Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Author Archive for Robert Greenberg

Dr. Bob Prescribes: Chick Corea and Béla Fleck

My Dr. Bob Prescribes post of December 25, 2018 was dedicated to one of my very favorite jazz pianists, the late, great, Dave McKenna. During the course of that post, I offered up a short list of those jazz pianists who have most powerfully influenced my own playing. (I am a designated Steinway Artist based on my abilities as a composer and as a jazz pianist, and certainly not based on my abilities – what that they are – as a concert pianist.) That short list featured, in no particular order, Erroll Garner, Dave Brubeck, Oscar Peterson, Bill Evans, Armando “Chick” Corea, Phineas Newborn Jr., Roger Kellaway, Lennie Tristano, Sal Mosca, and Dave McKenna. For our information: sooner or later, I will write posts on all of these wonderful pianists. As I pointed out on December 25, two things distinguished the jazz pianists on my list. The first is that they are all two-handed pianists who use the entire keyboard when they play. The second distinguishing factor is that these pianists are, in my opinion, at their very best when playing solo. Now don’t get me wrong: playing with a good bassist and drummer is great fun, but – pianistically… 

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Music History Monday: The Right Composer at the Right Time and the Right Place

On February 11, 1843 – 176 years ago today – Giuseppe Verdi’s opera I Lombardi alla Prima Crociata (The Lombards of the First Crusade) received its first performance at the Teatro La Scala in Milan. It was the 29-year-old Verdi’s fourth opera. His third opera, the monumentally successful Nabucco (as in Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon) – which had premiered just 11 months before – in March 1842, had put Verdi on the Italian opera map. I Lombardi secured his position on that map; as an unnamed critic wrote in his review of I Lombardi in the Gazzetta di Milano: “We would just say that if Nabucco created this young man’s reputation, I Lombardi has served to confirm it.” The “reputation” to which the critic refers was not just Verdi’s standing as a composer, but his growing status as a hero of the Risorgimento, the movement that would eventually see Italy achieve nationhood. Verdi was indeed “the right composer at the right time and the right place” and therein lies a remarkable story. Risorgimento Risorgimento means, “rising up again”. Verdi lived the bulk of his life during the so-called “Italian Risorgimento”, a period that saw the Italian people “rise up again” to… 

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Doctor Bob Prescribes: Tchaikovsky: Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 35

As I know I’ve mentioned all-too-many-times, my paternal grandmother, Bessie Hurwitz Greenberg, graduated in 1916 with a degree in piano from the New York Institute of Musical Art (renamed the Juilliard School in 1926). For the next fifty-plus years, she tortured generations of piano students from her studio in Queens, New York, including my father and myself. She had been born in Brooklyn New York in 1894, about 12 years after her family immigrated to the United States from the Russian Empire (Minsk, in modern Belarus), as a result of the pogroms that erupted after the assassination of Tsar Alexander in 1881. While my paternal grandfather, Sidney Greenberg – Bessie’s husband – was born in Elizabeth, New Jersey (Exit 13) in 1891, he also grew up in Brooklyn, New York. Like my grandmother’s family, Sidney’s family fled Belarus in the 1880s. Unlike my grandmother the musician, my grandfather was a jock: a fairly high-end track-and-field athlete and semi-pro baseball player who, according to family legend (myth?) turned down an invitation to the 1912 Olympic Trials because he couldn’t get the time off from work. My grandfather went on to a successful career as an executive for a fabric company called… 

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Music History Monday: John, Yoko, and Strom

On February 4, 1972 – 47 years ago today – Senator Strom Thurmond of South Carolina sent a memo to John Mitchell, the Attorney General of the United States, in which he demanded that John Lennon be deported! Why would the not very nice Mr. Thurmond want to do such a thing to nice Mr. Lennon?  Therein lies a remarkable story! The story begins with the poet, cultural revolutionary, political activist and pothead John Sinclair, who was born in Flint, Michigan in 1941. Sinclair was the chairman of the “Rainbow People’s Party” of Ann Arbor and a founding member and chairman of the “White Panther Party” (which he created in support of the Black Panther Party). He was, by every measure, one of the major “hippie-dippy agitator-types” operating during those troubled days of unrest over the Viet Nam War. “The Man” (meaning the law enforcement community) decided that Sinclair needed to be silenced. A sting operation was put together, and on January 27, 1967 Sinclair was arrested after passing two joints (marijuana cigarettes, for you youngsters) to two undercover Detroit narcotics police: Patrolman Vahan Kapagian and Policewoman Jane Mumford Lovelace. The trial that followed was marked by what are now… 

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Patreon Patron Forum: Mozart Piano Concerto No. 25

I have received an extremely thoughtful question from Patreon patron Leigh Harper. On the surface it might appear to be a technical question concerning the function of various sections of music relative to one another, the sort of question that appeals to music nerds like Harper and myself but might seem to be absurdly arcane for the rest of us.  However, Mr. Harper’s question is much more than that: it is one that cuts to the heart of how we use verbal/written language to describe musical events; events that, in fact, are not easily described using words. We will ruminate on this issue in a moment. But first, Leigh Harper’s question, ever-so-slightly edited. “Dear Dr. Bob – Relistening to your wonderful 1995 lectures Concert Masterworks… Stop A thousand pardons for interrupting Mr. Harper, but I must point out that he just got “A” in my class for having used a magic word: “relistening”. I have no doubt that Mr. Harper was indeed “relistening” (“rehear-sing”) to Concert Masterworks. Nevertheless, I am honor-bound to observe that survival among snobbish company requires a certain degree of intellectual bravado, and one of the easiest ways of affecting that bravado is to never say “I… 

