The New York Times Features The Great Courses

by Robert Greenberg on July 9, 2014

Making of a Great CourseA most interesting article on The Great Courses (TGC) appeared in the New York Times on Saturday. TGC has been featured in newspaper articles before: scads of articles, in fact, over the last 20-plus years. But those articles (at least the ones I’m aware of and I am aware of most of them) have always focused on the content of TGC offerings: that they are academic courses offered up on audio/video media. This article, written by the Times’ TV critic Neil Genzlinger, is different. It focuses on TGC as a video production company and on TGC courses as slick, professional, high-end television programs.

My goodness, how times have changed.

Long-time readers of this blog will recall my descriptions of TGC in its early days. I would rehash a bit of that if only to highlight the incredible evolution of the company from a startup to the polished gem it is today.

I made my first course back in May of 1993: the first edition of “How to Listen to and Understand Great Music”. We had no “set”; I worked in front of a blue screen (or a “traveling matte”). The halogen lighting created an unbelievable amount of heat and glare. The stage was only about 6 feet deep but about 20 feet wide. With my sheaf of yellow note paper clutched in my left hand, I roamed back-and-forth, in constant motion, teaching exactly the way I did in the classroom. I made no concessions to the medium; to tell the truth, it never occurred to me or my director at the time that we should do anything but reproduce what I did in the classroom. (My constant lateral movement did, however, cause great consternation among the camera people, who were accustomed to filming stationary pundits at CNN and gasbags at C-span. One of our camera-dudes, a bearded stoner who will remain nameless kept telling me “Man . . . I cannot follow you, man. Please, man, please!” He was a good guy though, and offered to “take my edge off” by lighting me up during our breaks. I wisely declined.)

We worked with a studio audience in those days: mostly retirees who were free to attend such recording sessions, many of whom fell asleep in their chairs after lunch or jingled change in their pockets or whose hearing aids started screaming sounds that they could not hear but I most certainly did. Most distracting were the white Styrofoam coffee cups; in the darkened studio their constant (if irregular) up-and-down motion reminded me of the “bouncing ball” from the musical cartoons of the 1930s, ‘40s, and ‘50s.
I could go on (and I will, at some other time), though the point is made: in its earliest days TGC was simply recording more-or-less what you would hear in a classroom or lecture hall. I am reminded of the early days of TV, during which pre-existing modes of entertainment – the variety show, theatrical productions, puppet shows – were simply filmed and broadcast. In its earliest permutation, the video medium did not create a new paradigm so much as record old ones. But this changed soon enough, and the same is true for TGC. Within a few years TGC became a genuine production company, in which style, look, and mode of delivery became as important as the content being delivered. And this is exactly as it should be. Audio and video media demand clarity and precision; the “ahs” and “ums” and garbled pronunciations and mismatched tenses that we tolerate in a live lecture are intolerable in media, because we are aware of the fact that in making media they can (and should) be corrected.

Enough. Read the article. Then buy another TGC course; preferably one of mine. And while watching and/or listening, let us be aware, as best as we can, of the tens-of-thousands of hours that go into making these courses – these productions – the little masterworks that they indeed are.


“The 23 Greatest Solo Piano Works” Wins a TELLY Award

by Robert Greenberg on July 2, 2014

. . . and finally [small tear running down cheek] . . . I’d like to thank the Academy [*choke*] . . . I’d like to thank the Academy . . . for . . . for . . .FOR ABSOLUTELY NOTHING! WHAT A BUNCH OF LOSERS! YOU’RE NOTHING BUT A PACK OF GROVELING, PEA-BRAINED WEASELS: BLOOD-SUCKING PARASITES ON THE BODY OF ART; OPEN, OOZING CARBUNCLES ON THE ASS OF PROGRESS! Yes, YES: PUT THAT ON YOUR PIZZA AND EAT IT!

One day, before we all pass on to the great unknown, one day – perhaps – we’ll be lucky enough to hear an award acceptance speech end just that way. It would become an instant classic, among the most quoted, listened to and viewed bits of spontaneous media since Sally Field’s “You like me!” speech at the Academy Awards and Ed Ames’ tomahawk-to-the groin on the Johnny Carson show.

