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PIANO FORTE

A reclusive keyboard guru, Boston artist peers out at the universe through 88 keys

“I have always considered the piano a window to the world,’’ Russell Sherman says. “I have always considered the piano a window to the world,’’ Russell Sherman says. (Dina Rudick/Globe Staff)
By Jeremy Eichler
Globe Staff / March 21, 2010

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LEXINGTON — A typical Russell Sherman recital is an experience unlike most in the concert hall.

Before a note is played, the program choices make an artistic statement. Then Sherman emerges, an austere figure, tall and thin, approaching the piano slowly and with an air of utmost seriousness, as if he is about to administer some arcane priestly ritual.

At the keyboard, the pianist’s upper body remains almost motionless as riots of virtuosity break out beneath his fingers. The piece may not sound exactly as you expect. There are new shadings, new textures, new eddies and crosscurrents in the tempo. You may not necessarily agree with all the interpretive choices. But the sincerity and conviction behind each gesture charge the notes themselves. As with the great pianists of earlier generations, Sherman’s goal is not to serve as a self-negating conduit to the music but rather to refract its light through his own imagination, his life experiences, and his own stunningly wide palette of colors. The spiritual intensity of the playing can be an overpowering force.

“I have always considered the piano a window to the world,’’ he said recently in a wide-ranging interview on the occasion of his 80th birthday this Thursday. “Somehow in playing the piano and making music you have an insight into so many different cultures and ways of thinking about the most important things in life. The repertoire is so enormous, and so representative of really the best things that have been accomplished. I have always had the feeling as a pianist that I don’t have to go to the mountain. The mountain is coming to me.’’

Sherman could easily have had the international career of a celebrity soloist, with all the traditional rewards. He has instead chosen a more monastic life of exploring the mountain. His approach seems to bridge opposing qualities, or at its most forceful, to make you question the dualities themselves: mystical and intellectual, Apollonian and Dionysian, Romantic and classical.

He has devoted a major portion of his life to teaching, having become Boston’s own reclusive keyboard guru, on the faculty of New England Conservatory but preferring to see students in his home on a quiet street in Lexington, not far from Route 2 but projecting the serenity of a cabin in the wilderness.

When Sherman does emerge, his local recitals are usually greeted by a large public that looks to him as a de facto leader of the city’s musical community. His next series of performances begins March 28 at Emmanuel Church.

“By his very presence here in Boston over the decades, he has become an artistic conscience for us all,’’ said composer Gunther Schuller. “He is the upholder of the highest standards of artistic integrity, and what it means to be and remain a true, genuine artist, despite the constant temptations of the musical marketplace. He is an eternal thinker and learner, and he is always opening his mind to new things. If it weren’t such a dirty or meaningless word in our culture, I would call him a great philosopher.’’

Seated recently in his living room, leaning to one side and looking, well, duly philosophical, Sherman brushes off talk of birthdays or of local leadership roles. “I’m absolutely unconscious about any of that,’’ he says, preferring to discuss just about anything else: Washington politics, his lifelong obsession with sports, his debt to his teacher Eduard Steuermann, or the big musical ideas that have animated his years at the keyboard.

“I never felt as if I wanted to break the mold,’’ he said. “It’s not about a personal whim on my part but a responsibility to make a statement, to speak one’s feelings and one’s mind at the piano, to make a comment on the music.’’

In conversation Sherman’s speaking voice is improbably soft, prompting one to lean in and listen closely. Great pianists, composers, and conductors of the past — Hofmann, Rachmaninoff, Furtwangler, Liszt, Beethoven — pop up in anecdotes like old friends. He also commands a verbal facility and breadth of cultural references that would put to shame most musicians and music writers alike. They surface most clearly in his remarkable book, “Piano Pieces,’’ published in 1996 and written as a collection of short fragments.

On balance the book is a record of a lifetime love affair with his instrument, full of poetic flights of metaphor and Whitmanesque calls to keyboard heroism. (“To know the piano is to know the universe,’’ he writes. “To master the piano is to master the universe.’’)

But there is also seeped into its pages a disconsolation and simmering rage about the conditions of modern artistic life: the debasement of the imagination, the appropriation of beauty to sell products one doesn’t need, the moral bankruptcy of what Theodor Adorno called the culture industry. “No response other than stubborn resistance and fury seems appropriate for me to the many meretricious compromises of the day,’’ Sherman writes. “And if I vent my anger, it is because music was presented to me as the province of legends, heroes, and saints.’’ In this telling, art becomes a refuge and the piano becomes a weapon used in one’s own defense. But it also becomes a kind of spiritual optic, an alternative way of looking out onto the world.

Sherman was born and raised in New York and as a piano wunderkind was given the chance to study with Steuermann, an émigré master who had himself studied with Arnold Schoenberg and the great, mystically inclined pianist Ferruccio Busoni. Sherman arrived at his teacher’s studio, in his own words, as “an unruly brat’’ all of 11 years old. Steuermann ended up teaching him counterpoint, composition, and piano, but there was also the transfer of a certain Old World sensibility. He taught the young boy chess, took him to the movies, and explained the proper greeting to be used with an elegant woman (“Enchanté!’’). It was, cumulatively, transformative.

“Steuermann trained me in music, in life, in thought, in feeling, and in sensibility,’’ Sherman recalled. “He was a great artist and a perfectly generous and wonderful and witty human being. I never felt the scourge of his tongue, but always his charm and warmth. He would correct me but always called me ‘darling’ as a way of softening the blow. That was my education, more than as a musician, but as a person who might some day try to understand some of the meanings of life. It was a relationship that went on for the better part of 15 years.’’

