Program Notes

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.

Recent Notes

  • Ludwig van Beethoven: Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 26

    When Ludwig van Beethoven’s Second Symphony premiered, to the Viennese public it was simply the sequel to a First Symphony by an up-and-coming composer who had studied with Joseph Haydn. Like many early 19th-century premieres, it was a do-it-yourself production: Beethoven conducted, played piano, booked the theater, and sold the tickets.

  • Johannes Brahms: Variations on a Theme by Haydn, Op. 56a

    Brahms added the heft of a full orchestra to the variation form, and then had the nerve to make that the whole piece. What is remarkable is how the ebb and flow of each variation changes, creating different organic shapes within a strict outline.

  • Bedřich Smetana: Vltava (the Moldau), Šárka, and Blaník, from Má vlast

    From 1874–79, Bedřich Smetana worked on a series of orchestral tone poems on Czech themes, ultimately collected as a six-piece cycle called Má Vlast (My Fatherland). No longer was Czech music indistinguishable from that of its Austrian neighbors.

  • Felix Mendelssohn: Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Op. 11

    Felix Mendelssohn’s childhood contradicts the Romantic idea that great art must emerge from great struggle.

  • Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (arr. Jean Françaix): Nonet for Winds and Strings, K. 452

    A little more than 200 years after Mozart wrote his Quintet for Winds and Piano, K. 452, Jean Françaix arranged the piece as a Nonet for Winds and Strings. So really this is a piece by Mozart, but certainly one filled with qualities Françaix favored in his own works: prominent wind writing and a surface-level…

  • The Golden Age of Cinema

    The story of film music—at least orchestral soundtracks from the 1930s through the ’60s—is mostly the story of European immigrants and first-generation East-Coasters who wound their way to Hollywood. American cinema has always imported its materials as much as it has exported its products.

  • Pavel Haas: Study for Strings

    Pavel Haas’s Study for Strings is filled with lively textures with folksy overlays, all while carrying alternating airs of exuberance and introspection. It is hard to know what to expect music written directly in the midst of the Holocaust to sound like, but here it is—Haas was a Czech Jew interned at Theresienstadt where he…

  • 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…

  • 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.

Feature Articles

  • 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.