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Articles & Interviews

These Symphony-commissioned feature articles offer insights into the music you'll hear in the concert hall. We hope you'll find them provocative and entertaining.

Apr 20, 2011

James Keller Guides Listeners into Chamber Music

Meet the San Francisco Symphony’s Program Annotator, author of Chamber Music: A Listener’s Guide, forthcoming from Oxford University Press

James Keller, San Francisco Symphony Program Annotator since 2000, was a New Yorker staff member for ten years, has been annotator for the Brooklyn Philharmonic and the Orchestra of Saint Luke’s, and continues to serve the New York Philharmonic in that capacity. He has contributed to such publications as Travel and Leisure, the Sunday New York Times, Opera News, and Chamber Music. A wine and food aficionado, he also writes forBon Appetit. In 1999, he captured the Deems Taylor Award for music journalism, one of this country’s top prizes for writing about music.

Now James Keller is represented by a new book from Oxford University Press. Chamber Music: A Listener’s Guide continues in the tradition of the Oxford “Listener’s Guides” authored by Keller’s predecessor, former SFS Program Annotator Michael Steinberg, who wrote three such volumes, one each devoted to The Symphony, The Concerto, and Choral Masterworks.When Oxford sought an expert to cover chamber music classics, Keller was the obvious choice. He has a deep love of the chamber genres—a well-known fact to those who have enjoyed his commentaries on the Symphony’s chamber music programs.

He was nine when he heard his first concert, but even though he was listening to a great ensemble under the direction of a great conductor—the Cleveland Orchestra, with George Szell on the podium—his musical hormones remained dormant. Musical awakening comes as an epiphany, and when the moment is right the discovery is as startling as a sudden revelation of love. For James, it came when he was 12, on a summer day in a library in Reading, Pennsylvania, where he had moved from Cleveland with his decidedly un-musical family. As he was exchanging one week’s supply of books for another, his eye was caught by a display of LPs. 

“The library had a large collection of classical recordings and set them out for show. I remember seeing what I thought was a terribly attractive cover. But what struck me most was not the image, but rather a wonderful word: Brandenburg. I had no idea what it meant, but I thought it was beautiful. I checked out the record. I’d never heard anything like it. So began the love affair. I worked my way through all the library’s recordings. There’s no accounting for what happened to me that summer, except that there was something inherently wonderful in what I was hearing, and it appealed to me.”

Brandenburg. A word led him to music. That was as it should have been. He had loved words for years. He cannot remember a time when he didn’t read, and he published his first literary effort at six, a poem about stamps in Highlights for Children, that staple of pediatric dentists’ waiting rooms. His verses brought him pen pals from around the country, and a Franciscan priest in the southern Indian state of Kerala translated them into Malayalam. (The word Malayalam, Keller points out, is the longest palindrome in English.)

Brandenburg. Music and words began sharing equal space in his heart. He took up the oboe in high school. For a performance of Messiah by the school chorus, he wrote his first program note—300 words that filled him with youthful pride and that years later caused consternation when a school friend-turned-church music director found a copy and asked to reprint it for a performance. He laughs. “I said yes. But I hope it doesn’t get much circulation.”

By the time he entered college at Oberlin, it occurred to him that he could parlay his dual love of music and writing into a single career. Drawn to the stories behind his favorite symphonies and concertos, he embraced musicology. “I was always more attracted to historical than to analytical discussion. I was a literature major in college”—he holds degrees in music history and Romance languages from Oberlin and a graduate degree in music history from Yale—“and that left a mark on my writing. The telling of the story and the style of the telling have always been important to me. One of the principles of my writing is not just tosay something, but to say something about something. Don’t just recite a fact. Present the fact enveloped in a sentence that will show how the fact has meaning in the narrative. Simply to say that a composer was born in Berlin in 1870 and went to the Leipzig Conservatory gives the reader no reason to keep those facts in mind. But if you can say that he was born in Berlin at the time of the Franco-Prussian War, or if he was born there because his parents had moved there for some interesting reason, or if he was born there, the ninth of 25 children—suddenly there might be some reason for that fact to be interesting. You give facts a context and try to develop them into a narrative.”

His goal was an academic career. He spent five years at Yale pursuing a doctorate in musicology and, like many others, completed every requirement for the degree except the dissertation. “It’s a nagging regret, though it does not nag intensely. You know what they say about graduate school: You learn more and more about less and less. I was studying an improvised genre called the prelude, from 17th- and 18th-century France. Preludes were between eight and 16 measures long, usually for single melody instruments. You can’t get too much ‘less’ than that.” Yale awarded him a master of philosophy degree. Armed with that and his credentials as director of the Yale Collegium Musicum, whose performances of early music were broadcast on Connecticut Public Radio, he began to receive overtures from academic employers. “But I wanted to live only in New York or Paris”—he had spent a year studying French and musicology at the Sorbonne. “What did I know? I was young.” 

This was in the early 80s. The bottom was dropping out of the academic job market, and enterprising young scholars were trying to reinvent themselves. Keller’s intellectual makeover came in the business program that New York University designed for humanities graduates. He studied accounting, financial analysis, management, statistics. Then he established himself on Wall Street as a consultant in investor relations, “an area of public relations that communicates the stories of corporations to the investing public.” By the summer of 1987 he had decided to set up shop for himself. That October, the stock market crashed. “I knew I could sit tight and wait for the next cycle to come around, or I could acknowledge what I already felt was true: That, interesting as the work was, my heart wasn’t in it.” 

He assessed the options: performer, musicologist, business consultant. “I was good at those things, but many others were just as good. As a writer about music, however, I really felt confident. And I loved it. So I started writing, just for myself at first. Then a few publications asked if I would write for them.” He began writing for the New York City Opera andMusical America, then for The New Yorker. He also began contributing program notes to the Brooklyn Philharmonic.

The program note as genre: Writers make of it what they will. Some respect neither the form nor its audience. A few approach it almost as an art. “I want my program notes to be a parallel experience to the concert,” James Keller says. “I would prefer that my notes not be read while the music is being performed. Why would people want to miss the excitement on stage? Besides, it’s not usually my style to point out when the second bassoon will take such-and-such a little turn. I think it’s good to provide a parallel experience that can be taken in at another time. Historical narrative can still elucidate the music after the fact. This parallel experience offers background and enrichment. I want listeners to know the story about these pieces: why they exist, who wrote them, why the music is important today, why it continues to have resonance. And why we love it.”


Oxford University Press describes Chamber Music like this: “Keller here serves as the often opinionated, always genial guide to 192 essential works by 56 composers, providing illuminating essays on what makes each piece distinctive and admirable. Keller spans the history of this intimate genre of music, from key works of the Baroque through the emotionally stirring ‘golden age’ of the Classical and Romantic composers, to modern masterpieces rich in political, psychological, and sometimes comical overtones. For each piece, from Bach through to contemporary figures like George Crumb and Steve Reich, the author includes an astute musical analysis that casual music lovers can easily appreciate yet that more experienced listeners will find enriching. Keller shares the colorful, often surprising stories behind the compositions while revealing the delights of an art form once described by Goethe as the musical equivalent of ‘thoughtful people conversing.’”


James Keller’s Chamber Music: A Listener’s Guide, published by Oxford University Press, is available at the Symphony Store in Davies Symphony Hall and online at