I think program notes should be smart, unpretentious, true to the music, and also good writing on their own terms. Depending on the piece, a note might lean more heavily toward history or toward musical description. When there’s a story to tell, I try to tell it. Occasionally I might draw an unexpected connection or argue a larger point.
My notes have appeared in the program books of the San Francisco Symphony (where I currently work), St. Louis Symphony, Philadelphia Orchestra, Boston Symphony, Melbourne Symphony, Carnegie Hall, and Tippet Rise Art Center.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Clarinet Quintet in A major, K. 581
1789 was an unusually fallow year for Mozart, who was dealing with the poor health of his wife, Constanze; the death of their infant child (the second in two years); and various financial problems. The Clarinet Quintet was one of few bright spots.
Samuel Coleridge-Taylor: Clarinet Quintet in F-sharp minor, Op. 10
The Clarinet Quintet, Op. 10, is one of Coleridge-Taylor’s first mature pieces, dating from 1895. He wrote it in response to a challenge from his teacher, who remarked that it would be impossible to write a clarinet quintet without being influenced by Johannes Brahms.
Frédéric Chopin: Piano Concerto No. 2 in F minor, Op. 21
In 1829 Frédéric Chopin was still Fryderyk—a 19-year-old Polish pianist of some acclaim. On November 1 of the following year, he would leave for a concert tour to Vienna and end up exiled after a rebellion against the Russian Empire failed, making a return home untenable. Both his piano concertos were written in his last years in Poland, and became passports to success in Western Europe.
Samuel Barber: Second Essay for Orchestra
Samuel Barber is perhaps our only orchestral essayist: he wrote three between 1937 and 1978. The Second Essay is his peak Jimmy Stewart-era entry, written in 1942. It develops personal convictions into a common-sense argument, and then an impassioned speech. It suggests a kind of civic-minded idealism without an ounce of jingoism.
The Kreutzer Sonata
The link between Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata for violin and Janáček’s Kreutzer Sonata for string quartet runs through Tolstoy, whose 1889 novella The Kreutzer Sonata took its title from Beethoven. So Beethoven inspired Tolstoy, who inspired Janáček.
Sergei Rachmaninoff: Symphonic Dances, Op. 45
Sergei Rachmaninoff was always a composer of the long 19th century, but he had become a man of the 20th, interested in cars, speedboats, and airplanes. In these dances, he allowed some of that streamlined luxury into his plush Romanticism.
Edvard Grieg: Piano Concerto in A minor, Op. 16
“Why not begin by remembering the strangely mystical satisfaction of stretching my arms over the piano keyboard and bringing forth—not a melody. Far from it! No, it had to be a chord…”
Bohuslav Martinů: Symphony No. 1
Bohuslav Martinů didn’t appear to have any particular interest in writing a symphony until the Second World War, when he was forced to move to the United States and restart his career in a country where he was hardly known. A large commission from the Boston Symphony Orchestra was a good beginning.
Leonard Bernstein: Serenade (after Plato’s Symposium)
Long before a symposium was a dry, academic conference, it was an after-dinner party with a lot of wine. Plato’s Symposium, written around 360 BCE, imagines such a party, and it became the framework for Bernstein’s multi-movement work for solo violin and an orchestra of strings and percussion.
Jean Sibelius: Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 43
Sibelius’s Second Symphony is tightly composed with a compelling yet abstract trajectory. The rippling opening bars propel everything that follows, unfurling into a first movement that is inevitably called brisk or bracing.
Johannes Brahms: Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor, Op. 15
If you think Beethoven looms large over classical music today, imagine being a young composer in 1853—just 26 years after his death—and being declared his second coming.
Gustav Holst: The Planets
It took Holst almost four years to complete The Planets and then it was another three years before a complete performance was staged. The piece quickly became extremely popular, and the shy and humble Holst achieved a level of celebrity he never really sought nor wanted.
Joseph Bologne: Violin Concerto in A major, Op. 5
This violin concerto was likely premiered by Bologne with the Concert des Amateurs, and was published around 1775 by Antoine Bailleux. Look out for the sudden entry of peasant pipes and fiddles, crashing the elegant ambiance—a musical anticipation of the French Revolution to come.
Kaija Saariaho: Ciel d’hiver (Winter Sky)
In this work, Saariaho captures the sweep and depth of the winter sky, its stinging cold and clarity, the slow drift and play of the constellations as they rise and set, and the immensity of it all.
Sheku Kanneh-Mason: Cello Sonatas by Bridge, Britten, Khachaturian, and Shostakovich
The four cello sonatas on today’s program are all interconnected. Frank Bridge was Benjamin Britten’s teacher, Britten and Dmitri Shostakovich were friends across the Iron Curtain, and Shostakovich taught Karen Khachaturian. They are also linked by the great cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, who recorded the Bridge and Shostakovich sonatas with Britten on piano, and to whom the Britten and Khachaturian sonatas are dedicated.
Across the Stars: The Music of John Williams
In the late 1970s, John Williams restored the preeminence of symphonic film music, which had declined with the growing popularity of rock and pop soundtracks in the 1960s. Working with directors Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, he played an essential role in the blending of New Hollywood auteurism with nostalgia for Golden Age cinema.
Igor Stravinsky: The Firebird
Just a few years before The Firebird premiered in Paris, Igor Stravinsky was an undistinguished law student in St. Petersburg wishing he was a composer instead. By chance he met the son of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, who was the reigning tsar of Russian composers, ingratiated himself with the family, and soon was taking lessons with the man himself.
Dmitri Shostakovich: Symphony No. 1 in F minor, Opus 10
In the mid-1920s, a decade before Dmitri Shostakovich was denounced by Stalin and made to fear for his life, his troubles were simply those of a student: not enough money, conflicts with teachers, and shaky confidence in his own work.
Lighting for the Ears
When Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street begins previews on Broadway in late February, it will be the first time since 1980 that the Stephen Sondheim musical will be revived there with its original orchestration by Jonathan Tunick.
Bard Music Festival—and Its World
The Bard Music Festival offers a point of entry to an entirely different time and place through the eyes of a composer from the past. This past August, the festival marked its 30th anniversary with Korngold and His World.
Now Playing: The Birth of Opera
Opera didn’t exist in 1567, the year of Claudio Monteverdi’s birth. Yet by 1643, the year Monteverdi died, Venetian opera houses were in full swing for paying audiences, representing a musical and cultural transformation in which the old master played no small part.