The National Symphony Orchestra’s Free Labor Day Concert, Sunday, September 3rd, is an exhilarating mix of music from around the world led by the charismatic young conductor Enrico Lopez-Yañez. I was lucky enough to speak to two inspiring women, composer Karen LeFrak and celebrated guitarist Sharon Isbin, about a brand-new piece called Bailamos (“Let’s Dance”) which will receive its world premiere in this concert. (The content has been edited for clarity). And because both are musical trailblazers, I also took advantage of the opportunity to ask them about their careers as noted female musicians.

But first things first. Being a dog lover, I had to ask Karen LeFrak about her two white standard poodles.

Nicole Lacroix: It seems dogs have been quite “instrumental” in your literary and musical work.

Karen LeFrak

Karen Lefrak: My two pet Standard Poodles, named “Music” and “Viola,” are retired show dogs. They curl on a sofa close to my piano and snooze while I compose. I like to think that the music, especially the “peaceful piano pieces,” is effective! I have one competing show dog at the moment, who brings me joy when I watch her graceful gait in the ring. Funny how in-sync her movements are with her handler — a duet, if you will. All kidding aside, the poodles’ affection helps put me in just the right mood to compose. In fact, yesterday’s piano miniature is called “Music for Music.” And one of my past poodles, Mikimoto, was the inspiration for one of my children’s books, Best in Show.

NL: Now that we’ve given the pups their due, let’s talk about your Miami Guitar Concerto. How did the commission come about?

KL: After a successful performance of a 10-minute, single-movement piano concerto called Summer, by the Miami Symphony Orchestra, my husband remarked to conductor Eduardo Marturet that he wished I would compose something longer and with a Latin vibe. Maestro Marturet had premiered several of my works, including Sleepover at the Museum (*the NSO performed this piece last Fall as part of their Family Concert Series), which I scored from one of my children’s books. He liked the idea, and said, “You write it, I’ll play it.” Since I like best to think in terms of “melody,” I chose some pieces in my catalog and set them to specific Latin dance rhythms. My brilliant arranger Bill Ross felt that the guitar was a natural solo instrument for a three-movement concerto.  Each movement features a different dance rhythm. “Bailamos” uses the guaguancó; “Romántico,” the tango; and “Festivo,” a bembe. Maestro Marturet  will be conducting the full three movements of the concerto on January 14, 2024, with soloist Sharon Isbin.

NL: The Labor Day concert will feature the world premiere of the first movement of the concerto, “Bailamos,” “Let’s Dance.”

KL: Dance has been a defining phenomenon to the peoples who have shaped Miami’s history. My Miami Concerto for Guitar and Orchestra was inspired by and is a tribute to Miami, my second home, and the closeness and love I feel for this ebullient, colorful, and lively city. This concerto is a homage to the musical heritage of Miami — a heritage infused with influences from Africa, Europe, and the indigenous peoples of Latin America.

“Bailamos,” (“Let’s dance,” in Spanish) the concerto’s first movement, draws on the guaguancó, (Gwag-wan’-ko), one of the many subgenres of the Cuban Rumba dance. Throughout much of the movement, the percussion section plays the claves, congas, and bongo drums — instruments fundamental to the music of Latin America, Cuba, and the many vibrant styles that exist in the music of present-day Miami.

Signaled by the horn and whispering strings, the movement opens to the majesty of the warm and enveloping Miami sun reflecting on the shimmery waters. As soon as the solo guitar comes in, it’s a dance party! Transporting the listener to Miami’s South Beach, catchy melodies flow over a continuous driving rhythm, with fast fingerwork from the guitarist, inviting everyone to the dance.

NL: Is it a thrill to have your piece performed by Sharon Isbin, who’s been called “the pre-eminent guitarist of our time”?

KL: When the National Symphony Orchestra emailed me to confirm that Sharon Isbin would be performing “Bailamos” with conductor Enrico Lopez-Yañez, I was speechless! I knew Sharon’s exquisite playing, and we have met since. I was so taken with her warmth and energy that I was inspired to write a short work for piano and guitar called Obsession that she likes and has offered to tweak for me.

NL: I must admit that I was pretty excited myself to “chat” with Sharon Isbin. I asked her about Bailamos from her perspective as a soloist.

Sharon Isbin

Sharon Isbin: I’m thrilled to return to the NSO and to collaborate with Maestro Lopez-Yañez! It’s an honor to give the world premiere of Karen's joyous and exuberant Bailamos on Labor Day in celebration of our country’s wonderfully diverse and visionary communities. South American and Cuban music have been a staple of my performances for years, from collaborations with Brazil’s legendary Tom Jobim to contemporary Latin American composers and artists, so the feel comes naturally.

NL: As you say, the concert celebrates diversity, and American music (with a little Brahms and Strauss thrown in for good measure). I’m sure the audience will be dancing along in a festive mood. Do you enjoy playing in such an atmosphere?

SI: I’m sure many will be dancing, what fun! If I were in the audience, I’d be dusting off my Rumba ballroom lessons and joining in. There’s variety aplenty, from Duke Ellington and Florence Price, to polka and Hungarian dances, Mexican and American favorites. Even a march from Raiders of the Lost Ark!

NL: The PBS documentary Sharon Isbin: Troubadour, (readily available for streaming) is a beautiful and inspiring film. Who knew that as a kid, you dreamed of becoming a rocket scientist? Instead you applied that scientific mind to becoming the best guitarist you could be, winning multiple Grammys, collaborating with jazz, folk, world, rock musicians, growing the guitar repertoire (more than 80 new works created for you) founded the first guitar program at Juilliard, and showing the world what a female musician and a guitarist could do. Brava! It seems you’ve done it all. What’s next?

