspen Music Festival and in New York City with an ensemble from the New York Philharmonic. I was excited to revisit it with the brilliant Pacifica Quartet with whom I began performing and touring in 2016, and to include it on our album Souvenirs of Spain & Italy released in summer 2019 on Cedille Records. 

What stands out for you about this work? 

The Quintet is a rarely heard gem, full of lyricism and virtuosity for each instrument. Written for Segovia in 1950, it is a masterpiece, which Mario called one of his best works of chamber music. In the score, he referred to sections in the slow movement and habanera in the final movement as Souvenirs of Spain, giving us the idea for our album title, which also includes music by Vivaldi, Turina, and Boccherini’s “Fandango” quintet.  

You and I had the chance to meet while you were preparing for the recording. I remember that you were very interested in learning more about Mario’s life and what he was like as a human being. How did “knowing him” a bit more inspire your work?  

Though I knew Mario had fled Italy with his family in 1939 to escape the Nazis and settled in California, I was fascinated to learn that his family was Sephardic and had fled Spain to Italy in 1492 to escape the murderous Inquisition. I would look at his sweet photo and gentle smile nearly every day while practicing the Quintet, thinking how fortunate it was that he survived and that his music flourished – unlike the fate of over six million, two out of every three Jews in Europe, who were slaughtered, including no doubt some of my relatives. I felt a spiritual as well as musical bond with him, made all the more personal by discovering that you were my neighbor in New York City, and by hearing your inspiring stories about him.  

While you were studying and recording this music, what emotions did you feel? What particularly touched you or surprised you? 

When you shared a copy of his hand-written manuscript of the Quintet with me,  it was an extraordinary gift and treasure. Pacifica and I would consult it for notes and the many, many dynamic markings Mario had written in. It felt like Mario was there with us, and that I was part of the family. I can’t tell you how profoundly the manuscript and meetings with you influenced my playing and entire approach to this project, deepening my connection to the composer and my passion for his music. Thank you with all my heart! 

Is there anything else you’d like to tell our readers about this project?

I will never forget the magical experience of performing the slow movement with Pacifica at the Cedille Records gala concert in Chicago, September 2019. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was in the front row, loved it, and was delighted when I presented her with the CD, exclaiming at dinner how beautiful the music and performance was. [Ed. note: a photo taken that evening of Sharon, James Ginsburg (founder and president of Cedille), and Justice Ginsburg is featured in the header of this article.]

Sharon, thank you for your beautiful words and for your artistry!


Listen to Souvenirs of Spain and Italy on Spotify

Listen to Jim Ginsburg of Cedille Records interview with Sharon Isbin and Brandon Vamos of the Pacifica Quartet on Cedille’s Classical Chicago Podcast

Watch Sharon Isbin and the Pacifica Quartet talk about recording Castelnuovo-Tedesco on YouTube