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Dr. Bob Prescribes Béla Bartók: Concerto for Orchestra

I am frequently asked “who is my favorite composer?” My typical response – flippant but not insincere – is that I am a musical slut: I love whomever I’m with at the moment. I mean, really: when listening to Sebastian Bach’s St. Matthew Passion or playing the Goldberg Variations, how in heaven’s name would it be possible for any of us to favor any composer over Bach? Ditto when listening to Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro; a Beethoven Symphony; Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov;a Brahms Piano Quartet; Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde; Schubert’s Wintereisse; Haydn’s Creation; Verdi’s Otello; Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto; and a thousand-and-one other works by a hundred-and-one other composers. So much great music; so little time. How can we possibly choose favorites among such a wealth of extraordinary work? On seemingly the same lines, I am also not-infrequently asked, “who is my favorite twentieth century composer?” Now: that is, in fact, a very different question. It’s a different question because starting around the first decade of the twentieth century, the vast majority of young composers began taking it upon themselves to create their own musical languages, partly if not wholly divorced from the melodic, harmonic, and formal traditions of seventeenth, eighteenth, and… 

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Music History Monday: Who Says There’s No Such Thing as a “Bad Review”?

On January 28, 1936 – 83 years ago today – an article entitled “Muddle Instead of Music” appeared on page 3 of Pravda, the official newspaper of the Central Committee of the Communist Party. The article – dictated by Joseph Stalin himself to one of hit principal literary hit men, a writer named David Zaslavsky – condemned in the most brutal terms Dmitri Shostakovich’s opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. In one swell foop, the 29 year-old Shostakovich went from being the brightest artistic star in the Soviet firmament to a cultural enemy of the people, in desperate fear for his life. The condemnation and the terror the article inspired irreparably damaged Shostakovich’s psyche; though he lived for another 39 years, it’s something from which he never recovered. Shostakovich completed his second opera, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, in 1932. It’s based on a nasty/gnarly story written by the Russian novelist and playwright Nikolai Leskov (1831-1895) in 1864. Katerina Izmailova is the young, bored, illiterate, and sexually frustrated wife of a provincial merchant. She goes gaga over a handsome, macho workman named Sergei. Katerina and Sergei become lovers, and in order to keep things going with Sergei Katerina… 

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Dr. Bob Prescribes: Richard Strauss – Four Last Songs

There are fighting words, and then there are FIGHTING WORDS. As for the former, small-case version of “fighting words” I would lump political discourse (which can, admittedly, get pretty hot these days; I trust none of you are put off by the fact that I keep politics out of this site, not because I am an apolitical wuss but because I want this to be a safe place for everybody); the question as to whether steroid-era baseball superstars like Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, and Mark McGuire belong in the hall of fame; or whether Certs should be considered a breath mint or a candy mint. As someone writing on topics musical, I would list but one category of true, all caps FIGHTING WORDS, and that topic/category is singers. I have found that you can say pretty much anything about someone’s children, mother, pets, and car (okay; maybe not their car), but mess with that person’s favorite singer(s) and you will be in for a world of hurt. For example. In last week’s Music History Monday, I extolled the glories of Giacomo Puccini’s opera Tosca. In the course of the post, I indicated that my favorite recording of the opera features… 

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Music History Monday: Disco Inferno!

On January 21, 1978 – 41 years ago today – the soundtrack album for the movie Saturday Night Fever, which featured the Bee Gees (the Brothers Gibbs), went to #1 on the Billboard Album Chart.  It proceeded to stay at number one for an astonishing 24 weeks – nearly 6 months – and by doing so, it is tied for the fourth most weeks at number one. Be still our hearts! The epic success of this album is indicative of the extraordinary popularity of disco in the 1970s. An upfront confession: I have owned this album – first as a record and now as a CD – for upwards of 30 years.  I originally acquired it in order to have Walter Murphy’s wonderfully ludicrous disco version of the first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, a number appropriately entitled A Fifth of Beethoven, which does for Beethoven’s Fifth what Florence Foster Jenkins did for the Queen of the Night’s aria “Hell’s revenge cooks in my heart!” by Mozart.  But I have kept my Saturday Night Fever album because of the classic Bee Gees songs on it: “Stayin’ Alive”, “How Deep Is Your Love”, “Night Fever”, “More Than A Woman”, “Jive Talkin’”,… 

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Dr. Bob Prescribes: A Franz Liszt Trilogy

But first, we have a cat named Teddy. Ted is a rescue cat. He spent the first years of his life roaming the mean streets of Fresno, California. We got him (or more appropriately, he got us) in February of 2009, almost ten years ago. Based on the wear on his pads, the vet figured he was two or three years old at the time of adoption, making him 12 or 13 years old now. While he won’t chase the red dot from a laser pointer the way he used to, he’s hardly lost a step and, as the recent photo above attests, he still looks mahvelous. The Tedster is a Maine Coon: a landrace (or “natural breed”) native to the state of Maine. (A landrace is a type plant or breed of animal that over time naturally adapts to its environment. In the case of the Maine Coon that environment is a cold, snowy, and icy one, necessitating long, thick hair; big feet; and a huge, bottlebrush-like tail.) He is extraordinarily friendly to everyone – family, friends, and strangers – without being needy or clingy. In the presence of other cats and the occasional dog (visitors to our house),… 

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