Guitarist Sharon Isbin's American 'Journey'

Sharon Isbin says her favorite folk musician is Joan Baez.

hide captionSharon Isbin calls Joan Baez her favorite folk musician. The two play together on Journey to the New World.

Henry Fair

Sharon Isbin, the renowned classical guitarist, recently sat down with NPR's Robert Siegel to play songs and talk about her new album, Journey to the New World, which features new work written by John Duarte and Mark O'Connor.

Journey to the New World is really a journey across time. It starts with Renaissance lute pieces and ends on the verge of bluegrass. One of the album's first pieces comes from the 16th century British Isles. It was written by John Dowland, a man Isbin calls "the pop-music composer of [his] time."

But Isbin plays contemporary music, too, including a piece written for her by the composer John Duarte, who also wrote "Appalachian Dream Suite." She says she loved that piece so much, she asked him to write something new that draws on familiar songs. Duarte's "Joan Baez Suite" is the new work.

"She was really my first musical hero," Isbin says of Baez. "And certainly my favorite folk musician." She says the suite transforms folk songs with origins in the Old World, taking themes from "The House of the Rising Sun" and "The Lily of the West."

An Emotional Bond

Baez sings on Isbin's album, too, on "Wayfaring Stranger." Isbin says the first time they rehearsed, at her home in New York, the results were memorable.

"I began to play, and I opened my eyes at one point and noticed she had tears streaming down her face," Isbin says. "Here's the woman whose music has made me cry for so many years, and we're having this extraordinary sharing of souls."

Journey to the New World features a second world-premiere recording, called "Strings & Threads Suite," written by composer and violinist Mark O'Connor. Isbin says the work "really traces the evolution of folk music on the violin in America." In several movements, it includes everything from jigs to blues and swing to bebop, leading up to the advent of bluegrass.

Despite Isbin's considerable skill, the piece wasn't so easy for her to play.

"About a month before our premiere, I started to take the score out and ... no matter how hard I practiced, some of this stuff just wasn't happening," she says. "There were a lot of places that just weren't playable."

The two musicians sat down and went over the whole score to make it idiomatic for the guitar — because, as it turned out, O'Connor had never tried to play the piece on Isbin's instrument.

Isbin's says her running joke was, "Mark, if you can play it, then I'll play it."

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