Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Dr. Bob Prescribes

Dr. Bob Prescribes: Adventures in Geekdom

I am, uncharacteristically, presently screaming with joy; alternately dancing and weeping and generally making a scene in the thankful privacy of my home office/studio. What – pray tell – should have inspired such a broad and sustained outburst of emotion? Have I won the Lottery? Been the recipient of a MacArthur Foundation Grant? Finally binge-watched “The Complete Gilligan’s Island” DVDs (complete with secretly filmed NC-17 outtakes of the Professor and Mary Ann playing doctor)? As you have no doubt guessed, my present euphoria cannot – sadly – be attributed to any of the above (boy, I’d love to see those outtakes). Rather, it has been caused by a new (and incredibly inexpensive) music playback system I installed on my computer last month, a system that has already changed my life. Before I spill the beans and tell you about this miracle app, I would reveal some unbelievably geeky autobiographical info. A thousand apologies if I bore the living daylights out of you, but it’s important that you get a sense of my hi-fi bona fides before I offer up this week’s prescription. I would confess that from a young age I have had pretentions to audiophilia. (No; that is not… 

Continue Reading…

Dr. Bob Prescribes: Hummel: Piano Concertos Opp 89 & 85

Johann Nepomuk Hummel (1778-1837) Hummel was born in Pressburg – what is now Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia – on November 14, 1778. He died in Weimar, in what today is central Germany, on October 17, 1837, where he held the position of Kapellmeister for eighteen years.  Hummel was a spectacular child prodigy as both a pianist and as a violinist. His father, Johannes, was a string player, conductor, and the director of the Imperial School of Military Music in Vienna, a position that gave his amazing young son access to the highest levels of Viennese musical culture.  In 1785, at the age of seven, Hummel played for Mozart. Mozart was so impressed that not only did he insist on giving Hummel daily piano lessons for free, but, as was standard procedure for the best students back then, Hummel moved into Mozart’s place on the Grosse Schulenstrasse, where he lived for two years. The two became (and remained) close friends, and it was through Mozart that Hummel met and performed for the cream of Viennese aristocracy. Further piano lessons with Muzio Clementi, organ lessons with Joseph Haydn, vocal composition lessons with Antonio Salieri, and even a few piano lessons with… 

Continue Reading…

Dr. Bob Prescribes: Superbo di me stesso

I recorded my first course for The Teaching Company (now branded as “The Great Courses”) in May of 1993. That was the first edition of How to Listen to and Understand Great Music. To date, I’ve recorded 666 forty-five minute lectures for The Teaching Company/The Great Courses, and virtually every single one of them features any number of musical examples.  Licensing recordings for use in my courses has been – and continues to be – the single greatest (and most expensive!) headache in creating a courses. It’s a topic I’ve written about and whined about many times, and I’m not going to get into it at length here except to point out that for many years, the terms of our licensing agreements forbade me from identifying on camera the particular recordings I was using. (I know: this is totally counter-intuitive. You would think that the record companies would want me to identify recordings I was excerpting and by doing so drive sales of those recordings. But there you go: it’s just another instance of “go figure.”)  I bring all of this up because the vast majority of mail and emails I receive from my viewers and listeners include a request… 

Continue Reading…

Dr. Bob Prescribes: Vocal Sampling

You’re going to thank me for this It was Wednesday, September 18, 2002 (I didn’t remember that date; I looked it up). I was stuck in the car, driving somewhere. (Generally but accurately speaking, when you’re driving anywhere in the San Francisco Bay Area, you are very like stuck in the car, meaning stuck in traffic.) In those days before GPS and Waze and Google Maps and such, the only way to find out what the traffic was like was to turn on the car radio and listen to your local all-news station. Of course, by the time you actually heard that traffic report, you were likely already caught in traffic or were about to be. Since there are few things more maddening then being stuck in traffic and then being told via the airwaves that hey, guess what?, you’re stuck in traffic, I did what I always did under such circumstances, and that was tune in our local NPR affiliate, KQED. All Things Considered was on the air. The stories aired that afternoon described a depressing litany of the world’s problems at the time, and included stories on the Congressional hearings on Iraq; school vouchers in Maine; pre-September 11… 

Continue Reading…

Dr. Bob Prescribes (sort of): Beethoven, Symphonies Nos. 5 and 7, as “retouched” by Gustav Mahler

In November 1899 the composer and conductor Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) told his friend, the violist Natalie Bauer-Lechner:  “Beethoven’s First, Second, and Fourth Symphonies can still be performed by modern orchestras and conductors. All the rest, however, are quite beyond their powers. Only Richard Wagner and I myself have done these works justice. And even I can manage it only by terrorizing the players; by forcing each individual to transcend his little self and rise above his own powers.”  Mahler goes on to say that: “Beethoven’s symphonies present a problem that is simply insoluble for the ordinary conductor. I see it more and more clearly. Unquestionably, they need re-interpretation and reworking. The very constitution and size of the orchestra necessitates it: in Beethoven’s time, the whole orchestra was not as large as the string section alone today. If, consequently, the other instruments are not brought into a balanced relationship with the strings, the effect is bound to be wrong. Wagner knew that very well; but he too had to suffer the bitterest attacks because of it.”   Mahler (who, I will gladly confess, is one of my very favorite composers) did not just talk-the-talk but eventually put his pencil where his… 

