Interview with Stephen Hartke

After receiving almost 1800 scores from over 50 countries in Kaleidoscope’s annual “Call for Scores”, eighteen works have been selected for premieres, two of which make their Kaleidoscope debut on October 28th and October 29th. A Brandenburg Autumn, composed by Grammy-Award winner Stephen Hartke, draws on an instrumental inspiration from J.S. Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 1. Generously donating his time, I was able to sit down with Professor Hartke to learn more about him and his compositional process for A Brandenburg Autumn. As he is recognized as one of the leading voices in his generation for his “...singularity of voice and and the inclusive breadth of its inspiration”, I am confident that Hartke’s music, paired with a refined performance of Bach, will leave us all with renewed inspiration.

Carrie Rexroat: How did you get started in music?

Stephen Hartke: I grew up in Manhattan and joined a professional boys choir when I was 9 years old. I had started piano lessons around the same time and began composing pretty much as soon as I learned to read music. My aha! moment came when I was given a recording of Samuel Barber’s First Symphony, discovering that Americans, too, were allowed to write symphonies and such – until then, I had this idea that we were expected to confine ourselves to rock’n’roll and musical comedy, neither of which did much for me.

CR: Was discovering Barber’s First Symphony what led you to pursue music as a career?

SH: Well, I can’t say I ever decided, music being one of those vocations that chooses you. I have done other things in my life to support myself – typesetting, graphic design, advertising – but all of this was in hopes of supporting the musical side of things.

CR: I see. In your biography it states that your compositional works are “...hailed for the singularity of voice and inclusive breadth of inspiration.” In relation to  A Brandenburg Autumn, what was the inspiration for writing this piece?

SH: A Brandenburg Autumn, was commissioned by the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra in 2005. When first approached, they had wanted a piano concerto but the soloist they had hoped to invite proved not to be available. As an alternative they asked if I might consider writing a companion piece to Mozart’s Haffner Serenade. I wasn’t particularly interested in that instrumentation, so I countered with a suggestion to do something I had long wanted to: write a piece with the same instrumentation as Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 1. As it turned out, Orpheus had been wanting to develop a bigger project along those lines, the upshot being that after I wrote my piece, they commissioned five other composers to write companion pieces to the other Brandenburgs?

CR: That’s incredible! Why had you long wanted to write a piece with the same instrumentation as Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 1?

SH: One of the glories of Bach’s Brandenburgs is the variety of instrumentation between the six pieces – it is, in fact, the first collection of concerti grossi scored for differing ensembles. I especially love the first of the set, with its three oboes, two horns, bassoon, harpsichord, and strings. This ensemble, with its prominent role for three oboes and two horns, is what would have been considered in the Baroque as suggestive of “outdoor music.” Indeed, the first movement of Bach’s Brandenburg No. 1 was most likely the original overture to his Hunting Cantata. So, while I do not reference Bach in any specific way, I did enjoy reveling in the sound world of that ensemble, especially with the double role of the harpsichord both padding along in the background and as occasional soloist.

CR: Very interesting! Can you talk about the circumstances surrounding the composition of A Brandenburg Autumn?

SH: In 2006, I was awarded the Deutsche-Bank Berlin Prize from the American Academy in Berlin, which gave me a four-month residency at the Academy’s splendid villa on the shores of the Wannsee, the large lake that forms the western edge of the city. The commission for the piece itself came from the Koussevitzky Music Foundation on behalf of the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. The bulk of the work on the piece was done while my family and I were living at the American Academy in Berlin, just fifteen minutes by train from Potsdam, the capital of Brandenburg. Visiting the Baroque palaces there, strolling in the lake-side parks on beautifully gloomy Autumn days – it’s always been my favorite time of year – certainly had an influence on aspects of the work.

CR: Wow! That sounds like an incredible experience! More specifically, what can our audience members expect to hear in your piece?

