Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Archive for San Francisco Performances

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… 

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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… 

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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… 

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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’”,… 

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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… 

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Music History Monday: Frances Poulenc: a votre santé!

We celebrate the birth – on January 7, 1899, 120 years ago today – of the French composer and pianist Francis Jean Marcel Poulenc. Long considered a compositional lightweight – a composer for whom (heaven forbid!) traditional tonality, attractive melody and musical charm assumed pride of compositional place – Poulenc’s music was routinely rejected by the academy and by the modernists that dominated the musical scene in the years after the end of World War II in 1945. Over the last 40 years, my personal opinion of Poulenc’s music has traversed a full 180 degrees. As a young, academy-trained composer working in the 1970s, I adopted my teachers’ various prejudices without question. Among other things, this meant that with the exception of the music of Claude Debussy and Pierre Boulez, pretty much all French music going back to the seventeenth century was considered beneath contempt, and none more so than that of the loose group of Gallic compositional confectioners known as “les six Français et M. Satie” – “The Six French [composers] and Mister Satie”: Georges Auric (1899–1983), Louis Durey (1888–1979), Arthur Honegger (1892–1955), Darius Milhaud (1892–1974), Poulenc (1899–1963), Germaine Tailleferre (1892–1983), and the group’s spiritual mentor, Erik Satie (1866-1925). We consider. One… 

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Music History Monday: They Should Have Taken a Bus

Today we begin by marking a birth and a death, two anniversaries related to one another in tragedy. You rightly ask: what can be “tragic” about a birth? Nothing in itself. So let us begin by celebrating the birth on December 31, 1943 – 75 years ago today – of the singer-songwriter, record producer, actor, activist, and humanitarian Henry John Deutschendorf, Jr. (I would tell you that Deutschendorf, Jr. got involved in the folk music scene in Los Angeles in his early twenties. It was there in L.A. that he met and befriended Randy Sparks (born 1933), the founder of the New Christy Minstrels. Sparks told the young man that the name “Deutschendorf” would never fit on a marquee, and suggested a name change. According to Deutschendorf, “I chose Denver because my heart longed to live in the mountains”.)  John Denver (as we will now refer to him) was born in Roswell, New Mexico, of Area 51 fame. As an Air Force brat, he grew up a nomad, rarely living more than a few years in one place before moving on once again. He took up the guitar at the age of 11; studied architecture at Texas Tech in Lubbock,… 

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Music History Monday: Buried Treasure

On December 17, 1865 – 153 years ago today – the two complete movements that make up Franz Schubert’s so-called “Unfinished Symphony” received their premiere in Vienna, in a performance conducted by Johann von Herbeck (1831-1877). Schubert had completed those two movements in 1822, 43 years prior to that premiere performance. At the time of the premiere, Schubert had been dead for 37 years. Buried treasure. I don’t know about you, but when I hear the phrase “buried treasure” my mind – conditioned by having read Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island as a kid – immediately conjures images up a huge chest filled with gold and silver coins and jewels: specie and precious stones, hard stuff of value. But there are soft treasures – meaning stuff made out of paper – that are of equal or even greater value than the hard stuff. Should you find a complete copy of a Gutenberg Bible in your Aunt Edith’s library, you’re looking at a value of between 25-35 million USD; that complete Shakespeare First Folio you found at the bottom of a box at a garage sale is valued at between 8 and 12 million dollars; that 1909 Honus Wagner Sweet Caporal T206… 

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Music History Monday: The Best of Intentions or With Friends Like These…

On December 10, 1896 (or November 28 in the old-style Russian Julian calendar) – 122 years ago today – Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s rewritten and re-orchestrated version of Modest Mussorgsky’s greatest masterwork, the opera Boris Godunov, received its premiere in St. Petersburg Russia at the Great Hall of the St. Petersburg Conservatory. Rimsky-Korsakov’s version of Boris – which presumably corrected all sorts of technical errors and flaws real or imagined in Mussorgsky’s original – held the stage until the last decades of the twentieth century, at which point Mussorgsky’s original version was finally embraced for the masterwork that it always was.  Rimsky-Korsakov’s reworking of Boris Godunov was both an act of love made with the best of intentions and a terrific disservice to a masterwork. Let’s talk! Modest Petrovich Mussorgsky (1839-1881) Mussorgsky was born into a wealthy, land-owning family in the Russian district of Karevo, roughly 250 miles south of St. Petersburg. He began piano lessons at six, and his progress was such that at the age of 9 he performed a piano concerto by the then-fashionable composer John Field. When Modest was 10, his family relocated to St. Petersburg so that Modest and his brother Filaret could enter the military as… 

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Music History Monday: A Concerto, by George!

On December 3, 1925 – 93 years ago today – George Gershwin’s Concerto in F for piano and orchestra received its world premiere at Carnegie Hall, with Gershwin at the piano and the New York Symphony Society Orchestra under the baton of Walter Damrosch.  Statement: George Gershwin is among the handful of greatest composers the United States has ever produced, and his death at the age of 38 (of a brain tumor) should be considered an artistic tragedy equal to the premature deaths of Schubert (at 31), Mozart (at 35), and Chopin (at 39).  He was born Jacob Gershovitz (though his birth certificate reads “Jacob Gershwine”), the child of Russian Jewish immigrants, on September 26 1898 at 242 Snediker Avenue in the Brownsville neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York. (For our information: in 1963, a bronze plaque commemorating Gershwin’s birth was affixed to the building. By the 1970s, the neighborhood had fallen on very hard times: the plaque was stolen – it is still MIA – and the building vandalized. It burned down in 1987, and all that remains of the neighborhood today is a blighted area of warehouses and junkyards.) Rarely has a major composer begun his life in an… 

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