Continue Reading…

Dr. Bob Prescribes J. S. Bach, Brandenburg Concerti nos. 1-6

A couple of weeks ago, my Patreon patron Lorenze Fedel responded to my battlefield conversion in favor of the fortepiano (Dr. Bob Prescribes, October 23) with the following comment, slightly edited for content. “These [Brautigam recordings of the Beethoven Piano Sonatas] are now in my growing Amazon wish list. Next stop, Dr. Bob, a re-evaluation of the harpsichord? I freely admit that I cannot listen to the Goldberg variations on the piano. Harpsichord it should be!”  Mr. Fedel is clearly familiar with my occasionally disdainful attitude towards the mechanical harp (i.e. the “harpsichord”) and my propensity to recite the conductor Sir Thomas Beecham’s already over-quoted description of the sound of the harpsichord as being akin to: “Two skeletons copulating on a tin room during a thunderstorm.” My response to Lorenzo Fedel was facile, as is usually the case when I am confronted by my own biases: “Lorenzo: Gad! A re-evaluation of the harpsichord? Yes, I suppose all things are possible, but as someone who grew up in a household in which there was a lot of whispering and yelling, I cannot yet fathom falling in love with an instrument that can neither whisper NOR YELL, if you know what I mean.” … 

Continue Reading…

Dr. Bob Prescribes: Johannes Brahms, Horn Trio in E-Flat Major, Op. 40 (1865)

When the Hamburg born-and-raised Johannes (“Hannes”) Brahms was around four years old, his father Johann Jakob Brahms decided it was high time the kid learned to play the three instruments that he himself played. Papa Brahms wanted his eldest son to follow him into the family trade and be, bless him, employable. Those three instruments were violin, cello, and the valveless, “natural” horn. The young Brahms gained a degree of competence in all three instruments, in particular the cello. However, to his father’s apparently endless annoyance, what the little fella really wanted – what he demanded! – was to learn how to play the piano. We can well imagine the conversations between father and son, played out over several years: “Daaaaad! I wanna play the piano.” “Hannes, dude, how many pianos are there in the Hamburg Philharmonic?” “Uh . . . zero?” “How many pianos in a dance band?” “Maybe . . . um . . . one?” “You got it. Violinists? There’s always work. Cellists? Ditto. Horn players? There are never enough decent horn players: horn players gig. Piano players? A dime-a-dozen and there’s no work. Besides, we don’t even own a piano and we don’t have the ducats… 

Continue Reading…

Dr. Bob Prescribes: Beethoven: The Complete Piano Sonatas – Ronald Brautigam, fortepiano

I am presently looking for recipes for the best way to prepare crow. Sadly, there seem to be any: I’m told that crow meat smells bad and tastes worse (the things eat carrion, after all). Consequently, I fear that I’ll have to eat mine raw, crow tartare, as it were. (Does anyone out there want the eyes? The beak?) What, pray-tell, has forced me into such a wretched gastronomic situation? Alas, as is usually the case when one must eat crow, it is my own ignorance and hubris. To wit. For lo these many years, I have always looked down on the fortepiano: those early pianos distinguished by their wood-framed (as opposed to metal-framed) harps, built between 1700 and 1825. In my ignorance, I have long considered wooden-harped pianos to be transitional instruments, prototypes, transiting the temporal space between the invention of the piano by Bartolomeo Cristofiori to the Erards and Pleyels of the 1830s and finally to the Steinways of the 1860s (now THAT’S a piano!, or so I thought).  A couple of months ago, we engaged here on this site in what was a spirited and most constructive discourse on HIPs (historically informed performances, meaning “original instrument” recordings)… 

Continue Reading…

Dr. Bob Prescribes: Esa-Pekka Salonen: Concerto for Violin

I’ve been working with The Phoenix Symphony (TPS) for two seasons. Last season, I wrote and recorded eight video program notes (which were made available on the symphony’s YouTube Channel as well as on my Facebook page) and presented three lectures in association with the TPS’s Chamber Concert Series. This season my role has expanded. I will deliver self-standing lectures on Mozart and Schubert; I will join TPS music director Maestro Tito Muñoz on stage for two subscription concerts, and two weeks ago I recorded 22 video program notes for the 2018-19 season. It took me all of August and a good bit of September to research and write those notes, which together run about 24,000 words. I can say with all due modestly that as of today, no one knows TPS’s 2018-19 concert season better than I do. Among the great pleasures of such an assignment is learning about and listening to works I did not know beforehand: music by such living composers as Timo Andres, Jessie Montgomery, Anna Clyne and Michael Hersch. Thanks to writing these previews, I got to know (and fall in love with) Florence B. Price’s Symphony No. 1 (which I wrote about a couple… 

Continue Reading…

Dr. Bob Prescribes: My Parsifal Conductor – A play in two acts by Allan Leicht

My Parsifal Conductor opens October 11, 2018 for a limited engagement at the Marjorie S. Deane Little Theater at the West Side Y, 10 West 64th Street, New York, NY; presented by The Directors Company. Starring Eddie Korbich, Claire Brownwell, Geoffrey Cantor, Carlo Bosticco, Logan James Hall, Alison Cimmet, and Jazmin Gorsline, and directed by Robert Kalfin. About three weeks ago, I received an email from Matt Sicoli, a media marketer who is promoting a new, off-Broadway play entitled My Parsifal Conductor, written by the Emmy and Writer’s Guild Winner Allan Leicht. Mr. Sicoli generously offered tickets in exchange for advertising and promotion. I informed him that I am keeping both my Facebook and Patreon sites free of advertising (for now), but that I’d be happy to read the script and, pending an enthusiastic response, write about the play. I am most enthusiastic and thus this post. Here is a synopsis provided by Mr. Sicoli: “Musical genius Richard Wagner (Eddie Korbich) and his ever-faithful wife, Cosima (Claire Brownell), find themselves in a moral, political and musical dilemma when King Ludwig II of Bavaria (Carlo Bosticco) insists that Hermann Levi (Geoffrey Cantor), the son of a rabbi, conduct Wagner’s final masterpiece,… 

Continue Reading…