program notes for Phillips Collection recital April 15

Hello, everyone. Happy Spring.

I am performing a recital with Aaron Wunsch at the Phillips Collection in Washington, DC on April 15 at 3pm. Here are program notes I wrote for it. Hope you enjoy! Come and hear if you are in the area!

Phillips Collection link



This recital program, consisting of the Violin Sonatas of Leos Janácek and Richard Strauss and a suite of transcriptions by Ross Lee Finney, presents two streams of commonalities among the works to be performed. One is the composers’ nationalistic use of folkloric material, and the other is the flowering of an ornate, stylistically individual Romanticism in the late 19th-early 20th centuries.

The Czech composer Janácek (1854-1928) developed a highly personalized manner of writing that incorporated piquant inflections and gestures from Moravian folksong, remarkably vivid atmospheres, and a beguiling mixture of fantastical and earthy qualities. Deeply involved in the collection and study of his country’s folk music, Janácek was a forerunner to the ethnomusicological work of Hungarians Béla Bartók and Zoltán Kodály, and was contemporaneous with Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky, whose music also displayed a personal association with folksong. Janácek became known mainly for his vibrantly colorful and soulfully moving operas – Jenufa, Katya Kabanova, The Cunning Little Vixen, The Makropoulos Case, House of the Dead– and he put much of his own effort into seeing those works produced in opera halls. However, his small but tremendously distinctive output of chamber works garnered great fondness and admiration in later years. These works often had an autobiographical bent – relating to his youth, falling in love etc. They include some piano pieces (Into the Mists, the Sonata), two programmatic and fiercely Romantic string quartets, and the Sonata for Violin and Piano.

The Violin Sonata was written in 1914 amid the early rumbles of World War I. Janácek kept revising the piece until 1920, by which time he was at work on his opera Katya Kabanova. It is in four movements, with moods that shift suddenly from sweetly wistful and warmly relaxed to breathless and impassioned. Pizzicato gestures evoke sounds from nature, and melodies have a plainness and directness that contrasts with the flourishes that suddenly erupt throughout the piece.


German composer Richard Strauss (1864-1949) possessed a very identifiable compositional style that combined extravagantly swirling lines and intricately layered textures with advanced chromatic harmonies. Following on the innovations of Liszt and Wagner, Strauss and his contemporary Gustav Mahler took Romanticism to heady extremes of complexity, intensity and harmonic experimentation. Though florid and seemingly free-flowing, Strauss’ works form remarkably cohesive expressions of emotion, whether of heroic grandeur, poignant longing, tenderness or ardent romantic outpouring. Strauss did not profess particular interest in folk music, but certain elements, such as horn calls and snippets of melody, evoke the indigenous music of the Bavarian countryside.

Strauss was mainly renowned for his operas – Der Rosenkavalier, Elektra, Salome, Ariadne auf Naxos, Capriccio – his orchestral tone poems – Don Juan, Till Eulenspiegel, Ein Heldeleben – and his songs. However, he did produce a small number of chamber works, mostly earlier in his career. These include the Cello Sonata, the Piano Sonata, and the Violin Sonata in E-flat major. The Violin Sonata was written in 1887-8 and is considered the last of his works to adhere to classical forms (mainly the sonata allegro of the first movement, Allegro ma non troppo). At the time of writing the piece, he was in love with the soprano Pauline de Ahna, and the work exudes a youthful, optimistic exuberance and an undercurrent of sweetness that pervades even the bold virtuoso writing. The second movement, titled Improvisation, meanders gently; its wistfulness and hovering dreaminess are qualities that recur throughout much of his oeuvre. The closing Finale movement opens with a somber introduction in the piano, after which the instruments sally forth with almost orchestral grandeur and sweep.


Ross Lee Finney (1906-1997) belonged to the generation of American composers that included Aaron Copland, Roy Harris, Walter Piston and Virgil Thomson- artists who grappled with the conflicting European and homegrown influences on American classical music and sought to define it as a distinct national art form. Finney, who was born in Minnesota and grew up in North Dakota, sang folksongs with his family during his childhood, and he always retained a great love and affinity for the tunes of his native land. Following studies with Nadia Boulanger and Alban Berg, Finney sought to incorporate the twelve-tone method with material and melodic/harmonic qualities drawn from folksong, and the fluctuating balance of these elements formed the central dynamic of his compositions throughout his life. Though never a hugely well-known composer, he had some high-profile premieres and was a much-regarded teacher for decades at the University of Michigan, where his pupils included George Crumb and William Bolcom.

Fiddle-doodle-ad is a suite of transcriptions of American folktunes. Written in 1945, it comes from a time when Finney was making much direct usage of folk material in his compositions. The piece was a nationalistic response as World War II was reaching a close. The eight melodies are presented simply, with little embellishment or departure from their basic forms, and with subtly enriched harmonic support.  The suite is artfully organized in a satisfying sequence of moods, ranging from the rambunctiousness of Rye Whiskey and Rippytoe Ray to the sorrowful Wayfaring Stranger, and from the pure simplicity of The Nightingale to the intriguing asymmetries of Cotton Eye Joe and Oh, Lovely Appearance of Death.