Whether recording a Brahms sonata with clarinetist Benny Goodman, enjoying her three grandsons, or giving a master class in Jerusalem, pianist Nadia Reisenberg’s joy in relationships radiated from her.
Born on July 14, 1904, in Vilna, in what is now Lithuania, Nadia Reisenberg was the eldest of three daughters of Aaron and Rachel (Grad) Reisenberg. Her father was an accountant for several publishing houses; the family was comfortably middle class. Because she and her sister Clara were clearly musically talented, her parents moved to St. Petersburg when she was eleven so that the two girls could attend the renowned Imperial Conservatory. There, Reisenberg studied with noted piano pedagogue Leonid Nikolayev.
Due to the upheavals of the Russian Revolution, Reisenberg’s family left Russia in 1920. They traveled in Lithuania, Poland, and Germany with many adventures and hardships, and with many musical successes for the two sisters. Arriving in New York in 1922, they were welcomed and assisted by a family contact, Isaac J. (“Sasha”) Sherman.
Nadia Reisenberg initially performed in private homes while studying privately with Alexander Lambert. She made her American debut on December 17, 1922, playing Ignace Paderewski’s Polish Fantasy for piano and orchestra in the presence of the composer, and she gave a successful debut recital at New York’s Aolian Hall on February 6, 1924. On June 24, 1924, she married Isaac Sherman, who later had an import-export business. The couple had two sons. The elder son, Alexander, became an engineer, while the younger son, Robert, was for many years the executive producer of WQXR, a classical music radio station in New York.
Reisenberg energetically combined a happy family life with a flourishing concert career: solo recitals, performances with orchestras, and touring. In 1930, invited by celebrated pianist Josef Hofmann to the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, she began studying with him. She received her Curtis Institute diploma in 1935 and continued postgraduate study until 1938. She also taught at Curtis from 1934 to 1938. From 1938 to 1940, she made radio history in an acclaimed series of weekly concerts with the WOR Radio Orchestra, conducted by Alfred Wallenstein, performing all the piano concertos of Mozart.
Meanwhile her sister Clara Rockmore, whose debut as a violinist was thwarted by arm problems, had developed an extraordinary career playing the theremin, an electronic instrument that is played without being touched, named after its inventor, Leon Theremin. At times the two sisters performed together; a peak of their shared work was Clara’s Town Hall recital on October 27, 1938, which included the challenging A Major sonata of Cesar Franck.
In the early 1950s, Reisenberg shifted from a solo career to one focused on teaching, which she loved, and chamber music, to which she had been especially drawn from her youth. From the testimony of her students and from her own remarks, it is clear that she was an extraordinary teacher—kind yet demanding, often letting her relationships with students flower into deep personal connections. Reisenberg taught at Mannes beginning in 1955, at Juilliard beginning in 1974, and privately. In chamber music, she appeared many times with the Budapest String Quartet and with numerous other artists, including clarinetist Simeon Bellison, violinist William Kroll, and cellist Joseph Schuster. She judged many competitions, including the prestigious Leventritt Award. Reisenberg maintained a vigorous schedule of teaching and performing almost until her death, celebrating her seventy-fifth birthday in a performance with violinist Erick Friedman at the Caramoor Festival. A range of LP recordings, most made for Westminster in the 1950s, capture her lucid, lyric musicality. These include Chopin nocturnes and mazurkas, Haydn sonatas, and works of Mussorgsky, Kabalevsky, Rachmaninoff, and Tchaikovsky.
Reisenberg identified herself as a Jew, but without any ritual observance. She had a strong attachment to Israel, giving six summer seminars at the Rubin Academy of Music in Jerusalem, the last one only two years before her death. Many of Israel’s leading musicians studied with her.
Family was central to Reisenberg: her intimate relations with her sisters, her fulfilling marriage to her husband, who died in 1955, and her delight in her two sons and three grandsons. Yet many students and musical colleagues also became “family” for her. Upon Nadia Reisenberg’s death on June 10, 1983, she was mourned by a broad circle of associates whose lives she had enriched.
Baker’s Biographical Dictionary of Musicians; Martin, Steven M. Theremin: an Electronic Odyssey. Film. (1995); Neidle, Cecile. America’s Immigrant Women (1975); New Grove Dictionary of American Music. Edited by H. Wiley Hitchcock and Stanley Sadie (1986); Obituary. NYTimes, June 12, 1983; Reisenberg, Nadia. Collection. International Piano Archives at Maryland (IPAM), University of Maryland, College Park; Saleski, Gdal. Famous Musicians of Jewish Origin (1949); Sherman, Robert, and Alexander Sherman, eds. Nadia Reisenberg: A Musician’s Scrapbook (1985); Sherman, Robert. Telephone interview by author, December 5, 1996; UJE; Who’s Who of American Women; WWIAJ (1926); WWWIA 8.
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Feinberg, Harriet. "Nadia Reisenberg." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 20 March 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on December 2, 2020) <https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/reisenberg-nadia>.