Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

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Dr. Bob Prescribes Flamenco

“Flamenco” is a genre of Spanish song and dance that originated in the southern Spanish region of Andalucía. It is an utterly remarkable, physically and expressively thrilling hybrid/synthesis/melding of native Spanish, North African, Arab, and especially gypsy influences. In my humble (but well-informed) opinion, Flamenco is – along with jazz – the most viscerally exciting music to be found on this planet. I would go so far as to suggest that if Andalucía were a media giant equal to the U.S. of A., we’d all be singing and dancing to Flamenco and not that north American-born hybrid called rock ‘n’ roll. (For our information: on November 16, 2010, UNESCO – the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization – declared Flamenco to be one of the “Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.”) Damn straight. For reasons geographic and cultural, Flamenco could only have evolved in Spain. A Country Apart With the Pyrenees (topping out at 11,168 feet high) to the north, the Atlantic Ocean to the West and the Mediterranean Sea to the south and east, Spain (and its Iberian sibling Portugal) stands physically apart from the remainder of Western Europe. In terms of the abundance, variety, and […]

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The Perfect Martini

Fluids. I am a slave to my fluids, my fluids in the morning and the evening. Judge me not.  In the morning, it’s a big mug of very strong Peet’s Arabian Mocha Java or Mocha Sanani, prepared in a French press. Coffee, like disco, is . . . life. In the early evening (after 6pm) it is the fermented juice of the grape or variously flavored spirits. I’m always game for decent wine, a glass of champagne, a Manhattan, or a bit of fine Scotch whiskey. But my evening fluid of choice lo these last 35+ years is a martini.  It started around 1983. My former in-laws were moving out of the house they’d lived in for 30 years in Santa Rosa, California, and were giving away scads of stuff. By the time my ex and I got there, there were only two objects left to be had: an old freezer in their garage and a cocktail shaker they had received as a wedding gift back in the early 1950s. Despite the fact that my ex and I lived in a tiny apartment in Berkeley, she was already shaping the word “freez . .” when I blurted out “SHAKER!” She […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes Franz Liszt: ‘Transcendental Etudes’

I spent the first few months of this year composing a set of six etudes for piano (posted on Patreon on April 2 and 9). As per my usual MO, I spent a couple of days prior to starting work listening to and/or reading through a batch of etudes by the usual suspects – Chopin, Liszt (I was once given a small, rectangular pad of paper labeled “Chopin Liszt” – “shopping list”), Rachmaninoff, Debussy, and Ligeti – in order to get my head and my ears in the right place. Again, typical of my compositional process, once I started writing I put such listening aside. At that point, it could only get in my way and remind me of how utterly inadequate I am when compared to the heavyweights named above. “Etude” means “study”. A musical “etude” is a technical study, a work that isolates and emphasizes some particular aspect (or aspects) of technique. Etudes have and will continue to be composed for every instrument for pedagogic purposes. With all due respect to Beethoven’s student and friend (and the teacher of Liszt) Carl Czerny (1791-1857), who wrote virtually thousands of piano etudes (his last published work, Opus 861, is titled […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes The Songs of Irving Berlin

Irving Berlin (born Israel Isidore Beilin, 1888-1989) was the greatest songwriter ever to live and work in North America. His songs – for which he wrote both the words and music – capture the spirit and chronicle the events of the first half of twentieth century America in a manner far beyond that of any other single songwriter. Among Berlin’s great contemporaries there were lyricists who wrote cleverer, more sophisticated lyrics and composers who pushed the formal structure and harmonic complexity of the popular song more than Berlin. But Berlin’s songs united the personal and the topical in words and melodies that had an almost universal appeal. Writes Robert Kimball: “The ability to capture and represent the human experience in a simple, direct way is what great songwriting is all about. And that is where Irving Berlin had no peer.” (BTW, this doesn’t mean that Berlin couldn’t create a great rhyme; rather, when he does so, it is entirely in the service of the song and never to show us how very clever he is. For example, the lyric to Let’s Have Another Cup of Coffee, written in 1932 during the darkest days of the Depression, in which he rhymes […]

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Dr Bob Prescribes John Santos

A couple of weeks ago, I did a Facebook Live show with Julie Stoltz of The Great Courses. When we first discussed doing the show, Julie asked me if I’d give a lecture of some sort after which I would field some questions. I wasn’t terribly interested in doing a lecture; heaven knows, there’s enough of my blathering out there already, and besides, I wanted Julie to be able to take an active part in the show and to give the viewers an opportunity to comment at any time and not just at the end. So I came up with the idea of offering up a stack of recordings that would, as I put it at the time, be “guaranteed to raise our spirits, make us forget our woes, and render us susceptible to boogie fever.” It was Field Marshal Helmuth Karl Bernhard Graf von Moltke (1800-1891), the Chief of Staff of the Prussian General Staff and then the Great [German] General Staff who famously said that “no battle plan ever survives first contact with the enemy.” On those same lines, I have myself discovered that “no interview plan survives the first question from the interviewer”, and as such, my […]

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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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