Sharon Isbin Remembers Julian Bream

The classical guitar luminary thinks back on the late maestro’s passion and dedication.

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Image: Julian Bream, c. 1970. Credit: PA Images via Getty.

The classical eminence Julian Bream died in his native England on August 14 at age 87. A towering influence in the history of the guitar and lute, Bream expanded the classical guitar’s possibilities in performance and repertoire, and became an admired, dignified public face for his instrument. To pay tribute to his life and work, we asked another of the classical guitar’s most transformative figures, Sharon Isbin, to reflect on Bream, one of her heroes and mentors. – Ed.

I started guitar at age 9 in Italy, but became serious about it at 14. By then I was passionate about science, so my father used to bribe me to practice by saying, “You have to put in an hour on your guitar before you can launch your model rockets!” That kept me going. But at 14 I won a competition, and the award was to play as soloist with the Minnesota Orchestra for 10,000 people. It was a lightbulb moment, even more exciting than sending my worms and grasshoppers up into space, so I decided to become a guitarist.

That year, Julian Bream came to Minneapolis, where I was growing up, to perform a solo recital. Through a connection my parents made with the presenters, he offered to give me a lesson on the day of his concert. We met him at the hall. I even remember the piece I played: the Prelude from Bach’s 3rd Cello Suite. He was very gracious and kind, with an engaging smile — that big Julian smile. He said, “That’s lovely, but did you notice, Sharon, you hardly ever use the third finger, the ring finger, on your right hand when you’re playing? It would be a lot easier for you if you used all four fingers.”

Oddly enough, no one had pointed that out to me before. He said, “You need to include that finger whenever it’s appropriate.” Believe it or not, that one little lesson, that one moment of advice, probably made the entire difference in my life. I will always be grateful to him for that. I took it to heart and started to reexamine and re-finger everything I was doing. It was a turning point. And though I had no idea at the time I would become a professional guitarist, it made the journey much more informed.

Bream and Isbin in 1970. Credit: Courtesy of Sharon Isbin.

Bream was very observant. He wanted to help and be of service. Especially in his earlier days, he was very generous and didn’t charge me for the lesson. It was something he did out of the goodness of his heart, and I will always remember and appreciate that. I cherish the photo of us together from that time. It is something I believe so strongly with my own guitar students and strive to instill in them: Sharing your knowledge is the best way for all of us to make progress.

In 1964, Bream released an album with Britten’s Courtly Dances From Gloriana and Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez. I’d put that on every night before going to sleep. It was so beautiful and joyous. It communicated the spirit and message music could inspire in me and that I wanted to bring to others. I would listen to the Rodrigo first movement and think, “I hope to play this someday.” Little did I imagine I would perform and record it with the New York Philharmonic — their only album with a guitar soloist.

I heard Bream in concert several times. The last was in New York around 1990, shortly after I had created the first guitar department at Juilliard. What really struck me in his playing, when he was in his prime, was his passion and spontaneity. He was no holds barred: good rhythm, not mannered or eccentric, with great passion, especially with contemporary, Spanish and Romantic music. He also introduced the lute to an audience that was largely unfamiliar with it. He would often play the first half of his concerts on lute and the second half on guitar. It was so intriguing and lovely! Even though the style of playing, technically, was different from what a lutenist might do now, he communicated the sheer joy and beauty of Elizabethan music, inspiring many of us guitarists to add it to our repertoire.

He valued modern-day composers, sought them out and found funding to commission them, greatly expanding the literature. His dedication to contemporary music changed the course of history for guitar. Of the 38 significant works written for him, I’ve performed seven, and have had more than 80 works composed and arranged for me. I took my cues from Bream on that — he made commissioning new works look fun, exciting and of the moment, a live art form of our time.

There are magical ways in which the universe works, and I will certainly never forget being moved in the right direction back at age 14 during my wonderful encounter with him.

[As told to Ryan Reed]

Sharon Isbin’s two new ZOHO label albums, Affinity: World Premiere Recordings and the collaborative Strings for Peace: Premieres for Guitar and Sarod, are available now on TIDAL. Credit: J. Henry Fair.

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