Baritone, pianist, and conductor Bradford Conner is on a mission. He sincerely hopes you’ll love great American music as much as he does. One conversation proves he has a devotion and an insight for it that few others possess.
Classically trained, Brad and partner Benjamin Sears have become the “go-to” guys in terms of impeccable musical research. Together they helped found the critically acclaimed American Classics, “devoted solely to the performance of American music, giving voice to forgotten gems and newly discovered musical treasures.”
In that vein, they’ve made history by diligently working to rediscover, reconstruct, preserve, and perform long-lost musical compositions by everyone from George Gershwin to Cole Porter. Having wowed audiences with their cabaret performances from New York to Paris, they’re currently completing scholarly writings on Irving Berlin in addition to working on a seven-volume set of Berlin recordings.
In March, American Classics will celebrate baseball as well as the 100th birthday of Boston’s own Fenway Park with “Fabulous Fenway,” a concert program saluting our national pastime. We spoke recently about that concert and more. Here’s an edited look at our conversation:
BIR: So what, exactly, is an American Classic?
BC: In the broadest sense of the term, an American Classic is that type of music which helps either shape or pervade American culture to such an extent it influences not only how we think we are as Americans but brings us together in a way that we realize we are all Americans. How’s that (laughing)?
BIR: So an American Classic is not only a great piece of music, but it can help explain a time and place.
BC: The spirit of American music embodies who we are as the melting pot of America. I find that incredibly interesting because one of my other huge interests is history, and you can actually define or be informed of the history of the world through the Great American Songbook. People like Irving Berlin and Ira Gershwin and Lorenz Hart and Oscar Hammerstein, when they wrote lyrics, they were lyrics of their time. And while for some that may be dating them, for me it means that it’s an exciting way to find out what was going on then and discover all the facets that make us American.
BIR: An example?
BC: The Gershwins wrote a show called “Of Thee I Sing.” One of the opening numbers is (called) “Wintergreen for President.” And the reason Wintergreen should be president (in the lyric) is: “I love the Irish and the Jews.” And I said, wow, this is so much fun because it’s telling you, not only is the show written for New York, because that’s where the greatest population of Irish and Jews were congregated at the time, but they were the ones going to the show. Everyone got the joke and they loved (having it) pointed out that they were part of that melting pot that (at the time) was New York.
BIR: Music connects both intellectually and emotionally.
BC: Music opens doors that nothing else does. Last night I was listening to something in the car. I’m driving down the road and I’m in a perfectly great mood, but I realized I’m choking up over hearing something. Music has the power to do that instantaneously in a way that almost nothing else does. Certainly great words and poetry (can). But music goes a little deeper. For people who get Alzheimer’s, it’s the last part that goes. It sticks in there the longest. There’s a reason for that.
BIR: Whether you’re on the research trail or standing center stage, you’re known for being very passionate about your work.
BC: One of my greatest gratifications, whether being a music director at a place like First Parish (Congregation in Bedford), or in the type of concerts that Ben and I do, is helping people discover. The way I look at it, when I’m up on stage, I’m not performing, I’m sharing my passion. That is how I work. And if I’m successful, I share my passion, and those around me catch the bug. That’s my goal – to continue to do that and to do it better.
BIR: Tell me a little about the “Fabulous Fenway” concerts.
BC: This goes back a couple of years ago. A retirement community decided that they were going to throw a big party on Opening Day. They had rented Wally, The Green Monster. They called us and said we need someone who can put together a short program of songs that have to do with baseball. And that was the genesis of the show. What’s happened now is that it has expanded into a full two-part show . . . it includes three other performers (Cynthia Mork, Caroline Musica, Eric Bronner) besides us, plus (Broadcast Hall of Famer) Dick Flavin, (who’ll do “Teddy At The Bat”). As someone in the Red Sox organization said, (Dick’s) the poet laureate of the Red Sox.
BIR: Is there a sweet spot in the Fenway concert for you?
BC: The encore, (“Take Me Out To The Ballgame”). Ben sings the verse, then you gesture to the audience and everyone breaks into song . . . As much as I love performing, I love the moment where everybody lets down their barriers and they just sing out. They do it at the ballpark and they do it at our concerts . . . Everyone is going at the top of their lungs and it’s really exciting.
BIR: As for your personal heritage, I hear your Irish ancestors actually founded your hometown in West Virginia.
BC: We’re talking about the 18th century . . . Essentially, my namesake, Conner – they came from Connaught on the boat like everybody else -- they came down through Virginia . . . and they came to an area which is now Putnam Country, West Virginia. The name of the town is Hurricane, which they pronounced “hurri-ken” . . . There (had been) a huge wind storm that had swept threw the area. There were trees down. And James Conner said, ‘It looks like a hurricane has come through this area.’ So guess what? The name of my hometown [became] Hurricane. (Laughing) This is how great history is made I suppose.
R. J. Donovan is publisher of OnStageBoston.com.
American Classics presents “Fabulous Fenway.” March 2, Follen Community Church, Lexington; March 4, Longy School of Music, Cambridge. Tickets: 617-254-1125 or see amclass.org.