Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Dr. Bob Prescribes

Dr. Bob Prescribes: The Buddy Rich Big Band

A confession: when it comes to jazz bands large and small, I generally dislike drum solos. My bad; color me a bore. But here’s the thing: if I buy a Keith Jarrett album, for example, I want to hear Keith Jarrett and not, with all due respect to the brilliant drummer Jack DeJohnette, extended drum solos. Speaking generally, I find most drum solos to be monochromatic, lacking – as they do – a melodic and harmonic profile, and formally incoherent, as the phrase structure of the piece under performance is almost always abandoned during a drum solo. There are exceptions, of course, and for me those exceptions are Tony Williams and Buddy Rich. I’ve written recently about my friend and student Tony Williams, who played the drums as if his trap set was a full orchestra, so colorful and melodic and structurally coherent were his solos. And then there’s Buddy Rich: a skinny Jewish kid from Sheepshead Bay in Brooklyn, New York who had a black belt in Judo (as a United States Marine he taught Judo until he was Dishonorably Discharged from the corps); someone whose virtuosic drumming had the drive and power of a Formula One race car,… 

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Dr. Bob Prescribes: Galina Ustvolskaya

I have been appointed the “dramaturge” (or “dramaturg”) of The Phoenix Symphony (TPS). As far as Scrabble words go, “dramaturge” isn’t worth a whole lot: just 14 points barring any Premium Squares (which double or triple the value of letters or words). It is, however, a rather more useful crossword puzzle word, with or without its final “e”; I have encountered it in puzzles a number of times over the years. The term was created in the eighteenth century for a German writer, philosopher, critic, dramatic, and public relations guru named Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1729-1781). In 1767, Herr Lessing was hired by the Hamburg National Theater (later the Seyler Theater Company) as the theater’s in-house critic of plays and actors. In time, he became known as the theater’s “dramaturge.” Today, there is no single job description for a dramaturge; it depends on the type of performing arts organization (theater company, opera house, orchestra) and the particular needs of that organization. Having said that, at very minimum a dramaturge is “a literary editor on the staff of a theatre, opera house, or symphony who liaises with authors, composers, and performers and edits texts.” My duties for TPS are as follows. One:… 

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Dr. Bob Prescribes: Otello

We begin by picking up where we left off last week, with the triumphant premiere of Verdi’s Requiem for Manzoni in 1874. Verdi proceeded to tour Europe conducting the Requiem to ecstatic audience responses everywhere. He was truly at the very top of his game, in his absolute prime. Consequently, it came as a thunderbolt when, in late 1875 (or so), the 62-year-old Verdi did the unthinkable: he informed his nearest and dearest – his wife, his friends, and his publisher – that as a composer he was through, finito. After 24 operas and one Requiem, after a lifetime of 16 to 18-hour days, impossible deadlines, harried constantly by librettists, producers, singers, critics and conductors, Giuseppe Fortunino Francesco Verdi was done. When his great friend Clarina Maffei told him that he had a moral obligation to compose, Verdi wrote: “Are you serious about my moral obligation to compose? No, you’re joking, since you know as well as I that the account is settled.” He had been thinking about retiring for decades. In 1845 – at the age of just 32 – he was retirement was already on his mind. He wrote to a friend: “Thanks for remembering poor me, condemned… 

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Dr. Bob Prescribes: Giuseppe Verdi, Requiem for Manzoni

In June of 1870, the 57-year-old Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901) agreed to compose an opera for the brand-new Cairo Opera Theater. The Khedive Ismail Pasha of Egypt handled the negotiations personally; the opera was to celebrate nothing less than the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869. No expense was spared, either on the opera or on Verdi, who received the unheard-of commissioning fee of 150,000 gold francs: roughly $1,935,000 today! Aida received its premiere in Cairo on December 24, 1871. The real premiere, as far as Verdi and the opera world were concerned, took place six weeks later, at La Scala in Milan on February 8, 1872. It was a triumph, the greatest of Verdi’s career to date; he received 32 curtain calls. The only artist in Italy as popular and beloved as Verdi at the time was the novelist and poet Alessandro Manzoni (1785-1883). Manzoni’s most famous work is a novel entitled I promessi sposi (“The Betrothed”), which was written initially between 1821 and 1827; Manzoni completed the final, “definitive” version in 1842. Manzoni wrote this final version in what was (and still is) considered the stylistically superior Italian dialect of Tuscany. This final, “Tuscan” version of “The Betrothed”… 

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Dr. Bob Prescribes: Beethoven, Mass in C, Op. 86

I trust we are all preparing for it: that we’re stockpiling party hats, noisemakers, birthday candles and those blowy-things consisting of a mouthpiece and a flattened, coiled paper tube that extends obscenely when blown into, something variously called a “party horn”, “party blower”, “party pipe”, or a “blow tickler.” We’ll want to have this stuff in hand in quantity because we have a year-long birthday celebration coming up, as the year 2020 will mark Ludwig/Louis/Luigi van Beethoven’s 250th (or Semiquincentennial, meaning literally “half-of-500”) birthday. Roughly once-every-other-month through the end of 2020 – starting today – I’m going to offer up posts on some of Beethoven’s more obscure works and recordings of those works that we should all own. We begin with Beethoven’s Mass in C of 1807, which is much less well known and less frequently performed than his “Solemn Mass”, the Missa Solemnis, of 1823. Beethoven’s Mass in C was first performed on September 13, 1807, in Eisenstadt, Austria, by the musical establishment of Prince Nikolaus Esterházy II. It did not go well. The mass had been commissioned by Prince Nikolaus Esterházy II (1765-1833), an excessively-wealthy Hungarian Prince. Today, we rightly consider the Mass to be the masterwork that it is (although… 

