Interview With Robert Sherman - From Isler's Insights

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Donald Isler
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Interview With Robert Sherman - From Isler's Insights

Post by Donald Isler » Thu Jan 12, 2017 9:02 am

Interview With Robert Sherman

Though he modestly disagrees, Robert Sherman looks, and gives off the vibes of a much younger man. Those of us who have listened for years to radio station WQXR, New York’s premier (and sole surviving full-time) classical music station know he’s had every important job at the station, and hosted many programs. In fact, there are two programs he began, and still hosts, that have been on for a remarkable number of years. They are the McGraw-Hill Young Artist Showcase, soon to celebrate its 39th birthday, and Woody’s Children, which began in 1969. Even so, I was astonished when he casually mentioned last summer that he was then within a few weeks of his 60th anniversary at the station.

“How did you get into this career?” was one of many questions I asked in a telephone interview the other day with Mr. Sherman, now in Florida. I also wondered if he had wanted to be a professional pianist, like his mother, the well-known pianist, Nadia Reisenberg, who was also a prominent member of the Mannes College of Music faculty for many years. I knew that he had performed Scaramouche, a two piano work by Milhaud, with her.

“Mother said I had the talent, but I knew I didn’t have the discipline, or the passion for such a career” he said, though he learned some impressive “party pieces” which could “fool” people into believing he was a “real” pianist. (Oh, and as for Scaramouche, he now admits, he and his mother adjusted the last movement so that she played all the difficult material!) He made what he now considers a wise decision not to go to the High School of Music and Art, in New York, but to the equally acclaimed (but for the sciences) Stuyvesant High School. At Music and Art he would have been the worst pianist, he believes, but at Stuyvesant he was not only the best, but the only pianist in his class, so he got to accompany the glee club, and also play a movement of the Haydn D Major Concerto with orchestra. “Why the Haydn?” I asked. “Because I asked Mother ‘What’s the easiest concerto?’ and she said ‘Play the Haydn.’”

At NYU in the Bronx he was a sociology major, but took all the music courses he could, realizing he was more drawn to music than to sociology. After a year at New York’s Teachers College, where he got a Master’s degree in music education, he went into the army where, again, his musical talent came in handy. Though he briefly played clarinet in an army band (not very well, he says) he performed piano works like the Khachaturian Toccata in the officers’ clubs. He even won Third Prize in an army music competition, and was sent on a three month Asian concert tour with the other winners.

By the time his army service was over he knew that he wanted a career in music, but not as a performer. Being involved with classical music at a radio station interested him. He figured he might get a job at a station in some small town and eventually, if things worked out well, make his way back to New York. But Abram Chasins, then Music Director of WQXR, and a friend of his mother, suggested he apply for a job at the station. He was, indeed, accepted for a job, and began work there in 1956. His first job at QXR was as a typist. But he didn’t remain a typist for long.

When he arrived at WQXR, the Director of Recorded Music, Harold Lawrence, was about to go on vacation. He asked Sherman to prepare some programs for him. Delighted to be working at the station, Sherman put in long hours, and surprised Lawrence, on his return, with about two months of programs, instead of the week or two Lawrence expected. When another member of the staff went on a maternity leave, shortly thereafter, Sherman was moved up and became a full-fledged member of the WQXR staff. Not long after that Martin Bookspan arrived at WQXR, becoming Music Director, and later Program Director. Each time Bookspan moved up, or moved on, Sherman followed him into the job he was leaving.

Considering how well-known Robert Sherman is as a radio host, it was a surprise to learn that he was at WQXR at least a dozen years before he went on the air because, he was told, he did not have a good voice for radio, such as a “booming baritone.” The first program he hosted, and has hosted ever since, was Woody’s Children. It was then the height of the folk music revival, he says, and the station searched for a well-known host. People such as Pete Seeger were considered, but none of the big names in that field were available, what with their television programs, and busy concert schedules. So his bosses said he should do it himself, and it was a big hit right from the beginning, because so many fans of classical music also listened to folk music.