In 1945, Sherman made his Town Hall debut, about which a New York Times critic noted, “Russell showed more individuality and a truer understanding of the intentions of the composers than is usual in pianists so young.’’ He was 15. That same year he began his undergraduate study at Columbia University, which as he tells it, was mostly spent daydreaming in the back of lecture halls and secretly playing intramural softball [forbidden by his mother because of the risk to his fingers], but mostly just thinking about music.

During the 1950s, Sherman became a respected contemporary music specialist in New York, but he shied away from the steps that might have brought him wider recognition. He was turned off by the values he saw reflected in the music business around him, with its competitions, bloodlust, and backroom deals. He also discovered that concerto performances, the main vehicle to piano stardom, made him feel “squeezed’’ by the limited rehearsal time, the limited choice of repertoire, and the public expectation that a single interpretative viewpoint would be shared between conductor and soloist. Reviewers at times also took issue with his interpretive liberties.

Not long after a 1959 debut with the New York Philharmonic under Leonard Bernstein, Sherman dropped out and headed west, taking a job at Pomona College in California, radically curtailing his performances and focusing on teaching. It was Gunther Schuller, who, after taking over the presidency of a severely struggling New England Conservatory, brought Sherman to Boston in 1970. As Schuller tells it, it was as a matter of necessity.

“I had inherited a piano department full of internecine warfare, and I knew that part of saving the conservatory was reconstructing this department,’’ Schuller recalled. “For me, there was just Russell Sherman. He was the thinker, the visionary, the true creator.’’

Over his years in Boston, Sherman’s wider reputation as a brilliantly distinctive and provocative performer grew among connoisseurs through a series of recordings, including an astonishing survey of Liszt’s “Transcendental Etudes’’ recorded in the early 1970s. He has continued recording widely (more “Transcendental Etudes,’’ which have become his calling card, the complete sonatas and concertos of Beethoven, and most recently a disc of Debussy, among others). But teaching has also remained a significant part of his life.

Sherman sees it as a kind of Hippocratic imperative to encourage his students’ individuality, both for their own sake and as a way of pushing back against a music industry that he views as discouraging the kind of true interpretive freedom that music demands. In a similar vein, Sherman has argued that the importance of technical perfection in live performance has become grossly overstated, a kind of fetish introduced by recordings that are often edited to airbrush away blemishes. As he put it memorably in his book: “Perfection is too mundane, brittle, uptight for those who make music the way God makes trees.’’

His students through the years have included Craig Smith, Randall Hodgkinson, Sergey Schepkin, Christopher O’Riley, Hae-Sun Paik, Christopher Taylor, and Marc-Andre Hamelin, who recently recalled his lessons with Sherman. “I think he used every available resource to get me out of my shell,’’ said Hamelin by phone from Amsterdam. “He is probably the greatest inspirer there is.’’

Not long after Sherman’s arrival in Boston, a young Korean pianist asked to play for him. She brought Mozart to her first lesson and his comments about her playing completely baffled her. She nonetheless persisted with the lessons and could feel herself mysteriously improving within a single month. Four years later, Sherman and Wha Kyung Byun were married.

“Her love, encouragement, tenderness, interest, curiosity, and delight really saved me,’’ said Sherman, “from my own habits and the capacity I think we all have to become ingrown, to take on a combative posture against the world.’’

Byun teaches far more than she performs these days, but the couple is considering for next year a four-hands performance of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony, in an arrangement given to them as a wedding present 35 years ago by the late Harvard composer Earl Kim.

Sherman’s own public appearances continue to be select but steady. Asked whether his technique these days is able to keep pace with his own ideas about the music, he does not hesitate. “I would confess all of my students have more mechanics than I have. But for me technique is the ability to draw colors and meanings and characters and qualities out of the sound. This technique takes a long, long time to develop. The other stuff, I think, stays in place because I need it to make the colors.’’

By this point, Sherman has reduced his teaching studio to just two students in order to allow more time for his own playing. He practices seven hours a day and recent weeks have brought a special intensity of focus as he prepares for his three upcoming recitals devoted to music of Haydn and Schoenberg, a pairing that is the theme of Emmanuel Music’s current season. “Their compositional technique has this kind of bewildering freedom,’’ he observes, “and this sense of play of ideas — play in the Confucian sense of wisdom and play finally being the same thing.’’

It becomes clear that after eight decades, Sherman’s fascination for music and its expressive possibilities has only intensified. Yet he has also remained open to lightness and spontaneity, confessing recently to a sudden unquenchable thirst for Gershwin. (“It’s just my way of saying, ‘New York, New York!’ ’’) He may play the composer’s Concerto in F next year, he says, or who knows what else? Ultimately, Sherman insists, it all comes down to a few simple principles.

“What I do might have been quite normal 50 or 70 years ago,’’ he said, “but now the norm has become something much more stereotyped and cautious. I don’t know or care — I can only do it because I love it. That’s all. I’m just really madly in love, with music and with Wha Kyung.’’ He pauses, a glint of boyish delight in his eyes. “And with a little left over for the Dodgers.’’

Jeremy Eichler can be reached at jeichler@globe.com.

RUSSELL SHERMAN performs three recitals, each with a different program, devoted to the music of Haydn and Schoenberg. March 28, April 11, and April 25, at Emmanuel Church. 617-536-3356, www.emmanuelmusic.org