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Dr. Bob Prescribes: Béla Bartók – Piano Concerto No. 2

Last week’s Dr. Bob Prescribes post featured Alberto Ginastera’s Piano Concerto No. 1 of 1961. In the course of that post, I observed that the fourth movement finale of Ginastera’s concerto: “is a pedal-to-the-floor, hell-bent-for-leather, furious, drum-dominated, piano-as-percussion-instrument homage to the third and final movement of Béla Bartók’s Piano Concerto No. 2 of 1931 (which is my favorite movement of my favorite 20th century piano concerto; perhaps next week’s Dr. Bob Prescribes?).” (Don’t you love when someone quotes himself?) I’ve been thinking about and listening to Bartók’s Piano Concerto No. 2 all week and getting more worked up over it all the time. I believe it to be one of the greatest and most viscerally exciting pieces of music ever written, period, no qualifications. I been listening to recordings featuring the pianists Rudolf Serkin, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Zoltan Koscis, and Yuja Wang (link above). However, the recording that towers (not too strong a word) over the others is the subject of today’s post on Patreon. Over the years I have made no bones about my abiding love (not too strong a word, either) for Bartók the man and his music. I have even gone so far as to expose myself to… 

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Dr. Bob Prescribes: Alberto Ginastera

Trust. Without trust we can’t believe, and speaking personally, if I don’t believe in something, I’m not going to invest my time in it. Apropos of music. I cannot tell you how many painful, dreary, mind-numbing, time-wasting concerts of “new music” I have had to sit through in my 65 years. I’m not just talking about music by student composers, but by presumably professional composers as well. When we as a community tossed out traditional tonality at the turn of the twentieth century, we unfortunately tossed out the baby with the bathwater as well, meaning a consistent standard with which to judge a composer’s work. Composers can write any sort of crap they like today and claim that “that’s what I hear” when in fact it’s all they can write because they never bothered to master the craft and learn the repertoire. For example. Without naming names, I would tell you that I know a youngish composer (mid-thirties) who is having tremendous success with his particular brand of ugliness, which he claims to be a combination of heavy-metal and concert music. The guy couldn’t put together two lines of counterpoint to save his life, which means his music is ugly… 

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Dr. Bob Prescribes: Stravinsky – The Rite of Spring

Igor Stravinsky composed The Rite of Spring for the Ballets Russes in 1912, when he was thirty years old. Even if he had never written another piece of music, Stravinsky would still be famous, because excepting perhaps Yummy, Yummy, Yummy I Got Love in My Tummy, The Rite of Spring is the single most influential piece of music composed during the twentieth century. The Rite changed the way composers thought about rhythm, melody, counterpoint and orchestration, and it continues to exert a seminal influence on composers to this day. For all of its debt to Stravinsky’s Russian roots and the music of Claude Debussy, the Rite appeared to be devoid of any reference to the long and glorious Western musical tradition as it existed at the time. Rather, it created what appeared to be an entirely new musical language and expressive world: a world devoid of such bourgeois niceties as elegance, prettiness, and grace; a primal, sexual, violent, thrumming, pre-moral musical world in which pure rhythmic energy for its own sake became the principal musical element.  Stravinsky created this violent, “pre-moral musical world” because that was the gig, that’s what the scenario of the ballet of The Rite of Spring… 

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Dr. Bob Prescribes: Oscar Peterson

It’s a story I told before, in a blog dated July 28, 2013. Since it’s been almost six years I will be forgiven for telling it again. It was sometime in the spring of 1980. I was a graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley, living in a studio apartment in a dilapidated brown shingle house south of campus, across from a package store. I made my dollars as a teaching assistant in the music department and by giving private lessons. When folks called the music department looking for a theory or composition teacher, I was the person to whom they were referred. As a result, I received a lot of calls from prospective students, only a few of whom actually took a lesson. So I didn’t pay all that much attention when in the spring of 1980 I received such a call from a guy who identified himself as “Anthony”. Anthony told me that he wanted nothing less than the equivalent of an undergraduate music education, from start to finish. I no doubt rolled my eyes while telling him that that would take years. He told me that he was prepared to do whatever it took, including taking… 

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Dr. Bob Prescribes: Paul Creston

When I and my compositional colleagues were ignorant graduate students (yes, ignorant and arrogant: I thought I was so freakin’ smart in my mid-twenties, only to realize, as real life unfolded, how colossally naïve I really was), when we were ignorant graduate students, among the nastiest things me or my colleagues could say about a piece of music was that “it sounded like movie music.” Putting aside for a moment the fact that there’s some really fine movie music out there, this statement was meant to address music of melodramatic expressive content characterized by super-extreme degrees of contrast and seemingly pedestrian thematic content. Music about which one could blithely say “oh, that sounds like a chase scene”; or “that sounds like lonely, dark streets noire music”; or “that sounds like a fight scene” or a “love scene”, or a “knifing in the shower scene”, etc.: music of seemingly obvious, usually over-the-top expressive content.  I’ve grown up, and speaking generally and entirely for myself, I no longer consider movie music to be intrinsically inferior to stand-alone, self-contained concert music. It’s just different, because it serves a different purpose than concert music. The overweening importance in movie music is to create a… 

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