Most New York musicians of a certain age have fond memories of his morning interview program, The Listening Room, which began in 1970 and lasted about 19 years. It’s what we listened to weekday mornings when we were home, when we weren’t practicing. I remember one program when he mentioned to Bruce Hungerford that the first movement of his Waldstein Sonata was faster than Horowitz’s, another on which Jorge Bolet spoke of his “clumsy fingers” (What pianist would not like to have such clumsy fingers?!), amusing conversations Sherman had with his mother, etc. etc. Plus I remember being a guest on the program in 1986, when I played, and was interviewed together with Karl Ulrich Schnabel and Joan Rowland. The ease with which Sherman conducted the interviews, as well as his vast musical knowledge were impressive. So I asked about the history of this show.

As thoughts of this program are particularly tied to Robert Sherman, and his unpretentious, relaxed manner, it was amusing to learn that he, in fact, interviewed other people to host it before being selected. His being chosen for the job had to do with union regulations which would have required the station to pay a lot of money to hire someone from the outside as the host.. Instead, the station just added $35 a week to his salary and gave him this program, which was originally an hour a day, five days a week, and later two hours a day, five days a week. (All this work in addition to his other responsibilities!) Originally it was a program for recorded music, but musicians and their managers soon saw the value of using it for interviews. Clarinettist David Glazer and the Guarneri String Quartet were among his first guests. Then Leopold Stokowski called and asked Sherman to have his protegee, Ainslee Cox, on, adding “I’ll come too!” Eventually almost every musician in town of any importance came to the WQXR studios to be on the program, except Rubinstein and Horowitz (though Sherman knew them too, interviewing Rubinstein at home, and writing program notes about a “new” Schumann work Horowitz was adding to his repertoire.)

Originally he prepared carefully for each interview, with a long list of questions. And then, one day after an interview with Martina Arroyo, he realized this was a mistake. “She’d tell an amusing story about something and I’d ask her ‘When did you go to Hunter College?’ and then later, while she was telling another good story, I interrupted her with something equally unimportant. I realized I had squelched this remarkable personality with my arbitrary questions. Overnight I changed my approach. After that, I just read the musicians’ bios, and then on the show engaged them in easy conversation. They were so comfortable that sometimes they told me more than they should have!”

Two other things that are still important to him about his Listening Room days are that he always made time to have young musicians on, as well as the celebrities, and that he frequently had his mother as a guest. After her 1947 Carnegie Hall recital Nadia Reisenberg had stepped back from giving solo performances, though she continued to play a lot of chamber music, and teach. On the first anniversary of the Listening Room he invited her to play with David Glazer. On later anniversary programs she returned to perform with cellist Leonard Rose, violist Milton Katims, and the Juilliard String Quartet.

After resigning as the station’s Program Director Sherman was given the title of Director of Special Projects, and becamean “all-purpose host" for instrumental music performances. In that capacity he produced programs of which he’s still proud, such as a performance by the Tokyo String Quartet, and a recital by Jorge Bolet.

Another activity he has greatly enjoyed is being a concert narrator.

Though he is spending the winter in Florida, this vigorous octogenarian is not taking it easy. He is planning upcoming radio programs, doing a Listening Room type of series for the Sarasota Institute of Lifetime Learning in both Sarasota and Venice together with his former WQXR colleague, June LeBell, and preparing more releases and re-releases of performances by his mother. These include the Dvorak Piano Quintet, which she played with the Galimir String Quartet, other chamber works, and some never before released solo performances he taped of her at home. These performances, many of which are already available, are on the Bridge and Romeo record labels.
Robert Sherman has always been interested in helping and encouraging young people, and being available to support worthwhile causes. A good example of the latter was six years ago, when he hosted a program for teachers in the Yonkers public schools, where budget cuts were causing layoffs, and a reduction of music courses for the students. Concerning the former, though he never expected to teach, he taught a business of music course at the Juilliard School for 19 years, and has given seminars on this subject at Yale, and other colleges.

Robert Sherman has been a very good example of someone who figured out, early on, where his talent lay, and, without ever making a fuss about himself, used it for the benefit of music, and musicians.

Donald Isler
Last edited by Donald Isler on Thu Jan 12, 2017 12:12 pm, edited 1 time in total.
Donald Isler

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Re: Interview With Robert Sherman - From Isler's Insights

Post by maestrob » Thu Jan 12, 2017 9:17 am

Wonderful summary of a life and career well-lived! Thanks for posting this.

