A post over at the Huffington Post had a few things to say about the state of concert program notes. I think, generally speaking, they are spot on.
When I first started listening to classical music about ten years ago, I lacked any sort of musical vocabulary. I wasn't a performance major. I didn't know what a rondo was let alone what was meant by "Sonata Allegro."
The program notes didn't help at all. Here I was, just a curious, young listener, and I couldn't even decode basic information about the music I was about to hear.
Over time, and with the accumulation of a small library of music books and fairly regular study, I was able to pick up a thing here and there. Most nights I still go to bed thumbing through the All Music Guide, or the Oxford Companion to Music.
Even though I have acquired a musical vocabulary of some sort, there are still times when program notes, especially for pieces that are brand new to me, are like navigating a labyrinth. With all of the barriers built into classical performance today, do we really need incoherent program notes coming between the listener and the music?
On the other hand, I can't imagine a concert without something telling me what I'm hearing.
Not too long ago I found a book (A Guide to Orchestral Music, Mordden), essentially a compilation of abridged program notes, which might point to a way program notes can be written so as to appeal to the expert and the novice alike. The book is old, probably not even in print. The description of each work is lucid (surprising for its age) and short. Information is comprehensive too. Its amazing what one can convey with a few words.