Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Archive for San Francisco Performances

Music History Monday: What a Day!

February 15 is one of those crazy days during which so much happened in the world of music that we are de facto forced to wonder if there is some metaphysical explanation for why this date should be a nexus of musical-historical activity! In an attempt to answer that question, I have probed. Ouch. Here is some of what I have found. February 15 is the 46th day of the year in the Gregorian calendar. As of today, 319 days remain until the end of the year (320 days in leap years). It was on this day in 506 that Khosrau II was crowned as the last great Sassanian king (or “shah”) of Persia. Whoa. Was that a feather that just knocked me over? On this day in 706, the Byzantine Emperor Justinian II (668-711) had his predecessors, the Emperors Leontios and Tiberios III publicly executed in the Hippodrome of Constantinople (today’s Istanbul). Now, lest we think that Justinian II was just a disrespectful welp, offing his predecessors on a whim, we’d observe that back in 695 the 27-year-old Justinian II had been deposed and, adding nasal insult to injury, had his nose cut off (thus his nickname, “Justinian Rhinotmetos”, meaning […]

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Music History Monday: John Williams

We celebrate the birth on February 8, 1932 – 89 years ago today – of the American composer, conductor, pianist and trombonist John Towner Williams, in the neighborhood of Flushing, in the New York City borough of Queens. Williams must be regarded as among the greatest film composers of all time and is without a doubt the most successful in terms of awards garnered and dollars earned. Let’s do the numbers, if only to get them out of the way. To date, John Williams has created the scores for 8 of the 25 highest grossing films in American box office history. His 115(!) film scores include those for: The Reivers (1969) The Poseidon Adventure (1972) The Long Goodbye (1973) The Paper Chase (1973) Earthquake (1974) The Towering Inferno (1974) The Eiger Sanction (1975) Jaws (1975) The Missouri Breaks (1976) Midway (1976) Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) E. T. the Extra Terrestrial (1982) The Witches of Eastwick (1987) Empire of the Sun (1987) Born on the Fourth of July (1989) Hook (1991) JFK (1991) Schindler’s List (1993) Sabrina (1995) Seven Years in Tibet (1997) Amistad (1997) Saving Private Ryan (1998) Angela’s Ashes (1999) Minority Report (2002) The Terminal (2004) […]

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Music History Monday: Pretty Much the Worst

There are times I crave spicy – I mean really spicy – food. (Speaking of which: I knew a guy at university from San Antonio – we belonged to the same “eating club’ which was our version of fraternities – who put Tabasco Sauce on everything: cereal, peanut butter sandwiches, vanilla ice cream, I kid you not; everything. Next to Berto, who was a professional-grade consumer of capsaicin, I am merely a hobbyist. Then again, I never saw Berto consume a Carolina Reaper or a Trinidad Scorpion, hot peppers that both exceed 2 million Scoville heat units, making them 40% as hot as military-grade pepper spray.) But back to me, and my occasional but necessary consumption of Serrano peppers, Vietnamese Chili Garlic Sauce, and Calabrian chili peppers. Do I like having my mouth turned into a flaming pit of hell? No, well, but maybe . . . Do I enjoy having the mucus membranes in my sinuses go haywire? Not particularly, but. . . Is it fun having my eyes tear and turn red? Um. Do I like when all of this happens? And now the awful truth: I don’t just like it, I love it. And there it is: […]

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Music History Monday: When Richard Strauss was “Modernity”: ‘Salome’ and ‘Elektra’

We mark the world premiere – on January 25, 1909 – 112 years ago today – of Ricard Strauss’ opera Elektra at the Semperoper, the opera house of the Sächsische Staatsoper – the Saxon State Opera – in Dresden. Today acknowledged as one of the masterworks of the operatic repertoire, the premiere of Elektra uncorked a degree of critical controversy equaled only by Strauss’ own opera Salome in 1905 and Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring in 1913. If I were to ask you who was the most famous and controversial living composer in 1909, who would you name? Gustav Mahler, born in 1860? No: Mahler was then best known as a conductor and a composer of long and rarely performed symphonies. Igor Stravinsky, born in 1882? No: Stravinsky didn’t appear on Europe’s artistic radar until 1910, when his ballet The Firebird was premiered in Paris on June 25th of that year. Arnold Schoenberg, born 1874? In 1909, Schoenberg was hardly known outside of his native Vienna, and many (if not most) of those Viennese who did know his music considered him a crackpot; okay, a talented crackpot. You know where this is going. The most famous, controversial, and (not […]

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Music History Monday: Concerts I Would Like to Have Attended (and One I am Glad to have Missed!)

January is usually a concert-heavy month, following, as it does, the holiday-heavy month of December. In a non-COVID environment, theaters thrive in the cold and early darkness of January, as folks look for something to do while they wait out the winter in anticipation of warmer, longer days and baseball season.  January 18th is particularly notable for concerts that have taken place on this date, concerts that with one glaring exception I personally would have been thrilled to attend. Stuck at home as we presently are thanks to you-know-what, let us live vicariously through these January 18 concerts, even as we anticipate – hungrily, hopefully – the soon-enough-to-be attended concerts of January 2022.  We will focus primarily on the first of these concerts – the premiere of Dmitri Shostakovich’s opera, The Nose – after which we’ll do a quick prance through five other January 18-specific concert events of note. The Nose We mark the premiere performance on January 18, 1930 – 91 years ago today – of Dmitri Shostakovich’s first opera, The Nose, which was performed by the Maly Opera Theater in Leningrad (today’s St. Petersburg). Completed in 1928 when Shostakovich was just 22 years old, The Nose is based […]