John F
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Re: Interview With Robert Sherman - From Isler's Insights

Post by John F » Thu Jan 12, 2017 2:09 pm

Thanks - very interesting. Did it strike you, as it did me, that when a WQXR staffer went on maternity leave she was apprently replaced by Sherman? I don't think that would be allowed today.
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Re: Interview With Robert Sherman - From Isler's Insights

Post by Belle » Thu Jan 12, 2017 5:02 pm

I don't know of Robert Sherman or the radio station to which you refer but I was surprised to learn that it's the last-surviving classical music station in New York. Perhaps internet streaming of international radio stations is having an impact on the local product? I listen to BBC Radio 3 and Radio Stephansdom ('Radio Klassik') out of Vienna - where there is also only one such station. And it also intrigues me how American radio stations have 'letter salad' prefixes like WQXR: what does the "W" stand for?

I nodded my head like a mad relation when you talked about Sherman discarding questions for interviews! Yes, the art of listening plays a huge part in interviewing. Years ago I remember seeing a fabulous interview on television with Arthur Miller; I forget who conducted the interview but it was staggeringly good - the best I've ever seen (and I've been trying to find it since on the internet; the interview took place in Miller's home, and there were shots of him swimming in his pool, etc.).

Those musical guests on Sherman's program would not have appeared in their numbers and significance were it not for his musical knowledge and interviewing style.

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Re: Interview With Robert Sherman - From Isler's Insights

Post by Modernistfan » Thu Jan 12, 2017 5:41 pm

Under the American system of call letters, most stations have call letters starting with "K" for stations located west of the Mississippi River and "W" for stations located east of the Mississippi River (although there are a few exceptions). Most of these designations are three or four letters; most recently established stations have four letters.

You are right that the number of classical music stations in the United States is rapidly diminishing. When I lived in the San Francisco Bay area in the early 1980's, there were actually three classical music stations, one commercial and two public radio. Now, the commercial station is gone, and the sole remaining public radio station is an affiliate of KUSC in Los Angeles. Most of the remaining public radio classical stations in the United States are pretty awful, with excessively chatty, personality-driven announcers and a drastically pared-down playlist heavy on baroque concerti grossi, short orchestral warhorses, and a lot of single movements and excerpts, and extremely light on major works, vocal music, and virtually anything contemporary (and by "contemporary" I mean Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Bartok, or Hindemith, and not Stockhausen, Boulez, Nono, Birtwistle, or Xenakis.) These are pretty poor excuses for classical stations.

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Re: Interview With Robert Sherman - From Isler's Insights

Post by John F » Thu Jan 12, 2017 8:53 pm

Belle wrote:I don't know of Robert Sherman or the radio station to which you refer but I was surprised to learn that it's the last-surviving classical music station in New York. Perhaps internet streaming of international radio stations is having an impact on the local product?
That's not it; the trend was almost complete before the Internet became a factor. In the U.S., radio broadcast frequencies are bought and sold, and nearly all radio stations have to be commercially self-supporting. (Exceptions include a few that are run by governments or academic institutions.) A radio frequency in a major media market, and none is more major than New York, is worth millions. One after another, New York's (and Boston's and Philadelphia's and other cities') classical music stations either became unprofitable and had to sell their frequencies, or their frequencies became so valuable commercially that other investors offered many $$$ for them. Even WQXR sold the radio frequency on which it had always operated, and moved to a different frequency in a less advantageous part of the "dial." It was a holding action in the long retreat of classical music from American broadcasting, and who knows how long it will be sustained?

