Classical Music

ROCO's Age of Aquarius Dawns With Professor Robert Greenberg

The Age of Aquarius lives when ROCO makes musical stops in the 1770s, 1870s, and 1970s.
The Age of Aquarius lives when ROCO makes musical stops in the 1770s, 1870s, and 1970s. Photo by Joel Luks
Before you dig out the bell bottoms and platforms, you should know that in their upcoming program, Age of Aquarius, ROCO will actually be making three stops – only one of which will be in the 1970s.

For the program, ROCO violinist Min-Jeong Koh, cellist Shino Hayashi and pianist Mei Rui will journey through history, making stops in the 1770s, 1870s and yes, 1970s, with Professor Robert Greenberg serving as their guide.

Greenberg will bring his ample musical knowledge, the breadth of which can be measured across media platforms like NPR and the hundreds of lectures he’s recorded for the teaching company The Great Courses, to Houston for the first of hopefully many visits.

“I don’t do one night stands,” says Greenberg. “I’m at a point in my life where if I’m going to get involved with an organization, I want to get involved with the organization.”

For Age of Aquarius, Greenberg will introduce the “three slices of time” through five works from five different composers, all trios for piano, violin and cello.

The two pieces on the program from the 1770s, Haydn’s Piano Trio No. 10 in A Major, Hob. XV: 35 (1771), and Mozart’s Piano Trio No. 1, K. 254 (1776), were created at a time when Greenberg says “a composer was nothing more than an artisan,” someone who shared a table with the valets and whose responsibility was to entertain clients. In the case of chamber works such as these, Greenberg adds, they were also crafted for amateur performance. This resulted in the piano parts being more challenging because they were being played at home by the more accomplished musicians – upper middle class or aristocratic women, who trained from an early age in piano or harpsicord.

“These are the amazing limitations put on the genre in the 1770s, so you would expect the music to be attractive, upbeat, clear in its expressive message and highly melodic in the sense that the tunes are hummable,” says Greenberg. “But that all changes by the late 19th century.”

In a hundred years’ time, the piano trio had become “a fully professional grouping,” says Greenberg, the music more demanding on a player’s abilities, the pieces longer and “much more inclusive of more expressive information.”

“By the time we get to the 1870s, composers are including lots of their national music and their national identity in their music, and it just so happens we’re doing two Czech composers from the 1870s – Antonín Dvorák and a guy named [Zdenek] Fibich that no one knows and should know because he’s a wonderful composer,” says Greenberg.

The program concludes with Iván Eröd’s Piano Trio No. 1 (1976), which Greenberg says “swings like nobody’s business.”

“I won’t say it’s rock ‘n’ roll-ish,” adds Greenberg, “but it certainly was affected, as anyone was in the 1970s, by the energy of the post-war era.”

Not only do the three different eras represented on the program allow for some pretty good music to be played, they give Greenberg room to talk about the stylistic trends of the times, important because, Greenberg stresses, it’s “the times that create the sound of a music, not a composer’s imagination.”

It’s an argument he backs up with an aptly ‘70s-themed example – Jimi Hendrix.

“Imagine for a second if Jimi Hendrix had been born 20 years before he was and he was growing up listening to the Chordettes,” says Greenberg. “How could he even imagine pieces like “Purple Haze” or “Foxy Lady” in an environment 20 years earlier?”

To bring it back to the classical world, Greenberg considers a little composer by the name of Ludwig van Beethoven who, living in a world “torn apart by Napoleon” and slowly but surely going deaf, wrote some wild, violent compositions between 1803 and 1815.

“It’s music that reflects an environment, and it’s music that was embraced. It would never have been embraced ten years before, but it was embraced when it was because audiences heard the truth of their times in it,” says Greenberg. “We can never separate out the environment and the politics and the finances and the religious and philosophical aspects of a time from the art being created. The art is absolutely a mirror of its time.”

In his work, Greenberg is accustomed to framing pieces such as those on the program, using this information to teach people how to listen and understand the language of music.

“The beauty of knowing about the times and the places and the composers – it allows you to hear what the composer is saying. The composer is talking to you,” says Greenberg. “They’re not dead. The moment that music is played that person and that person’s time and place are alive.”

If you’re worried the information might be over your head or even worse, boring, think again. Greenberg says he loves teaching adults because they “intrinsically understand much more than they realize they do” and, more than that, “what they lack in musical knowledge they make up a hundred-fold in life experience.”

“A 19-year-old might understand the themes and might be able to understand the harmonies but can never uncover the spirit of the music and what the composer is trying to say to her because she hasn’t lived long enough yet,” says Greenberg. “But a grown-up who can’t read music – if the piece is taught in a way that he or she can perceive the large scale structure of the piece and therefore understand its parts and how they relate to each other – that adult gets it right away because sadly, the older we get the more loss we’ve sustained and hopefully the wiser we’ve become.”

Greenberg attributes the success of The Great Courses – whose founder, Tom Rollins, was told no one would buy educational cassettes and VHS tapes back in 1990 – to our continued search for meaning, noting that “the older we get, the more we want to understand things.”

“If money is wasted on the rich then education is wasted on the youth, because the older we get the more we understand what an education means and the more we can connect the dots,” says Greenberg.

Greenberg adds that he’s lucky to have such amazingly talented composers at his elbow, because it allows him to facilitate conversations with masters like the aforementioned Beethoven.

“He might have been a jerk as a person, but he was a hell of a musical conversationalist, and you want to hear what he has to say because what he has to say is going to inform your life and make it better.”

ROCO Connections: Age of Aquarius is scheduled for January 30 at Rienzi – Museum of Fine Arts, 1406 Kirby. Reception at 6 p.m. followed by the concert at 7 p.m. For more information, call 713-665-2700 or visit $15 to $45.
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Natalie de la Garza is a contributing writer who adores all things pop culture and longs to know everything there is to know about the Houston arts and culture scene.