Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Archive for San Francisco Performances

Music History Monday: The Empress

Today we celebrate the birth – on April 15, 1894, 125 years ago today, in Chattanooga, Tennessee – of the American contralto Bessie Smith. We Reflect on “GOAT” When I was growing up, the word “goat” had two distinct meanings. First, there was the animal: a quadruped mammal, a member of the family Bovidae and subfamily Caprinae. There are presently over 300 distinct breeds of goat, both wild and domesticated. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, in 2011 there were more than 924 million goats alive across the planet. (One can only wonder why there hasn’t been a more recent census.) When I was growing up, the second meaning of the word “goat” was a loser: a derisive term for an athlete who, as a result of some monumentally boneheaded mistake, was responsible for his or her team’s loss. For example: Mike Torres, the Boston Red Sox pitcher who gave up a three-run homer to light-hitting, New York Yankee second baseman Bucky Dent in a one-game playoff following the 1978 regular season; or Bill Buckner, the Boston Red Sox first baseman who booted an easy grounder to lose game six of the 1986 World Series against the… 

Continue Reading…

Music History Monday: An American Original and an American Tragedy

On April 1, 1917 – 102 years ago today – the American composer and pianist Scott Joplin died at the Manhattan State Hospital on New York City’s Ward’s Island, which straddles the Harlem River and the East River between Manhattan and Queens. He was 48 years old. During the course of his compositional career – which spanned the nineteen years from 1896 to 1915 – Joplin composed 44 ragtime works for piano, a ragtime ballet and two operas. (A musical “vaudeville act”, a musical comedy, a symphony and a piano concerto were purportedly composed as well near the end of Joplin’s life. These works were never published, and the manuscripts have, presumably, been lost, leading some to wonder whether they ever really existed at all.) Embraced today as being among the greatest and most original of American composers; creator of the single most famous ragtime work of them all, Maple Leaf Rag of 1900; inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1970; awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 1976; and featured on a first-class postage stamp in 1983; Joplin died in almost total obscurity there at the Manhattan State Hospital, which was then – with 4,400 beds – the largest… 

Continue Reading…

Music History Monday: The “Revival” Begins

On March 11, 1829 – 190 years ago today – the 20-year-old Felix Mendelssohn conducted a heavily edited version of Johann Sebastian Bach’s sacred oratorio St. Matthew’s Passion at the Singakademie in Berlin. Composed in 1727, 102 years before that sold-out performance in Berlin, Mendelssohn’s performance of the passion was the first to take place outside of Leipzig, and it caused a sensation. It single-handedly initiated what is now known as the “Bach Revival”, which brought the music of Johann Sebastian Bach – in particular his large-scale works – to the attention of a broad-based listening public for the very first time. At the time of Mendelssohn’s performance, the great man himself had been dead for nearly 79 years. Bach’s Death Sebastian Bach (as his contemporaries knew him) was built like a bull and had the constitution of one as well. At no point in his life had he suffered a serious illness until the late spring of 1749, when at 64 his body began to give out: among other things, he suffered from neuropathy (numbness and pain in his hands and feet, the result of damage to the peripheral nerves of same) and eye pain and vision problems (likely… 

Continue Reading…

Music History Monday: The Red Priest

On March 4, 1678 – 341 years ago today – the Italian composer, violinist, priest and rapscallion Antonio Vivaldi was born in Venice. Yes, I know we are all “one-of-a-kind” and that that phrase is way overworked, but truly, Antonio Lucio Vivaldi was a genre unto himself! Vivaldi came to be known il prieto rosso (“The Red Priest”) for two excellent reasons: he had bright red hair and was trained as a Catholic priest. He might just as easily – and accurately – have been called “The Red Violinist” or Il Rosso Compositore: “The Red Composer”. All together, Vivaldi composed 49 “serious operas” in the ornate Venetian style that was all the international rage at the time. For better or for worse, the great bulk of these operas have fallen into obscurity; their artificial story lines and formulaic construction don’t resonate well with modern audiences. However, Verdi’s concerti do indeed resonate, and there are a lot of them: over five hundred in number. (49 operas. 500-plus concerti. Add to that hundreds upon hundreds of sacred works. These are crazy numbers, and despite the formulaic construction of much of this music, we must stand in awe of Vivaldi’s amazing fecundity. Let’s… 

Continue Reading…

Music History Monday: Appassionata

On February 18, 1807 – 212 years ago today – Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 23 in F Minor, nicknamed by the publisher the “Appassionata”, was published in Vienna. The “Appassionata” is one of Beethoven’s most spectacular works, a piano sonata that over the years has evoked some pretty spectacular comparisons: the German-born, American musicologist Hugo Leichtentritt compared it to Dante’s Inferno; the German-born musicologist Arnold Schering likened it to Shakespeare’s Macbeth; Romain Rolland, the French dramatist, novelist, essayist, art historian and mystic (who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1915) compared the Appassionata to Corneille’s tragedies; and the English musicologist and music theorist Donald Francis Tovey set it side-by-side with nothing less than Shakespeare’s King Lear. That’s Sir Donald Francis Tovey, and yes, even Sir Donald – that paragon of English restraint, dignity, and self-control (stiff upper lip and all that rot) – becomes a breathless, idolatrous, Beethoven fan-boy when attempting to describe the expressive content of the Appassionata Sonata: “This sonata is a great hymn of passion, which is born of the never-fulfilled longing for full and perfect bliss. Not blind fury, not the raging of sensual fevers, but the violent eruption of the afflicted soul, thirsting… 

Continue Reading…

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… 

Continue Reading…

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… 

Continue Reading…

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… 

Continue Reading…

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’”,… 

Continue Reading…

Music History Monday: Tosca

On January 14, 1900 – 119 years ago today – Giacomo Puccini’s three-act opera Tosca received its first performance at the Teatro Costanzi in Rome.  Based on a play by the French playwright Victorien Sardou (1831-1908) and adapted for opera by the librettists Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Gioacosa, Tosca has been an audience favorite since the day of its premiere. According to Operabase, an online database of opera performances, Tosca is the fifth most popular opera in the repertoire today.  Of course, we will want to know which operas are numbers one through four! They are, starting with number one: La Traviata (1853), by Giuseppe Verdi; The Magic Flute (1791), by Wolfgang Mozart; Carmen (1875), by Georges Bizet; and La bohème (1895), by Giacomo Puccini.  We would observe that Puccini is the only composer with two operas in Operabase’s top five. Based on number of performances worldwide, the five most popular opera composers today are, in order one through five: Verdi; Puccini; Mozart; Wagner; and Rossini.  Unfortunately, unlike Verdi, Mozart, Wagner and Rossini, Puccini’s popularity with audiences has not been matched with equal acclaim from the critics. No doubt, some critics have said nice things about Puccini’s operas, but they remain… 

Continue Reading…