The radio station in Cambridge, Massachussetts where I spent much of my time while in college, WHRB, is run by the college's undergraduate students all of whom work there as unpaid volunteers. We were therefore isolated from the market financial pressures that affect commercial broadcasters, and could do whatever programming we wanted to. But that's only because we got our broadcasting license from the Federal Communications Commission in 1950, when the competition on FM radio was much less, and we renewed it again and again ever since. We sold on-the-air advertising to pay our electric bills and other costs, but accept no more than is compatible with our programming. For that reason, when the Boston station carrying the Metropolitan Opera broadcasts quit because they were required to go for hours with no commercials, WHRB was able to step in and do the broadcasts. Otherwise, America's tenth largest city would no longer be hearing the Met at all.
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Re: Interview With Robert Sherman - From Isler's Insights

Post by Belle » Thu Jan 12, 2017 9:26 pm

So, classical music broadcasting coming under increasing pressure to pay its own way. Since this doesn't really work for most of the arts it's unimaginable that it would work in the realm of radio or television. Our government-operated ABC "Classic FM", however, is targetting the middle-of-the road; in short, one step above Andre Rieu - it seems to me. I abandoned it long ago and my late broadcasting friend made the same complaint about it after he'd left. What is to be done, though?

(Your description of the sale of frequencies reminds me of our water allocations for farmers in NSW who can trade in water rights whilst not actually being farmers!! This is a terribly fraught area of public policy and I've got relatives caught up in it as we speak.)

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Re: Interview With Robert Sherman - From Isler's Insights

Post by maestrob » Thu Jan 12, 2017 11:26 pm

Addendum:

We in NY also have 2 classical channels (commercial-free) known as Music Choice available through our cable TV subscription. They play full-length works without interruption on one channel and "lighter listening" on another. There used to be an opera channel as well that played full-length operas, but that got pulled a while back.

These channels are also available through the internet.

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Re: Interview With Robert Sherman - From Isler's Insights

Post by John F » Fri Jan 13, 2017 3:26 am

Belle wrote:So, classical music broadcasting coming under increasing pressure to pay its own way.
Classical music broadcasting does pay its own way; there's enough revenue to pay the bills and the salaries. This isn't about solvency, it's about good old capitalist profit, and classical music in America is a niche market which can't possibly be as profitable as other kinds of broadcasting. This wouldn't be a problem if the number of radio broadcast channels were unlimited, but it isn't. What is unlimited is the number of possible streaming sites on the Internet, which anybody can set up and operate essentially for free. It's there that the number of classical music "broadcasters" is growing rather than shrinking.
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Re: Interview With Robert Sherman - From Isler's Insights

Post by Belle » Fri Jan 13, 2017 6:05 am

The internet has changed the landscape for just about everything!! But it does have certain very obvious benefits for the serious music lover.

I was speaking to my hi-fi man today because my Unison Research CD player is behaving temperamentally. He offered me a new Densen as replacement, warning me that they'd been advised by the company in Denmark that there are considerable delays on new CD players because 'there's been a resurgence of CD purchasing in Europe of late'. I declined his offer in hopes that my Unison Research can be fixed. Anyway, it intrigued me as to why there might be a resurgence of interest in CDs. We cannot know whether this is just for popular music or for classical music, but it may (I only say may) indicate that the blizzard of new technologies has found consumers dissatisfied and returning to formats on which they can more reliably rely.

Thoughts?

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Re: Interview With Robert Sherman - From Isler's Insights

Post by Ricordanza » Fri Jan 13, 2017 8:19 am

maestrob wrote:Addendum:

We in NY also have 2 classical channels (commercial-free) known as Music Choice available through our cable TV subscription. They play full-length works without interruption on one channel and "lighter listening" on another. There used to be an opera channel as well that played full-length operas, but that got pulled a while back.

These channels are also available through the internet.
Same here in the Philadelphia market. These two channels are included in my Verizon FIOS package.

One tiny annoyance is that there is not even a one second break between pieces. As soon as the last note ends, the first note of the next piece begins. This can be very disconcerting at times.

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Re: Interview With Robert Sherman - From Isler's Insights

Post by Ricordanza » Fri Jan 13, 2017 8:20 am

Fascinating interview, Don. Thanks for posting it.

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Re: Interview With Robert Sherman - From Isler's Insights

Post by Lance » Fri Jan 13, 2017 8:37 pm

Excellent insights, Donald. I have long known of Mr. Sherman, and of course, collect his mother's [Nadia Reisenberg] recordings with great interest. I believe his aunt was Clara Rockmore, who performed on the theremin and, in fact, was recorded with Nadia in a very interesting recording, originally on a Delos LP and now on the Bridge CD label.
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