Program Notes

My program notes have appeared in the books of the San Francisco Symphony, St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, Philadelphia Orchestra, Boston Symphony Orchestra, Houston Symphony, Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, Carnegie Hall, and Tippet Rise Art Center.

For more information or reprint permissions, please contact me.

All Program Notes

Thomas Adès

  • Thomas Adès: Suites from Powder Her Face

    Powder Her Face is a 1995 chamber opera by Thomas Adès based on Margaret Campbell, duchess of Argyll, whose real-life 1963 divorce created a sensational scandal in England.

Franghiz Ali-Zadeh

Grażyna Bacewicz

  • Grażyna Bacewicz: Overture (Uwertura)

    Bacewicz wrote her Overture (Uwertura in Polish) in Warsaw in 1943 under German occupation. It was not premiered until September 1945, in a very different world.

Johann Sebastian Bach

Samuel Barber

  • 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.

Ludwig van Beethoven

Leonard Bernstein

  • Leonard Bernstein: Symphonic Dances from West Side Story

    At the 1961 New York Philharmonic gala, probably the entire Carnegie Hall audience had seen West Side Story, owned the LP, and could hum its tunes. But Bernstein wanted to do more than a medley of hits for this special concert.

  • 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.

Joseph Bologne

  • 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.

Johannes Brahms

Benjamin Britten

Frédéric Chopin

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor

  • 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.

Claude Debussy

  • Claude Debussy: Images, Book 2

    Debussy was not so interested in making musical versions of paintings as he was in getting at the same kinds of ideas that art did, but by other means.

  • Claude Debussy: String Quartet in G minor

    Claude Debussy released his String Quartet in 1894 with the designation Op. 10 and the words “1er Quatuor” (first quartet) on the cover. Both labels are misleading, since he hadn’t actually published nine previous compositions and never wrote a second quartet.

  • Claude Debussy: Syrinx for Solo Flute

    Debussy’s Syrinx is the piece that launched a thousand solo flute pieces. Its two-and-a-half minutes are evocative and filled with color.

Antonín Dvořák

Edward Elgar

  • Edward Elgar: Enigma Variations, Op. 36

    It’s not the Enigma that has made Edward Elgar’s Variations endure for more than a century. It’s the warmth and sincerity with which he portrays real people who were important to him.

Gabriel Fauré

Stephen Foster

  • Stephen Foster: Selected Songs

    Stephen Foster was born near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on the Fourth of July, 1826, and by most accounts became the first American to make a living solely by writing music. His songs are part of the foundation of both American classical and popular music, and have influenced musicians ranging from Antonín Dvořák to Bob Dylan.

Jean Françaix

  • Jean Françaix: Quintet for Flute, Harp, and String Trio

    Jean Françaix, still composing into the mid-1990s, was one of the last living people with a direct connection to the great French tradition of the early 20th century. He was mentored by Maurice Ravel who observed that “among the child’s gifts I observe above all the most fruitful an artist can possess, that of curiosity.”

  • 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, Jean Françaix arranged it as a Nonet for Winds and Strings. So this is a piece by Mozart, but certainly one filled with qualities Françaix favored in his own works too.

Alberto Ginastera

  • Alberto Ginastera: Harp Concerto

    Ginastera’s Harp Concerto was commissioned in 1956 by Edna Phillips, the principal harpist of the Philadelphia Orchestra, and the first woman to be a member of that orchestra.

Edvard Grieg

  • 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…”

Pavel Haas

  • 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. Haas was a Czech Jew interned at Theresienstadt where he composed and premiered it.

Joseph Haydn

Paul Hindemith

Gustav Holst

  • 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.

Charles Ives

Erich Wolfgang Korngold

  • Erich Wolfgang Korngold: Tänzchen im alten Stil

    Tänzchen im alten Stil (Little Dance in the Old Style) is a relatively early work from 1918, a transitional point for Korngold between prodigy and maturity. The first section harkens back to classic Viennese waltzes, but with a winsome twist.

György Ligeti

  • György Ligeti: Musica ricercata

    Musica ricercata was written for the “bottom drawer”— Ligeti knew it could not be performed in Hungary behind the Iron Curtain. But for him alone, it was a new beginning, built from the most basic musical elements.

Bohuslav Martinů

  • Bohuslav Martinů: Les rondes

    Martinů’s Les rondes glides between second-hand bits of Harlem, memories of Moravia, and interwar Paris.

  • 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.

