Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Archive for San Francisco Performances

Music History Monday: The Riot at the Astor Place Opera House

We mark the deadly riot on May 10, 1849 – 172 years ago today – that took place at the Astor Place Opera House in New York City. Between 22 and 31 people were killed and many hundreds more injured, in a riot that pitted immigrants and members of the working class against the wealthy elite who controlled the city’s police and militia.  Gala Openings, Class War, and Opera (and Theater) in the United States We’ve all seen pictures of the things; I imagine some of us have even attended them: opera galas. In San Francisco (where the San Francisco Opera is second only to the Metropolitan Opera in terms of its budget and number of performances), the season opening opera gala is the major social event for those fine people who “do” major social events. Tickets for the gala cost a small fortune. For the men, black tie is de rigueur; for the women, off-the-shoulder gowns, freshly coiffed hair, and tons of jewelry are, but of course. As best as I can tell, the social point of the gala is to be perceived as a member of the exclusive club that is “high society”: to be seen and to […]

Continue Reading

Music History Monday: The Word’s the Thing: Betty Comden and Adolph Green

May 3 is a date rich in birthdays for American popular music. Let us acknowledge three of them before moving on to the particular birthday that has inspired this post. On May 3, 1919 – 102 years ago today – the American folk singer and songwriter Pete Seeger was born in New York City. Seeger was the prototypical American folk-singing, left-wing social activist. A man and musician allied with the working class and workers’ rights, he was blacklisted during the McCarthy Era only to re-emerge as an important singer of protest music in the 1960s in the service of the anti-Vietnam War movement, the civil rights movement, international disarmament, the environment, and whatever might be considered the “counterculture” at any given time. As a prominent voice and songwriter on the radio in the 1940s and founding member of the Weavers (in 1948), Seeger created a body of music that remains the backbone of the folk repertoire, including such songs as Where Have All the Flowers Gone, If I Had a Hammer (The Hammer Song), Kisses Sweeter Than Wine and Turn! Turn! Turn! He died an American legend on January 27, 2014 at the age of 94.  On May 3, 1933 […]

Continue Reading

Music History Monday: Tchaikovsky in America

We mark the arrival in New York City on April 26, 1891 – 130 years ago today – of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. He had come to America to conduct his own music and to help inaugurate Carnegie Hall (on May 5, 1891) by conducting his own Coronation Festival Overture.  Tchaikovsky at Fifty Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky was born on May 7, 1840 in the Russian town Votkinsk, roughly 630 miles east of Moscow. He might have started his life in the sticks, but he didn’t stay there, and by the age of fifty – in 1890 – he was one of the most beloved composers in the world and a Russian national hero. Photographs taken at the time depict a balding, grey haired and bearded man seemingly well advanced of fifty years, though in this, appearances can be deceiving. At the age of fifty Tchaikovsky was at the very top of his musical game and at the apogee of his fame. A single anecdote will suffice for his stature among contemporary Russian artists. During the winter of 1889, Tchaikovsky met a young medical-student-turned-writer at his brother Modest’s house named Anton Chekhov (1860-1904). At the time of their meeting Tchaikovsky expressed admiration […]

Continue Reading

Music History Monday: To the memory of an Angel

We mark the posthumous premiere on April 19, 1936 – 85 years ago today – of Alban Berg’s breathtaking Violin Concerto. Its score bears a double dedication: “To Louis Krasner” (1903-1995; Krasner was the violinist who commissioned and premiered the concerto) and “To the Memory of an Angel” (the significance of which will be explained in due time). Albano Maria Johannes Berg was born in Vienna on February 9, 1885. He died there 50 years later, on December 24, 1935. Berg was born into a highly cultured family that travelled in the highest circle of Vienna’s cultural elite, at a time when Vienna was home to a staggering amount of talent. Berg numbered among his friends Gustav and Alma Mahler, the writers Stefan Zweig (1881-1942) and Karl Kraus (1874-1936); the architect Adolf Loos (1870-1933); and the artists Gustav Klimt (1862-1918) and Oskar Kokoschka (1886-1980). Among others. That’s quite a crew. A tall (he grew to be 6’5” in height), gangly, shy child, the young Berg was more interested in literature than music. A few elementary piano lessons aside, Berg had no formal musical training whatsoever until 1904, when he was 19. That was when he began composition lessons with the […]

Continue Reading

Music History Monday: Dr. Burney

We mark the death on April 12, 1814 – 207 years ago today – of the English music historian and composer Charles Burney, in London. One rarely achieves much fame or fortune as a music historian; you can trust me on this; it’s something I know about firsthand. Nevertheless, Dr. Burney (he was awarded an honorary Doctor of music degree from Oxford) achieved a bit of both fame and fortune in his lifetime and immortality since. That’s because he didn’t just write blogs or record podcasts about music history; it’s because he lived it. Lots more on this once we (quickly) get through his biographical preliminaries.  He was born on April 7, 1726 in the market town of Shrewsbury, some 150 miles northwest of London. (For our information, Shrewsbury was, as well, the hometown of Charles Darwin.) The artistic gene was in the family: Burney’s father James was a musician, dancer, and portrait painter. Young Charles was trained on the organ, harpsichord, violin and in composition. For three years he was apprenticed in London with Thomas Arne (1710-1778), the most important English-born composer of theater music in the eighteenth century. (Many of us might not have heard of Arne, but […]

Continue Reading

Music History Monday: “Three’s the Charm”

