Robert Greenberg, Alexander String Quartet cleverly bring classics to the 21st century

Things have changed since the last time Oakland musicologist-composer Robert Greenberg presented his Saturday morning San Francisco Performances concert-lecture series on Dmitri Shostakovich in 2006.

“In 2006, we still believed that Russia was going to become a market economy and a Western style democracy. We were so stupid,” says Greenberg, who has since rethought his talks, taking into account today’s world politics and new information from formerly classified documents.

A captivating public speaker who has led the programs with the Alexander String Quartet for nearly three decades, Greenberg in his Dec. 8 lecture said Shostakovich came down with a “case of creative diarrhea” after his 1962 marriage to a woman 28 years his junior. His “powerful, tightly unified” 1964 String Quartet No. 9 in E-flat Major, Opus 117, dedicated to his wife Irina, he said, was written during a positive period late in the composer’s life, when he was largely left alone by Leonid Brezhnev’s regime.

It was a dramatic contrast to Shostakovich’s 1945 Symphony No. 9, an ironic, anything but celebratory work that got him into trouble with Joseph Stalin, who was incensed by its playful, blustery lack of fanfare in the wake of Russia’s defeat of the Nazis.

“Shostakovich went off the deep end. He should have kept this symphony in his sock drawer,” proclaimed Greenberg, who received a doctorate in music composition from the University of California, Berkeley in 1984.

Years ago, Greenberg’s wit and intellect caught the attention of San Francisco Performances’ founder Ruth Felt, who came up with the idea for the musical lecture series (and also sponsored the 38-year-old Alexander String Quartet’s move from New York to the West Coast in 1989).

“She said, ‘Why don’t we do something on a Saturday morning when people are rested, and they don’t have to get into clothes? We can do a combination of information and music.’ And we thought it was a darned fine idea,” says Greenberg.

The first casual presentation in 1992 covering Beethoven quartets, with Greenberg’s self-described “rudimentary material,” was held in a conference room at Fort Mason Center in The City. Later the series moved to Cowell Theater, and finally, to Herbst Theatre in the Civic Center’s Veterans Building, where it remains today, alternating with the Berkeley programs in St. John’s Presbyterian Church, where coffee is served pre-show.

In 2020, Greenberg and the quartet — violinists Zakarias Grafilo and Frederick Lifsitz, violist Paul Yarbrough and cellist Sandy Wilson — will tackle Beethoven again, on the 250th anniversary of the composer’s birth. Although the music will be the same, Greenberg, 64, promises his commentary will be richer.

“Accumulated wisdom, accumulated knowledge and a deeper sensitivity to things you thought you knew about… that’s what I have now that I didn’t have when I first did this, another 26 or 27 years of hard life experience,” he says, adding that the most difficult part in writing his remarks is knowing what to leave out of his 4,000- to 5,000-word scripts.

In developing the programs, he starts by consulting with the musicians, who tell him what they want to play. An upcoming San Francisco series on the relationship between both Schumanns and Brahms came about because the quartet hasn’t yet performed Robert Schumann’s quartets “and always loves Brahms,” says Greenberg, adding, “It turns out that Clara wrote a very wonderful trio for piano and violin and cello, which will be part of the series.”

Yarbrough, the violist, thought of the juicy subtitle “A Love Triangle for the Ages,” a theme to which Greenberg says many people will relate. He described the Schumanns as a couple as “two professional people in a very competitive environment where the woman is more famous than the man, and the guy already has bipolar and is having some problems with alcohol and tobacco.”

For Greenberg, who loves contemporary music, using metaphor to connect the past and present is everything. In a favorite 2008 series “Inspirations,” he and the quartet revealed how Elliott Carter’s modernist String Quartet No. 2 from 1959 grew out of the tradition of Haydn’s 1798 String Quartet in G major, Opus 76.

“People left hearing the Carter in a completely different way,” says Greenberg, whose own String Quartet No. 3 also was in the series, paired with Bartók’s String Quartet No. 1, which had a huge influence on him.

“That was a really fun project, to start with a familiar repertoire piece and then use it as an example of something that a 20th century composer was inspired by,” says Greenberg.

Yet Greenberg, who has written dozens of college-level Great Courses and lectured to business leaders across the world, is clear that the Saturday series works only because the quartet’s world-class musicians are willing to play straight man to him.

More importantly, he says, is the trust he’s built with them since 1986, when he first heard them and “begged” them to let him write his second string quartet, which they premiered in 1988, as well as more pieces through the years. While the initial relationship was strictly musical, today they’re all very good friends.

“If I was just being paraded in out in front of a bunch of musicians who didn’t know me, there’s no reason why they would want to share the stage with me,” says Greenberg, or “tolerate sitting there twisting their thumbs for 15 to 20 minutes at a stretch” while he talks before they play.

Now working with Melanie Smith, who has headed up San Francisco Performances since Felt retired in 2016, Greenberg doesn’t exactly know what the future holds. But he’s personally interested in the atonal music of Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg and Anton Webern — “three names that scare the crap of out people,” says the fast-talking Greenberg, who honed his humor as a survival mechanism growing up in South New Jersey suburbs and inherited artistic genes from his grandmothers, Nancy R. Pollock, a Broadway actress, and Bessie Hurwitz Greenberg, a classical pianist.

Although he’s not a fan of the term “music appreciation” — “it smacks of spinsters trying to teach us why we should learn Mozart in the third grade, and we’re just shooting spitballs at their hair, which we did” — Greenberg has a primary goal in today’s increasingly quantitative world where technology offers infinite variety.

“My job is simply to remind everybody that this art is timeless and not dated, and that we can use it to help improve our lives,” says Greenberg, who laments the loss of band programs in schools and the fact that youngsters today download music but don’t participate in making it.

“If it were up to me, there’d be a chicken in every pot and a piano in every parlor,” he says.

As he’ll continue enlightening patrons of San Francisco Performances, calling his association with it the most respectful and loyal of his career, he does remain perplexed that the series, which generates its own revenue with little to no marketing, hasn’t been picked up by others and presented around the world.

Greenberg says, “We are the tree that falls in the forest, and there’s no one there to hear us. We thought we’d be emulated. It just hasn’t happened for reasons I find inexplicable, because certainly the success we’ve had here can be copied somewhere else.”

IF YOU GO
San Francisco Performances Saturday Morning Series
with the Alexander String Quartet and Robert Greenberg
Tickets: $40-$60 single; $140-$220 for series
Contact: (415) 392-4400, cityboxoffice.com, sfperformances.org

Shostakovich String Quartets: Part Two
Where: St. John’s Presbyterian Church, 2727 College Ave., Berkeley
When: 10 a.m. Jan. 12, Jan. 26

Brahms and the Schumanns: A Love Triangle for the Ages
Where: Herbst Theatre, 401 Van Ness Ave., S.F.
When: 10 a.m. Feb. 2, Feb. 9, March 23 and May 18

Leslie Katz

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