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.
Witold Lutosławski was one of the great cultural figures of 20th century Poland, and his Concerto for Orchestra– based on a simple folk tune –was one of his first great successes; perhaps because his personal history mirrored that of his native land.
Dmitri Shostakovich wrote his first symphony while he was still a student, but it contains all of the elements of his mature work: the comedy and the tragedy.
Leonard Bernstein based his Symphony No. 2 on W.H. Auden's Pulitzer Prize-winning poem The Age of Anxiety. Auden didn't think much of the work, but for Bernstein, it was very personal.
Leos Janáček based his rhapsody Taras Bulba on one of the most brutal and unpleasant fictional characters ever created. But as a political symbol, it inspired him to write some of his most powerful music.
Shostakovich's 10th Symphony is a vivid depiction of a life of not-so-quiet desperation in the old Soviet Union. It is as powerful a portrait of terror as has ever been composed.
A man spots a woman across the room at a party and falls instantly in love with her. In a fit of despair over his unrequited love, he poisons himself and fantastic dreams and visions result. This is the story, inspired by his own love for the actress Harriet Smithson, that Hector Berlioz portrays in his Symphonie fantastique, premiered in 1830. Using recurring musical motifs to represent characters and brand new instrumental colors, Berlioz worked on foundations laid by Beethoven to bring music fully into the Romantic era.
Following the relative unpopularity of his Piano Concerto No. 1, Bela Bartók returned to his roots for the composition of his next piano concerto, which he called an “antithesis” to the first. This second concerto takes more of a classical form, with a sonata structure and a simpler treatment of the themes. Bartók was well-versed in this kind of writing, having himself made several student editions of music by Bach, Scarlatti, and Couperin. Despite the more traditional form, Bartók’s Concerto No. 2 for Piano and Orchestra still maintains the folk music-infused sonorities that have been a consistent hallmark of his music.
Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story received its first Broadway performances in 1957. The musical tells the story of an impossible romance between two star-crossed lovers, Tony and Maria, the Romeo and Juliet of 1950s New York City.
The premiere of Symphony No. 7 was perhaps Beethoven’s greatest rock-star moment. Buoyed by the excited troops in whose honor the concert was being performed, he "tore his arms with a great vehemence asunder . . . at the entrance of a forte he jumped in the air" (according to orchestra violinist and composer Louis Spohr).
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.
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.
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 first piano concerto took Vienna by storm, and set the stage for even more musical revolutions to come.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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201 Van Ness Ave
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