Pianist Russell Sherman was Emmanuel Music founder Craig Smith’s teacher, and has long had a deep relationship with the organization. And fittingly, it was Sherman who had the inspiration for the first Emmanuel Music season not planned by Craig Smith – the season of Haydn and Schoenberg.
“The genesis came in a flash,” said Sherman. “I am full of admiration for the way that [Acting Artistic Director] John Harbison worked out the details.” Harbison turned an idea into a complete season full of many wonderful and little heard pieces.
For Sherman there were compelling reasons to explore these two composers together. On a personal level, Sherman wanted to return to music that has been “deeply a part of me since I studied a great many years ago with Edward Steuermann, who premiered and recorded all of Schoenberg’s piano pieces.” Sherman began his studies with Steuermann, a friend of Schoenberg’s, when he was only 11.
Sherman was also influenced by the “interesting chemistry” of the Beethoven/Schoenberg series that James Levine put together for the BSO. While Levine once called the relationship between those two composers “thorny,” Sherman sees significant relationships between Haydn and Schoenberg.
Both Haydn and Schoenberg were pioneers who inaugurated new kinds of freedom and exploration in music. Sherman explains that Haydn was the first consistently to develop flexible musical forms with secondary and contrasting themes, a significant break from J. S. Bach’s more unified approach to composition (although it should be mentioned that the sonatas of C.P.E. Bach, the son of J.S. Bach, anticipated the example of Haydn and served as a bridge between the two masters). In his own time, Schoenberg was the first to develop an atonal approach to music, without the central tonic chord that previous music was based on.
Sherman sees both composers as “masters of musical grammar.” In particular, they both developed interesting phrasing strategies which, through a process of deploying the motivic elements in unexpected ways and sequences, were able to challenge the conventional structural and expressive models. Or, to use another analogy, they were like great novelists like Dostoyevsky, who explore something from multiple angles. That is, just as a novelist follows a character’s speech with an external narrator’s view that presents the same events and ideas from a different perspective, these composers create music that is “contrasting, searching, exploring – very conversational, like people debating around the dinner table,” says Sherman.
Ultimately the music of both composers is highly expressive and emotional. Despite his experiments with atonality, Schoenberg’s music is not ultimately dry and intellectual. In fact, Sherman says, “If people have trouble with Schoenberg, it’s because the music is so emotional.” The agitated intensity or intense melancholy of much of Schoenberg’s music expresses the emotions of the twentieth century, which was turning to new depths of violence and horror as Schoenberg wrote. Haydn’s music doesn’t share that same kind of emotion, but shows many shades of mood and it can shift from boisterous to serene and dreamy and can often show flashes of good-natured humor.
Sherman anticipates an enlightening audience experience where music is about more than pleasure – it’s about exploration and discovery.
Russell Sherman is himself one of Boston’s musical treasures, with a long and far-ranging career. He has performed with such major orchestras as the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Los Angeles Philharmonic, New York Philharmonic, and Philadelphia Orchestra, and has played in the major cities of Austria, Canada, the Czech Republic, England, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Korea, China, Russia and South America.
Sherman also has had a long and varied recital career, having performed at Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall, Sarasota’s Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall, Boston’s Symphony Hall, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Jordan Hall, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Chicago’s Orchestra Hall, and throughout the country as well as in Europe, Russia, and Asia.
Sherman’s recordings also show the range of his musical interests. The first American pianist to have recorded all of the sonatas and concertos of Beethoven, Sherman has recorded the five Beethoven concertos with the Czech Philharmonic and the Monadnock Festival Orchestra, and the complete Beethoven sonatas, recorded as five dual-CD sets. The entire Beethoven sonatas project has been called “a set for the ages” by Bernard Jacobson in Fanfare. Sherman’s newest releases on Avie Records are a CD of Debussy’s Estampes, Images Book II and Préludes Book II, and a DVD of his live performance of the Liszt Études d’exécution transcendante, which also includes an interview with Craig Smith. Other projected recordings include the complete sonatas of Mozart, the Bach English Suites, and the complete Chopin Mazurkas. For Emmanuel Music, Sherman has recorded Mozart’s two concertos in minor keys plus solo fantasies with the Orchestra of Emmanuel Music under Craig Smith.