We mark the premiere on April 5, 1803 – 218 years ago today – of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor at a public concert held at the Theater-an-der-Wien, in Vienna. Beethoven was the piano soloist and conducted the Theater-an-der-Wien Orchestra from the piano. The title of this post – “Three’s the Charm” – is meant in no way to diminish Beethoven’s piano concerti nos. 1 and 2. Rather, it would indicate that this third concerto, completed when Beethoven was 32 years old, is the first piano concerto of his compositional maturity and is thus packed with the sorts of modernity and expressive range that the phrase “Beethoven’s maturity” implies. Beethoven’s “Akademies” In the Vienna of Beethoven’s time, public concerts – to which anyone could “subscribe” (that is, buy a ticket in advance) – were called “Akademies”. When a composer staged an Akademie, the concert was additionally referred to as a “benefit” in that the profits went directly into the pocket of the composer.  Staging a benefit concert was a big deal, though not without risk. It was a “big deal” because such concerts were usually the only way for a composer to put his music before the […]

Continue Reading

Music History Monday: Beethoven’s Funeral

We mark the funeral of Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) on March 29, 1827 – 194 years ago today – in Vienna. It was a grand affair; tens of thousands of people lined the route of the funeral cortege. The funeral itself was attended by Viennese luminaries of every stripe, from the aristocracy to such composers as Franz Shubert, Johann Nepomuk Hummel, and Carl Czerny. Speaking strictly for myself, Beethoven’s virus-compromised 250th birthday celebration continues to rankle. As I have previously stated (with tiresome regularity, I fear), it is my intention to continue that celebration, which should have concluded on the occasion of his 250th birthday on December 16, 2020, well into 2021. Just so: my Music History Monday and Dr. Bob Prescribes posts for the next two weeks will feature the B-man and his music. This is all good. Funerals in Vienna The Viennese have traditionally had a “thing” about funerals. Far from being merely ritualized grief or memorials to those who have passed, traditional Viennese funerals – elaborate affairs with their grand caskets, long, parade-like processions and impassioned, theatrical eulogies – seem as much like Mardi Gras parades as they do “funerals.” Vienna even has a funeral museum, called […]

Continue Reading

Music History Monday: Stephen Sondheim: The Making of a Theatrical Life, Part One

We mark the birth on March 22, 1930 – 91 years ago today – and the composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim. Alive and we trust well, living in his brownstone townhouse in Manhattan’s Turtle Bay neighborhood on the East Side of Midtown (also the home of the Chrysler Building and the United Nations), we can only hope that Maestro Sondheim is spending the day doing what he does best: writing a song. What a wonderful coincidence: for the second week in a row, I get to write about one of my favorite subjects: the American musical theater. Last week it was the team of Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe and their masterwork, My Fair Lady. In today’s Music History Monday and tomorrow’s Dr. Bob Prescribes, I get to write about Stephen Sondheim. What a pleasure!An upfront statement. Stephen Joshua Sondheim has lived a long, complex, incredibly productive and well-documented life. To attempt to tell his entire story in one or two 2500-word blog/podcasts can only trivialize his life story and his work. So instead, today’s Music History Monday and tomorrow’s Dr. Bob Prescribes posts will tell the painful story of his early life and explore the mentorships and experiences […]

Continue Reading

Music History Monday: My Fair Lady and the Making of a Partnership

We mark the opening performance on March 15, 1956 – 65 years ago today – of the Broadway musical My Fair Lady at the Mark Hellinger Theater, which was located at 237 West 51st Street in mid-town Manhattan, New York City. (For our information, since 1989, the theater has been the home of the Times Square Church.) Originally starring Julie Andrews, Rex Harrison, and Stanley Holloway, this first Broadway production of My Fair Lady (there have been four Broadway revivals) ran for what was then a record-breaking 2717 performances – for 6½ years! – until September 29, 1962. (Because we all want to know: the current record holder is Phantom of the Opera, which opened on January 26, 1988 and continues to run at the Majestic Theater. Currently suspended due to the pandemic, the Broadway production of Phantom has thus far racked up an astonishing 13,370 performances. Whoa!) My Fair Lady is routinely called “the perfect musical”, and who are we to argue with that appraisal? Speaking for myself, I saw that first Broadway production in April of 1962; attendance was my eighth birthday present. Though Julie Andrews, Rex Harrison, and Stanley Holloway had long before left the show, it […]

Continue Reading

Music History Monday: Orrin Keepnews: With Great Respect and Appreciation

We mark the death on March 1, 2015 – six years ago today – of the American jazz producer and founder of Riverside Records and Milestone Records Orrin Keepnews, in El Cerrito California, but a couple of stones’ throws from where I’m writing this blog. Born in da Bronx on March 2, 1923, Keepnews died one day before what would have been his 92nd birthday. Keepnews remains one of those indispensable people who made entire careers possible, who protected and respected musicians in an often-vicious artistic environment, who labored in the background and was thus someone whose contributions are often overlooked. Well, not here; not today. We will get to Mr. Keepnews in a moment. But first: March 1st is one of those “feast days” during which so much stuff happened in music history that any number of anniversaries or events could have occupied the bulk of today’s post. As I would never forgive myself for not mentioning at least some of them, here we go. We mark the birth on March 1, 1810 – 221 years ago today – of the miraculous Frédéric François Chopin in Żelazowa Wola, Poland, not far from Warsaw. He died, all-too-young 39 years later, […]

Continue Reading