Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

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Dr. Bob Prescribes: The Folk Revival

Today’s Dr. Bob Prescribes post is different from previous posts in two ways. First, only once before has this post prescribed more than one recording; today’s post prescribes four. My thinking is as follows: as Amazon is still delivering, and as so very many of us are housebound (or nearly so) for the foreseeable future, we have the time and wherewithal to consume rather more music than usual. And that we should do, because it will help to keep us sane. Second, this post recommends three “greatest hits” albums, which is something I am ordinarily loath to do. What constitutes a “greatest hit”, anyway? Record sales? Frequency of radio play? Sheet music sales”? Excuse me, but generally speaking, I’d rather decide what constitutes a “greatest hit” based on perceived artistic merit than statistical accomplishment. Further, a “greatest hits” album tells no larger musical story: we as listeners get no sense of a group’s artistic trajectory over time. Rather, such an album is a hodge-podge of songs recorded whenever, without any chronological reference. Finally, for those of you who are already fans, the greatest hits albums serve no purpose whatsoever, as you likely already have a comprehensive sampling of these artists’ […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes A Jazz Duo

To an overwhelming degree, musicians are “defined” – personally, even spiritually – by the instruments they play and the music they play on those instruments. Put a flute player, a trumpet player, and a pianist in a room, and they might talk about the weather, or where they went to school, or were they are presently gigging; or cars, or their kids, or whatever; maybe they’ll talk about music and maybe they won’t. (The only thing you can be certain of is that the flute player and trumpet player will arrange to see each other again, because that’s what flute players and trumpet players do: they go out with each other.) But. Put three flute players in a room together and the conversation will focus like a diamond cutting laser on their flutes (“You’ve got a Drelinger head joint? OMG; I wish I could afford a Drelinger head joint!”), their teachers (“Loved Tim Day, but Robin McKee was a better fit for me”); auditions (“You guys gonna do Tampa?”), the repertoire, upcoming recitals, and a thousand-and-one other things, all having to do with the flute.  The point: for professional and high-end amateur musicians who have been playing a particular musical […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes: Madama Butterfly

Yesterday’s Music History Monday post marked the 116th anniversary of the premiere of Giacomo Puccini’s opera Madama Butterfly. The body of that post dealt with the charges of sexism, racism, and cultural appropriation leveled today at the opera, charges that have led many contemporary arbiters to demand that changes be made to the opera or that it be eliminated from the repertoire altogether. As I rather forcefully observed in yesterday’s post, none of this changes the fact that Madama Butterfly is a masterwork of musical theater and deserves its place among the top tier of the operatic repertoire. Unlike most other of Puccini’s operas, Madama Butterfly had something of a rough start; that story in a moment. Giacomo Antonio Domenico Michele Secondo Maria Puccini was born in the Tuscan city of Lucca on December 22, 1858. He was born into a virtual dynasty of local musicians; members of Puccini family occupied the position of maestro di cappella (“master of music”) of the Cathedral of San Martino in Lucca for 124 consecutive years, from 1740 until 1864 (when Puccini’s father Michele, the current maestro di cappella, died prematurely at the age of 50). Giacomo was groomed to enter the family profession and in the […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes Luciano Pavarotti

Yesterday’s Music History Monday post celebrated the 14th anniversary of Luciano Pavarotti’s appearance at the opening ceremony of the XX Winter Olympic Games in Torino, Italy. It made sense then, that today’s Dr. Bob Prescribes post should feature a Pavarotti recording. Alas, or in the parlance of Italian opera, Ohime!, what seemed simple turned out to be anything but. Here’s the problem, in the form of a confession. I adore Pavarotti’s voice the way a 16-year-old does his first great love: utterly, absolutely, unquestioningly, and completely. I know that some folks believed he demeaned himself and his art in his later years doing cross-over work and singing in stadiums, but I’d point out that even the best of us will get a bit incontinent with age. We should pay Pavarotti’s incontinence no mind, because he left behind such an amazing recorded and video legacy as to make our minds reel and yes, our bladders weak. My problem: which of all my favorite Pavarotti recordings to recommend? I spent half of a day listening (and weeping over his voice) until I came to the only possible conclusion: I will not choose just one recording but instead list four of my favorites, […]

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Music History Monday: Disproportionate Numbers and “The Screaming Skull”

We mark the birth, on October 21, 1912 – 107 years ago today – of the Hungarian-born pianist and conductor György Stern (better known as Sir Georg Solti) in Budapest, Hungary. Considered one of the greatest conductors to have ever lived, Solti is the Michael Phelps, the Simone Biles of the musical world, having received a record 31(!) GRAMMY® Awards.

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Dr. Bob Prescribes: Robert Schumann

I have been asked to write a brief program note for the Library of Congress, and it just so happens that they have asked me to write about one of my favorite performing ensembles performing some of my absolutely favorite music. Talk about two birds with one stone! I will adapt this Dr. Bob Prescribes post for the LOC. But to our post first. By way of explanation. The National Recording Registry is a list of 25 recordings issued annually by the Library Congress. The Registry now totals some 525 recordings. According to the LOC: “Each of these recordings has been chosen by the Librarian of Congress, with input from the National Recording Preservation Board. Each of these recordings have been deemed so vital to the history of America — aesthetically, culturally or historically — that they demand permanent archiving in the nation’s library.” There are certain actors whose fan-bases are so deep that their mere presence in a film will, by itself, guarantee its success. Tom Hanks, Jennifer Lawrence, Harrison Ford, Julia Roberts, Denzel Washington, Scarlett Johansson, Robert De Niro, Meryl Streep, Brad Pitt, Samuel Jackson, Sandra Bullock, Tom Cruise: put ’em on the screen and watch the moolah roll in. There are […]

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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: 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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