Program Note Podcasts

Get Concert Insights On the Go

The Symphony’s free Program Note Podcast Series highlights a great work being performed each week by the orchestra. Hosted by KDFC’s Rik Malone, the podcasts feature music from Symphony concerts and recordings, and commentary based on our award-winning program notes by James Keller and Michael Steinberg. You can hear them on the way to the concert, on your smart phone or computer. Listen here, and subscribe to get future episodes automatically.

Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition

Modest Mussorgsky
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Originally composed for solo piano (and later orchestrated by Ravel), Pictures at an Exhibition was written by Modest Mussorgsky after he visited a retrospective exhibit of the works of his friend Victor Hartmann. The collection of pieces represents a promenade from painting to painting, pausing in front of works called The Gnome, Ancient Castle, and Great Gate of Kiev. Mussorgsky was a member of a nationalistic, anti-conservatory group of young musicians, and he had an unusual ability to interpret visual art in musical expression.

Berlioz's Romeo and Juliet

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Inspired by a stage performance of Romeo and Juliet starring the same Harriet Smithson who inspired his epic romantic tale Symphonie fantastique, Hector Berlioz set out to compose a totally new kind of orchestra and chorus work: his Romeo et Juliette. In the forward to what he was careful not to call an opera but a “symphonie dramatique,” Berlioz tells of his decision to voice to the characters’ most intimate and sublime emotions not through words but “instrumental language, which is richer, more varied, less fixed, and by its very flow incomparably more powerful.” From the starting Allegro, depicting the warring houses of Montague and Capulet, to the Finale’s oratory oath of reconciliation, this work uses the (then new) language of programmatic orchestral writing to tell the oldest love story in the world. 

Ives' The Unanswered Question

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In The Unanswered Question, Charles Ives tries to find the meaning of life, in a work that was decades ahead of its time.

Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 1

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Beethoven's first piano concerto took Vienna by storm, and set the stage for even more musical revolutions to come.

Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring

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Listen to a podcast of audio program notes about the The Rite of Spring, specially prepared for the San Francisco Symphony’s Stravinsky Festival in June 2013.

Mendelssohn's Symphony No. 3

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Scotland—the country that gave us haggis, bagpipes, golf and Sean Connery among other world treasures—was also the inspiration for two of Mendelssohn's best-known works: his Hebrides Overture and Scottish Symphony. There are no actual Scottish tunes in the Symphony; in fact, Mendelssohn professed to dislike all Scottish music, especially the bagpipes. But it's hard to imagine the source of this tuneful work being anything other than the windswept heather of the Highlands.

Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 5

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Perpetually self-conscious, Tchaikovsky worried in spring 1888 that his imagination had dried up, and that he had nothing left to express through music. Vacationing at his home in Frolovskoe provided all the inspiration he needed, and by August, his Symphony No. 5 was complete.

Vivaldi's Four Seasons

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Barking dogs, wind and rain, buzzing bees and slippery ice; they're all part of Vivaldi's Four Seasons, a work that—believe it or not—was almost unknown for 200 years.

Debussy's La Mer

Claude Debussy
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During childhood summers spent at the beaches at Cannes, Debussy learned to love the unpredictable and ever-changing sea. The most traditionally ‘symphonic’ of Debussy’s orchestral works, La mer is comprised of three sketches:  From Dawn to Noon on the Sea, Play of the Waves, and Dialogue of the Wind and the Sea. 

Berlioz's Requiem

Hector Berlioz
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The power of Hector Berlioz's Requiem comes not from his faith, but from his loss of it. His understanding of the human desire to believe brings the drama of the Mass for the Dead to life.

Strauss' Aus Italien

Richard Strauss
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Richard Strauss was just 22 when he wrote his musical travelogue Aus Italien, and—as he put it—"This is the first work of mine to have met with opposition from the mob, so it must be of some importance . . . The first step towards independence."

Rachmaninoff's Symphony No 2

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Sergei Rachmaninoff wrote his Symphony No. 2 while living in Dresden.  At age 33, he was a sought-after conductor and pianist, and had relocated to escape the clamor for his talents.  After completing the work, he declared he would never write another symphony, and waited almost thirty years to do so.

Mahler's Symphony No. 1

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Audiences were outraged at Mahler's Symphony No. 1 when it premiered in 1889; they had never heard anything like it. But he himself said "My time will come." And it certainly has.

John Cage's The Seasons

John Cage
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John Cage's ballet music The Seasons gurgles, twitters and shimmers with the sounds of nature, and—just like the first day of Spring—it was the first sign of a new type of artistic collaboration.

Bartók's Concerto for Orchestra

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After fleeing Hungary during World War II for the United States, Béla Bartók was commissioned by Serge Koussevitzky, conductor of the Boston Symphony, to write a piece for orchestra. This resulted in one of Bartók’s best-known works, the Concerto for Orchestra, which contains a parody of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 7.

Brahms' Symphony No. 4

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Ever the brutal self-critic, Brahms did not write his first symphony until the age of 42.  By the time he wrote his Symphony No. 4 in 1885, he had reached the pinnacle of his orchestral composition—the music he had always wanted to write.

Beethoven’s Coriolan Overture

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Beethoven was, at heart, a man of the theater, and his overture to the play "Coriolan" is one of the most vivid, concise and dramatic character studies ever composed.

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