Described by the Boston Globe's Michael Manning as a musician who plays "beyond virtuosity," guitarist Sharon Isbin has been a consistent challenge for critics, who struggle to find the right superlative that would do justice to her exquisite playing. A Renaissance woman of the guitar, Isbin performs worldwide at famous venues, commissions new works from distinguished American composers (more than any other guitarist) for her instruments, collaborates with a wide variety of musicians, and indefatigably searches for new music to play.
Isbin was born on August 7, 1956, in Minneapolis. As a child, she wanted to be a scientist, like her father. However, she started guitar lessons at the age of nine (the family was living in Italy at that time) and found her vocation. She graduated from Yale University with a B.A. and a Masters of Music. Her teachers included Andrés Segovia and harpsichordist Rosalyn Tureck. With Tureck, Isbin worked on the first performance edition, for guitar, of J. S. Bach's Lute Suites. This project eventually resulted in a critically acclaimed disc. In 1989, Isbin founded the guitar department at the Juilliard School of Music and became that institution's first professor of guitar. She has been extremely active in expanding the classical guitar repertoire, commissioning and premiering works from leading American composers, including John Corigliano, Joan Tower, Christopher Rouse, and Howard Shore.
Isbin's recordings have consistently been assessed as groundbreaking musical events. In 1995, her disc, the first-ever of American guitar concerti, was presented to a Russian cosmonaut during a rendezvous between the space shuttle Atlantis and the Russian spaceship Mir. Journey to the Amazon, performed with percussionist Thiago de Mello and saxophonist Paul Winter, earned Isbin a Grammy nomination in 1999. She received a Grammy in 2001 for her Dreams of a World: Folk-Inspired Music for Guitar. Significantly, this was a first classical guitar Grammy in 28 years. In 2002, Isbin got another Grammy nomination, for an extraordinary performance of concerti by Rouse and Tan Dun. The concerti featured in this world premiere disc were dedicated to Isbin. She captured a second Grammy award in 2010 for her album Journey to the New World, with Joan Baez and Mark O'Connor. Spanning various styles, genres, and periods, Isbin's other recordings include Aaron Jay Kernis' Double Concerto (with violinist Cho-Liang Lin), Rodrigo: Concierto de Aranjuez, and Sharon Isbin Plays Baroque Favorites for Guitar. The latter features a truly astounding performance of a transcription of Bach's Violin Concerto in A minor.
In 2014, the American Public Television documentary "Sharon Isbin: Troubador" featured Isbin's life as a musician and educator. She was named the 2020 "Instrumentalist of the Year" by Musical America, becoming the first guitarist to be honored with the title.