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Q&A: Kelley O'Connor

The mezzo-soprano on the works of Leonard Bernstein and performing in the Fort Worth Symphony's Lenny at 100 Festival.

published Friday, August 24, 2018

Photo: Dario Acosta
Kelly O\'Connor

Fort Worth — Leonard Bernstein would have been 100 years old on Aug. 25 of this year. Miguel Harth-Bedoya, the musical director of the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra, has pointed out that not only will there be just one year in which to celebrate the centennial. Also, there will be just the one day that is the actual anniversary and his orchestra has the pride of place. “It is not considered correct to sing Happy Birthday for a person who has passed on,” Harth-Bedoya quipped, “but in this amazing case, we might make an exception.”

The Symphony’s Lenny at 100: Bernstein Centennial Festival, which runs over the next three days, will attempt to represent the remarkable career and influence of Bernstein in three discrete concerts. The first night, Aug. 24, the program entitled Bernstein’s Symphony No. 1, “Jeremiah,” will show the early and introspective, spiritual side of the composer. On Saturday night, Aug. 25, the composer’s actual natal day, the orchestra touches on his jazzy, modern compositions for Broadway and Hollywood in Bernstein On the Town. Finally, on Sunday afternoon the Festival culminates with a full program called Voices of Bernstein, featuring a wide swath of his vocal and choral music.

The concerts feature solo work by baritone Michael Adams (on Sunday), and clarinetist David Shifrin (on Saturday). But the spotlighted voice in both the “Jeremiah” Symphony on Friday and the Voices program on Sunday is that of Grammy Award winning mezzo-soprano Kelley O’Connor. She is considered one of the most compelling vocalists of her generation. In addition to a far-flung and widely acclaimed international career, including a wide range of premieres and an opera role (The Gospel According to the Other Mary by John Adams) composed expressly for her, O’Connor has staked her claim as an authoritative performer of Bernstein’s vocal works. She has sung multiple concerts of his “Jeremiah” Symphony and other pieces, including her Boston Symphony Orchestra debut in Bernstein’s Songfest at Tanglewood earlier this summer.

O’Connor was spent some time talking about Leonard Bernstein’s influence on American music, the FWSO’s Festival programs and her own excitement at participating in the Centennial:


TheaterJones: Are you scheduled to do a lot of Bernstein pieces this year?

Kelley O’Connor:  A whole lot! I have done “Jeremiah” many times even before this, but this year I have already had the opportunity to do that and many other of Bernstein’s works, some of which I didn’t even know. The program [with the FWSO] will take us from some of his earliest pieces like the “Jeremiah” up to his latest pieces, like the Arias and Barcarolles composed just two years before he died. This and other concerts this year really cover the whole scope of his genius as a composer.


Miguel Harth-Bedoya said that the hardest part of programming these concerts was not finding things to put in but deciding what should be left out. Are there favorite works of yours that you wish you were doing?

Everything by Bernstein is so good and Miguel has done a fantastic job putting the whole program together. I do love Songfest which is set for six voices and is simply glorious. It features settings of American poets and was composed late in his career, so it shows all his power as a composer. And I love “Simple Song” from Mass which is another beautiful setting. But it is amazing to be doing pieces that I didn’t even know existed. That balances the experience out for me.


What do you think is Bernstein’s overall influence on American music. He seemed to be involved in so many aspects.

I know. I was reading an article about his roles in music and there were all these different people talking about his roles as educator and composer and conductor and activist. He was always involved in so many things.

I think that Bernstein is really ingrained in American music and in creating the American sound. He made his music, such as West Side Story which everybody knows, so accessible. Sometimes modern composers have a problem with using a beautiful melody or English language, but Bernstein really worked to create a vernacular that people could relate to. His notes and his words were so very intentional. There was a meaning and purpose to every aspect of his music. And Bernstein felt that we were all storytellers, even in his role as the conductor. The idea was to make the audience feel they were part of the music instead of being something separated.

He took his role as an educator so seriously. In things like the Young People’s Concerts he wanted to show people how the music worked. He didn’t want it to be some sort of elitist thing.


What will surprise audiences about Bernstein over the course of the Festival?

How very entertaining and accessible all the music is, even the pieces that we don’t know at all. For me it’s so much fun to set a scene and sing pure fulfilling entertainment. I don’t get to do that all the time.

Even a piece like the “Jeremiah,” which is very heavy, is very uplifting. His music is full of crises of faith with redemption at the end. Even that is entertainment. I think people will be amazed by how human every piece that we perform is.


As a singer myself, I am very excited by the emphasis on vocal music in the entire Festival. Is Bernstein one of the great American vocal composers or just a composer that was very good at everything?

It is true, as they say, that in just three notes you will know that any piece is Bernstein. But some of his vocal work is really masterpiece. Chichester Psalms, for instance, pulls people in from the moment you hear the boy soprano. It is so vulnerable in its human aspect in a way that only a vocal piece could be. Bernstein loved voices because of the pure showing of emotion and feeling. And he loved the setting of text and using the text to move the music and the music to highlight the text.

Bernstein was not a singer, but he loved the voice so much that his vocal music is great. Some of the music is very difficult to sing, but that is what Bernstein wanted. He wanted to push everyone involved to a new place—singers, musicians, conductor, even the audience. He makes the performers understand that it is their role to inform the audience and invite them to participate. And his music makes it easy to embrace everybody in the room.

The amazing part of his music is how relevant it stays. I was in New York City performing the “Jeremiah,” at the time the car ran onto the sidewalk killing a number of people [in May of 2017]. The power of the text and the music in that setting was so compelling. Even though his pieces were written in a different time, they still address the very human problems, so they are always going to mean something.


What is it like to be involved in a once in history celebration such as this Centenary Festival?

I am so excited to work with Miguel again, who I worked with in 2005 in Santa Fe. And I am so honored that he asked me to be a part of something unique. But I’m mostly honored that I am in a position to still learn things and to see songs and pieces that I didn’t even know about from one of my favorite composers.



» Read our appreciation of Bernstein and a look at some of the DFW concerts planned in the centenary celebration. In the coming weeks and months, look for interviews with artists participating in the various local celebrations. Thanks For Reading

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Q&A: Kelley O'Connor
The mezzo-soprano on the works of Leonard Bernstein and performing in the Fort Worth Symphony's Lenny at 100 Festival.
by Keith Mankin

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