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Music History Monday: Prokofiev, Romeo and Juliet, and the B***h Goddess

We mark the first performance of Sergei Prokofiev’s ballet Romeo and Juliet on January 11, 1940 – 81 years ago today – by the Kirov Ballet in Leningrad, what today is St. Petersburg. Prokofiev was born on April 23, 1891 in Ukraine. He attended the St. Petersburg Conservatory as both a pianist and composer and graduated in 1914, first in his class. His rise to fame as both a pianist and composer was meteoric, and by 1917, the 26-year-old Prokofiev had come to be considered among Russia’s very best and brightest. Unfortunately, that’s also when current events had their way him. By 1917, World War One had been raging for three years. As the only son of a widow, Prokofiev had not been called up into the Russian army; a good thing, considering that four million Russians died in combat between 1914 and 1917. Violent frustration over the Russian war effort led Czar Nicholas II to abdicate on March 2, 1917. An armed insurrection brought Vladimir Lenin’s Bolshevik Party to power in November of 1917, and the Russian Civil War began. The Civil War would last for five horrific years and kill an additional 9 million Russians. In 1918, deciding […]

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Music History Monday: A Rockin’ Day

What July 4th is for Americans; what Bastille Day on July 14th is for the French; what St. Patrick’s Day on March 17th is for the Irish, and what the Black-Necked Crane Festival on November 11th is for the Bhutanese, so January 4th is for fans of rock ‘n’ roll: a day when so much stuff happened as to enshrine it as a major, rock ‘n’ roll holiday! What, pray tell, happened on this day? Thank you for asking. Elvis Presley and Sam Philips It was on January 4, 1954 – 67 years ago today – that Elvis Presley, four days short of his 20th birthday (on January 8), came to the attention of the record producer and founder of Sun Records, Sam Phillips (1923-2003). It was the singular event that vaulted Elvis to stardom. Here’s what happened. On this day in 1954, Elvis made his second visit to the studios of the Memphis Recording Studio, which shared an office with Sun Records. On his first visit – six months before, on July 18, 1953 – Presley had recorded two songs (at his expense) on a two-sided, 10-inch acetate disc, claiming that the recording was a “gift for his mother.” […]

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Music History Monday: Maurice Ravel

We mark the death on December 28, 1937 – 83 years ago today – of the French composer and pianist Maurice Ravel, in Paris, at the age of 62. We will get to the magnifique and formidable Monsieur Ravel in a moment, but first, we’ve a birthday to acknowledge. We mark the birth on December 28, 1896 – 124 years ago today – of the American composer and teacher Roger Huntingdon Sessions, in Brooklyn New York. He died, at the age of 88, on March 16, 1985, in Princeton, New Jersey. I myself never studied with Roger Sessions; he had retired from the Princeton faculty in 1965, while I was in attendance from 1972 to 1976. Nevertheless, the “old man” cut a wide swath on campus. And why the heck not? A multiple Pulitzer Prize winner; friend of Arnold Schoenberg, Aaron Copland, and Thomas Mann; Norton Fellow at Harvard: there was hardly an American musical event that took place during the twentieth century that Sessions wasn’t in some way involved with. While I never studied with Sessions, I did indeed study with his protégé Andrew Welsh Imbrie (1921-2007) when I was a graduate student at the University of California Berkeley; […]

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Music History Monday: The Top “ZZ’s” – Frank Zappa and Zdeněk Fibich

We mark and celebrate two composers born on this date. Zdeněk Fibich was born on December 21, 1850; 170 years ago today. Frank Zappa was born on December 21, 1940, 80 years ago today. The two had more in common with each other than just a name that started with the letter “z”. They were both eclectic composers, who brought to bear in their music a wide variety of influences, influences that were deemed “incompatible” by their critics. Oh yes, their “critics”: as composers, both Fibich and Zappa were controversial. They both suffered from poor health and they both died young: Fibich at 49 and Zappa at 52. Frank Vincent Zappa was born on this date in 1940 in Baltimore, Maryland, the eldest of four children in an Italian-American family. Zappa’s father Francis was a defense-industry scientist, and as such the family lived a peripatetic existence: Baltimore, then to Florida; back to Maryland; then to Monterey, California; Claremont, California; El Cajon, California; San Diego, California; and finally, in 1956 (when Zappa was sixteen) to Lancaster, California, an aerospace and farming community in the Antelope Valley, in the Mojave Desert, near Edwards Airforce Base. The young Frank Zappa was chronically ill; […]

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Music History Monday: Wozzeck

We mark the premiere performance on December 14, 1925 – 95 years ago today – of Alban Berg’s opera Wozzeck in Berlin, conducted by Erich Kleiber. That premiere performance was preceded by 137 rehearsals. Wozzeck was, and remains, one of the great masterworks of the twentieth century. Johann Franz Wozzeck, the title character of Berg’s opera, is described as being: “Thirty years and seven months old, militia man and fusilier in the second regiment, second battalion, fourth company; uneducated, uncomprehending.” Wozzeck is slowly being driven insane by those around him, something we become aware of early in the first act. Composed in greatest part during and immediately after World War One, Johann Franz Wozzeck’s incipient madness reflects not just the eroding mind of a doomed soldier but a doomed generation as well. According to the musicology Professor Glenn Watkins of the University of Michigan: “Wozzeck’s growing madness is as vivid a projection of impending world doom as any to come out of the Great War.” Berg’s opera is based on a play based on a real-life person: a confessed murderer named Johann Christian Woyzeck (W-o-y-z-e-c-k). This Woyzeck was a Leipzig-born wigmaker and barber who later enlisted in the army. In […]

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