When you attend a Minnesota Orchestra concert, you may start out by reading program notes. Learn more about who writes program notes and their unique backgrounds and perspectives in our new “Meet the Annotator” Q&A series. First up is Eric Bromberger, who most recently wrote program notes for our Tchaikovsky Marathon.
How long have you been writing program notes for the Minnesota Orchestra?
I’ve written for this Orchestra since 2000, when I was recommended by the renowned musicologist and writer Michael Steinberg, the late husband of former Minnesota Orchestra concertmaster Jorja Fleezanis. It’s been a good relationship ever since!
What was your initial background and training in music?
I started out as a performer. I grew up in Southern California, learned to play the violin as a boy and graduated from the University of Redlands. I was drafted in 1968 and spent a year in Vietnam with the First Cavalry Division. After I returned, I completed a Ph.D. in American literature at UCLA. For 10 years I taught literature and writing courses at Bates College in Maine and at San Diego State University. Then I left teaching to devote myself to writing about music.
Your performing experience must help in your writing.
Yes, being a musician has aided me immeasurably, since I’ve learned the classical repertory in the best possible way: by playing it. I’ve been lucky to play in some very good orchestras, and played through the symphonic literature, from the Saint Matthew Passion through Xenakis, Glass, and Adams. I’ve always played second violin, and I love playing second violin, in both orchestras and string quartets. That lets me learn the music from the inside out. I like being inside the music, hearing the harmonies shift, feeling the cross-rhythms, and having to master the challenges of music by quite different composers. That’s quite a different way of learning music from hearing it out in the hall.
What do you think makes a good program note?
As an annotator, I feel that I have one job: to give an audience the tools to listen for themselves. My job is not to tell an audience how to feel about a piece of music, but to help them listen. Every program note should give certain basic information—like where a work comes in a composer’s career, what he or she said about it, why it’s distinctive or important, any good stories associated with it—but a note should also pique listeners’ interest, make them want to hear the music, and give them some things to listen for or ways to approach a piece. And I like the challenge of having only about 90 seconds of the audiences’ time to do all those things. I know that not everyone is going to like every piece of music, and that's fine: I like audiences to listen well, and also to listen for themselves and be honest in their response to a particular piece, whether they like it or not.
Tell us a bit about your favorite composers to write about.
My own special interests are the great symphonic tradition of Haydn through Shostakovich, the music of Bartók, and American music in general. One thing I’ve enjoyed about writing for the Minnesota Orchestra is that it’s pushed me in directions I haven’t been before. This Orchestra has played some very unusual music, and I like learning music that's new to me.
What other ensembles and organizations do you write for?
I’m also the annotator for the San Diego Symphony, Washington Performing Arts at the Kennedy Center, San Francisco Performances, La Jolla Music Society, Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival and the Chicago Symphony’s chamber series, among others.
What do you do when you’re not writing?
Much of it involves family. My wife is a pediatrician who specializes in newborn intensive care. She’s done a number of medical projects overseas, and I’ve gone with her on extended projects in Ghana, Vietnam and Ethiopia. Our three children have careers in quite different places (London, New York City and San Francisco), so we travel a lot to see them. We live in Los Osos, on California’s central coast, and work as docents at Morro Bay and Montana de Oro State Parks. At the top of this interview is a photo taken on the edge of Morro Bay.
Stay tuned in coming months for profiles of the Orchestra’s other annotators.