SH: There are some small onomatopoeic music details in the first movement suggesting sounds I heard at the lakeside in Berlin, and there is also a touch of Germanic austerity in a dialogue between the violins in the third. There is even a quote in the third movement from the theme that Frederick the Great gave to Bach for elaboration in his Musical Offering. Additionally, during the course of the four movements, the oboes, one by one, switch to English Horn, so that the last movement, Rejouissance: Hornpipe, starts with three fortissimo English Horns in unison.

CR: Beautiful! What compelled you to submit your piece to Kaleidoscope’s Call for Scores?

SH: Because A Brandenburg Autumn was originally conceived for a conductorless group it therefore seemed like a good piece to submit to the Kaleidoscope Call for Scores. Kaleidoscope was started during my last years in LA, and I was equally intrigued by the group’s mission as a conductorless orchestra, and as a group committed to programming new music alongside standard repertoire. Additionally, there is a strong connection with the Thornton School at USC where I had been teaching since 1987.

CR: Fight on! Speaking to Kaleidoscope’s mission, Kaleidoscope is invested in the Los Angeles community, putting on performances in different kinds of venues, eliminating tickets, and giving donation based concerts. This is because a core value of the ensemble is that music can and should be provided to all people regardless of social and economic status. If any, what are some of your own personal goals to try and connect to the community through your music?

SH: A Brandenburg Autumn, while a place-specific piece given its having been composed in Brandenburg, does not pretend to social or communitarian significance – it’s just a piece of music with themes, moods, colors, and a rhetorical unfolding that I hope listeners will feel transports them through a landscape of a sort. I can’t really control what they make of it. I do have some pieces, usually text-based, that may be construed as having political intent either as allegory or commentary.

CR: Are these works with political intent current, or works that are in the process of writing?

SH: Right now I am writing one that is emotionally a reflection on our current national political nightmare. After many decades on this planet, while I may have my serious doubts about the efficacy of politically-engaged music to initiate or assist in social change, I do believe in the absolute necessity of writing it anyway when moved to do so.

CR: I see. Are you politically active in other areas of your life? Is that something you’re passionate about?

SH: I’ve been contributing to UNICEF since 1959 and, as an alumnus of the United National International School, I still am a strong believer in the work of the UN, which I feel is greatly underestimated and undervalued by most people (especially our fellow-countrymen).

CR: Absolutely. Well, we can’t wait to hear A Brandenburg Autumn and look forward to your other piece you mentioned. Speaking more to you as a person, is there a quote you enjoy or a mantra that you follow?

SH: I don’t have the actual wording here to refer to, but in his later years when someone asked Stravinsky about his attitude about the audience, he replied that he was only concerned about the souls of the individuals who make up the audience not the audience as a whole. I tend to think of concert music as a private communication between the composer and the listener through the beautiful intermediary of the players on the stage. Most pop music forms, on the other hand, are very much about the group dynamic of the musicians and the audience and the excitement that interaction can generate.

CR: Well, at Kaleidoscope we also like to try and be exciting as well! We’ll be having an after-party with food, wine, and much more. Will we see you there?

SH: Unfortunately because of my teaching obligations at Oberlin, I will not be able to attend the rehearsals and performance. I wish I could be there.

CR: Some other time then! Professor, thank you so much for sitting and discussing your piece with me! It’s greatly appreciated!

SH: Thank you! Enjoy the concert!

Carrie Rexroat is a freelance writer for Kaleidoscope Chamber Orchestra’s blog, but is also the founder of the storytelling blog and podcast, A’tudes & Brews. To read other artist stories, go to


Kaleidoscope will give the west coast premiere of  A Brandenburg Autumn on:

October 28th, 2017 @ 10pm
Zipper Hall, Colburn School
200 S. Grand Ave
Los Angeles, CA 90012

October 29th, 2017 @ 2pm
First Presbyterian Church of Santa Monica
1220 2nd St
Santa Monica, CA 90401






Carrie Rexroat