Given my own occasional proclivity towards ingratitude, it is just as well that when I received a “Telly Award” back in May, I was standing in a nearly empty corner of an office building in Chantilly, Virginia, accompanied only by my great pal Ed Leon of The Great Courses (with whom I am pictured below) and a photographer. The award was received for my most recent Great Courses survey, “The 23 Greatest Solo Piano Works”, the recording of which was documented on this Facebook page in January and May of 2013.

According to its website:

“The Telly Awards was founded in 1979 and is the premier award honoring outstanding local, regional, and cable TV commercials and programs, the finest video and film productions, and online commercials, video and films. Winners represent the best work of the most respected advertising agencies, production companies, television stations, cable operators, and corporate video departments in the world. A prestigious judging panel of over 500 accomplished industry professionals, each a past winner of a Telly, judged the competition, upholding the historical standard of excellence that Telly represents.”

A bit self-congratulatory that, but since I have been allowed to join the party and since I have as yet no reason to distrust or dislike the fine, discerning folks who award these Tellys, well, I’m going to enjoy this without being ungrateful. I intend to put my statuette on my desk, and while I will not suffer it the indignity of becoming a resting place for Post-its® and such, I do believe I will dress it up with some Mardi gras beads. Frankly, a naked statue should be allowed to accessorize.

So to the moment at hand, from the heart, sans irony. “Finally . . . [small tear running down cheek; okay, that was not meant to be ironic] . . . I’d like to thank the people whose hard work makes me look good: to my producer, Jaime Aigret; my editor, Catherine Lyon; my director, Jonathan Leven; to Ed Leon and Marcy McDonald and Sal Rodriguez and everyone else, from bottom-to-top at The Great Courses, thank you for making great courses.”

Let’s make some more.


OraTV Jon Housman Interview on Huffington Post

June 17, 2014

A most interesting interview with Jon Housman, the CEO of OraTV who brought me into the Ora family after reading a blog about Mozart on this very Facebook page. Check it out below:

Read the full article →

One more from OraTV

June 5, 2014

I swear, I promise, I guarantee (as best as I can guarantee anything): after today, there will be no more gratuitous references to my trip to SoCal yesterday, where I appeared on talk shows already named. Having said all of that, I would offer up one more photo that my wife found on her iPhone […]

Read the full article →

A Day with OraTV

June 4, 2014

Monday was a fantastic day. I would beg your indulgence as I describe it. I will be forgiven upfront for namedropping as yesterday was about meeting some very special people. First things first. My wife Nanci was my boon companion from moment one. Nanci’s presence was a wise choice for any number of reasons, aside […]

Read the full article →

Recording for OraTV — Just a few weeks away!

June 2, 2014

I spent the better part of last week working on background materials for my OraTV show “Conspiracies, Peccadilloes, and Dirty Little Secrets: Fun and Games With the Great Composers.” A chunk of time was spent finding and scanning visual images appropriate for the shows, images that will be projected behind me. The bulk of the […]

Read the full article →

Reporting from Home — Vienna Wrap Up

May 19, 2014

It’s hard to believe that it’s almost two weeks since we returned from our trip to Vienna, but there you go, time flies when you’re putting things away, doing laundry, and paying bills. I have always advocated – vainly – that we should all have the opportunity to “take a vacation from a vacation” by […]

Read the full article →

Reporting from Vienna — The Haydn House

May 5, 2014

For my two Euros, the best monument to a composer in Vienna is – by far – the house in which Joseph Haydn lived during the last twelve years of his life, from 1797 to 1809. Here’s the story: Between 1791 and 1795, Joseph Haydn twice visited England. The first of Haydn’s most excellent English […]

Read the full article →

Reporting from Vienna — Mozart Madness!

April 28, 2014

The extraordinary Joseph Haydn was born in the Austrian town of Rohrau on March 31, 1732. At the age of eight he moved to Vienna, where he became a chorister at St. Stephens Cathedral. He remained in Vienna, on and off, for the remainder of his long life, dying here on May 31, 1809. The […]

Read the full article →

Reporting from Vienna — Beethoven Sightings

April 28, 2014

Proud as I am to be a 36-year resident of Northern California, and proud as I am that all four of my children were born there, I myself grew in the ironically named “Garden State” of New Jersey. This bears mentioning (for the second time in two posts, no less) because one cannot urinate in […]

Read the full article →