SI: Thank you, I’m blushing! I’m excited to give the world premiere of LeFrak’s ravishing Miami Concerto in full this January with the Miami Symphony! Among the shows in between are performances with the Pacifica Quartet of music from our recent Souvenirs of Spain & Italy album plus a beautiful new work composed for us by Pulitzer Prize-winner Joseph Schwantner, Spanish songs with Jessica Rivera, and performances of concerti by Rodrigo and Chris Brubeck including the jazzy Affinity concerto he composed for me in honor of his late father Dave Brubeck. The season will also bring a “Live in Aspen” album with India’s sarod master Amjad Ali Khan, a follow-up to our recent Strings for Peace release which evokes an ambrosial world premiere journey through ragas and talas of North Indian Classical music.

NL: Can you speak a little bit about the guitar as a concert instrument? You’ve said that much of your work has been to expand the repertoire, to bring the instrument into prominence in the classical music world. It is an intimate instrument, for example, you talk about how even a broken nail on your right hand can have a major impact on performance. Yet it also makes a glorious sound with the orchestra.

SI: Instead of a pick, I use the flesh and fingernails of my right hand to create a kaleidoscope of timbres on the nylon treble strings and metal wound basses of my handmade German cedar double-top guitar, from sensuous warm colors to metallic accents. The sound possibilities are infinite, each chosen to express the character, personality and lyricism of the music. The guitar is such a special instrument, one feels the vibrations while playing, contact is direct without keys, bows, pedals or implements, a veritable extension of oneself. And given its history, there could be no more perfect complement to Latin American music!

NL: Sharon Isbin has been a trailblazer in bringing the guitar to prominence and enlarging the repertoire. You have also been a musical pioneer, embarking on a challenging career as a composer after a 30-year hiatus.

Karen Lefrak: As I turned 60, I suddenly had an intense desire to be remembered by my grandchildren as a composer. The funny thing is that I didn’t even have grandchildren yet! I decided that I’d better hurry up and take myself seriously so that others could — I have hardly ever stopped composing for a day since then. It began with 26 piano miniatures, and then snowballed from there. When music producer-extraordinaire David Foster heard some of these short lyric pieces, he asked his manager Marc Johnston to make sure they would be launched. Marc put together a wonderful team and Naxos became the distributor of 10 albums that since March 2021 have earned 25 million streams by Spotify, Apple, Pandora, and other streaming sites. The chamber, orchestral and ballet performances were mostly generated through word of mouth and have led to wonderful experiences with several orchestras in the U.S. and abroad.

NL: What’s your advice for female composers, and in fact for anyone who is busy making a living, taking care of family, and still wants to nurture their passion?

KL: Find quiet time each day to think about how you feel. Your mood will often generate a fragment of a melody or rhythm. Like musical worms, these fragments haunt me and I try to write them down soon. Try to write every day, even if you wind up discarding much. I start to improvise at the piano and notate by hand what I don’t want to forget. Then comes the process of transferring what I think I like to the computer program Sibelius. I mostly edit my music in the early mornings, from 5:30 to 7 a.m. Having the ability to play back what I have started, even in MIDI sounds, helps me tweak the piano piece or arrange for other instrumentation if I want to experiment. I find that I have plenty of time during the rest of the day for family responsibilities, unless, of course, I am “obsessed” with a piece.

NL: Finally, if you were teaching a composition class, what would you want to impart to your students? What is your vision of classical music in the 21st century? And what characterizes your music?

KL: What characterizes all of my music is melody. From the least to the most complex harmony, there’s always melody. Even when writing for percussion, I most often choose pitched percussion instruments. My advice to students would be to not be afraid to break rules. You don’t have to adhere to norms; you don’t have to finish a piece in the same key in which it started. Several of my works are musical journeys traveling from mode to mode, time signature to time signature, and key to key. But they all have melodies, and, often, unexpected twists in the harmonies. Don’t be afraid to revise what you wrote. A better choice of pitches or rhythms comes from experimenting. Your work should be organic, and, in most cases, develop as you go along. And above all — listen to your voice! What makes a great piece of music is it’s (your!) individuality. I’m told I have a unique sound to my music. I’m not sure I could define it, but I listen to my voice and that translates into notes on paper. Different sounds, different styles, but it’s all me.

You can hear the artistry of these two inspiring women at the NSO’s Labor Day concert, Sunday, September 3 at 8 p.m. on the West Lawn of the U.S Capitol.

KL: I cannot wait to get to D.C.! I am beyond thrilled and honored to have my music heard by so many people.

Here’s the full program:

Enrico Lopez-Yañez, conductor

Sharon Isbin, guitar

John Stafford Smith / Arr. Lopez-Yañez: The Star-Spangled Banner

Peter Boyer: Celebration Overture

Florence Price / Arr. Still: “Nimble Feet” from Dances in the Canebrakes

Duke Ellington: “King of the Magi” from Three Black Kings

Johannes Brahms: Hungarian Dance No. 5

Traditional / Arr. Lopez-Yañez: “La Llorona”

Karen LeFrak: “Bailamos” from Miami Concerto

Eduard Strauss: Bahn Frei Polka

Jim Beckel, Jr.: “The American Dream” from Night Visions

Richard Hayman / Arr. Kessler: Armed Forces Medley

Mary Howe: “Stars” from Three Pieces

John Keltonic: Our Wings Have Caught the Wind

John Williams: “Raiders March” from Raiders of the Lost Ark

The concert is free, no tickets required, public security screening sites open at 3 p.m.

In case of inclement weather, this event will be held in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall. Please check the or NSO social media (Twitter and Instagram) for updates.

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