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Classical Album of the Week: In Sharon Isbin's Affinity, Chris Brubeck Honors The Memory Of His Dad

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November 30, 2020. In his concerto for guitar and orchestra, Chris Brubeck pays homage to his father, the late jazz great Dave Brubeck. The pianist and composer, whose centennial we celebrate on December 6th, passed away in 2012. Brubeck's piece is the title track of our Classical Album of the Week. Guitarist Sharon Isbin's Affinity features music inspired by different cultures and genres, and has a personal story behind each work. 

When Chris was writing his 2015 concerto for guitar and orchestra for her, Sharon says he wanted to tap into her broad-ranging musical interests. He was "intrigued by the idea that I'd worked with so many people from so many different genres." 

Sharon met with me on Zoom in late September, 2020, and shared the personal stories behind the Brubeck piece and the other music on the album, which includes works by Cuban composer Leo Brouwer, Venezuelan composer Antonio Lauro, Chinese composer Tan Dun, and American composer Richard Danielpour.

When Chris Brubeck showed her sketches of the music as he was writing, Sharon, knowing Chris had recently lost his father, asked him, "Is there any way you'd like to pay tribute to him? I want you to write what is in your heart." He came back with a work that incorporates a variety of musical styles, with a slow movement that orchestrates his father's song, "Autumn."

Sharon says this tribute to Dave Brubeck, "forms the heart and soul of the piece, surrounded by all of these wonderful virutousic middle Eastern and jazz, and waltz-like elements. [Chris] was drawn to something that would bring, through music, a different vision of the world."

And the title? "Affinity" in science, means "an attraction or force between particles that causes them to combine." An apt metaphor, says Sharon,"not only for my friendship with him and our affinity for each other, but our affinity for different styles of music, as well as different genres; all of that comes together in this wonderful concerto."

Sharon premiered the concerto in 2015 with the Maryland Symphony Orchestra, led by conductor Elizabeth Schulze, who reconvened to make the recording in 2018.

The other works on the album represent various other chapters in Sharon's life.

When she won the 1975 Toronto Guitar competition, Cuban guitarist and composer Leo Brower was performing at the festival. Sometime later, a surprise gift arrive in the mail: Brower's El Decameron Negro: "Three ballads based on love stories collected in Africa by a 19th century ethnomusicologist from Germany," she says. "They're descriptive, programmatic, [with] Afro-Cuban elements; so beautiful and painterly in their style."

Antonio Lauro's familiar waltz, Natalia, brings back memories for Sharon from a party in Caracus, where she ended up playing the piece with Natalia herself, who played the quatro, a Venezulan guitar. On this recording, Sharon plays with her former student, Colin Davis, who arranged the work for a second guitar.

Also on the album is Tan Dun's Seven Desires for a Guitar, where Sharon thinks of her guitar as an instrument that 'desires' to be a pipa, an ancient Chinese lute. "I had to become a pipa in my playing technique and adapt our normal tremolo." 

And Richard Danielpour's Of Love and Longing, a work set to the text of Persian poet Rumi, was written in memory of Sharon and Richard's mutual friend, musicologist Mary Lou Humphrey, and performed with soprano Isabelle Leonard.

Seven stories, seven musical works, played in a way that goes right to the heart.  It's an instrument with direct contact, says Sharon. "I play with my fingernails. I don't use a pic, and everything is resonating with the wood. So there's this sense of intimacy." 

Affinity Track list:

Chris Brubeck, Affinity (with Maryland Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Elizabeth Schulze)

Leo Brower, El Decameron Negro

Antonio Lauro, arr. by Colin Davin for 2 guitars, Waltz No. 3, Natalia (with Colin Davin)

Tan Dun, Seven Desires for Guitar

Richard Danielpour, Of Love and Longing (with soprano Isabelle Leonard)