Pietro Mascagni

  • Pietro Mascagni: Cavalleria rusticana

    The opera Cavalleria rusticana is musically gorgeous, dramatically gripping, slyly inventive, and historically significant. “It was like a door that suddenly blew open onto a sealed room. A fresh, cool wind from the country blew away the faint smell of mildew,” remembered one Italian critic.

Felix Mendelssohn

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Modest Mussorgsky

Sergei Prokofiev

Sergei Rachmaninoff

Jean-Philippe Rameau

Maurice Ravel

  • Maurice Ravel: Introduction et allegro

    Maurice Ravel’s Introduction et allegro is really a little harp concerto commissioned by the Érard instrument company in response to a competitor, Pleyel, commissioning Claude Debussy’s similar Danse sacrée et danse profane. The two companies were engaged in harp war, each championing a different technology.

  • Maurice Ravel: Piano Concerto in G major

    The outer movements are quick, zany, jazz-inspired. But they frame a slow movement of profound lyricism and simplicity. The startling contrast is part of what gives this concerto its brilliance and wonder.

  • Maurice Ravel: Sonata for Violin and Cello

    Ravel’s Sonata for Violin and Cello is a tour-de-force, its thin instrumentation jacked up with blazing string crossings, piercing harmonics, and snapping pizzicatos.

  • Maurice Ravel: Violin Sonata No. 1

    This is the first and less famous of Ravel’s two violin sonatas, published long after his death, in 1975.

  • Maurice Ravel: Violin Sonata No. 2 in G major

    Ravel’s Violin Sonata No. 2 was a long time in the making, with the first ideas put down as early as 1922 and the premiere in 1927—all for about 17 minutes of music. He struggled with depression as his musical output slowed to a trickle.

  • Modest Mussorgsky (orch. Maurice Ravel): Pictures at an Exhibition

    To Mussorgsky, Russianness meant gritty realism and embracing his musical intuition—or “utter technical incompetence,” as Rimsky-Korsakov called it.

Kaija Saariaho

  • 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.

Domenico Scarlatti

  • Domenico Scarlatti: Keyboard Sonatas

    The keyboard music of Domenico Scarlatti comes down to us in hand-copied volumes made for his patron and student, Princess Maria Bárbara of Portugal, who later became queen of Spain.

Erwin Schulhoff

  • Erwin Schulhoff: Five Pieces for String Quartet

    Erwin Schulhoff’s relatively brief life spanned a period of incredible change in music and world affairs, beginning under the tutelage of Antonín Dvořák in the late Romantic tradition, and ending in 1942 as a victim of the Holocaust.

Robert Schumann

  • Robert Schumann: Dichterliebe, Op. 48

    1840 was Schumann’s year of song. Working from May 24 to June 1, he wrote 20 songs, setting poems from Heinrich Heine’s book of Lyrisches Intermezzo.

Dmitri Shostakovich

  • Dmitri Shostakovich: Symphony No. 1 in F minor, Op. 10

    In the 1920s, Dmitri Shostakovich’s troubles were simply those of a student: not enough money, conflicts with teachers, and shaky confidence in his work.

  • Dmitri Shostakovich: Symphony No. 10 in E minor, Op. 93

    The longest gap in Dmitri Shostakovich’s symphonic output was the eight years between his Symphony No. 9, in 1945, and No. 10, in 1953. In between, he was denounced by Soviet authorities for a second time, accused of “formalism”—writing music without a proper social purpose.

Jean Sibelius

  • 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.

Bedřich Smetana

Igor Stravinsky

  • 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.

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

Georg Philipp Telemann

Antonio Vivaldi

  • Baroque Festival: Bach and Vivaldi Concertos

    The style of the early 18th century would soon seem antiquated, and nearly irrelevant to the modern orchestra of the mid-19th century and beyond. But none of it would have been possible without the innovations of the Baroque era.

  • Baroque Festival: Handel and Vivaldi Arias

    Before the symphony gained prestige in the second half of the 18th century, concertos and arias were the star genres of the Baroque era.

  • Antonio Vivaldi: Winter from The Four Seasons

    You can hear the icy snow and the “harsh breath of a horrid wind.” Rarely if ever before had instrumental music so vividly depicted real-life scenes.

George Walker

  • George Walker: Lyric for Strings

    George Walker’s Lyric for Strings elegizes his grandmother, who was born into slavery but lived long enough to see her grandson solo with the Philadelphia Orchestra.

Mieczysław Weinberg

John Williams

  • 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.