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Classical Notes

The Kennedy legacy, set to music

“The Dream Lives On: A Portrait of the Kennedy Brothers’’ by Peter Boyer features the words of John, Robert, and Edward Kennedy. “The Dream Lives On: A Portrait of the Kennedy Brothers’’ by Peter Boyer features the words of John, Robert, and Edward Kennedy. (Associated Press/File 1960)
By David Weininger
Globe Correspondent / May 14, 2010

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It was, Peter Boyer says, “one of those phone calls composers dream about getting.’’ In October 2009, Boston Pops music director Keith Lockhart called Boyer at the composer’s California home to discuss a piece the Pops wanted to commission: a tribute to John, Robert, and Edward Kennedy, incorporating the words of all three members of one of America’s foremost political dynasties.

Boyer, a native of Rhode Island and self-professed admirer of the Kennedys, needed little prompting. In fact, he told Lockhart, he’d been contemplating a piece about JFK for years and had already begun researching the former president’s speeches and writings. When he heard that Lockhart had been friends with Ted Kennedy and worked with him on Pops projects, the pull became even stronger.

“So I thought, in my semi-bewildered state, that he was going to ask me to throw my hat in the ring with three or four other, more established composers,’’ Boyer recalls. “And [Lockhart] said ‘No, I think you’re the right voice for the project. And if you can do it, we’d like you to do it.’ So I thought about it for one nanosecond and said yes.’’

The resulting piece, “The Dream Lives On: A Portrait of the Kennedy Brothers,’’ will have its premiere on Tuesday with the Pops and Tanglewood Festival Chorus under Lockhart. Reading the Kennedys’ words will be a dream team of narrators: Robert De Niro (JFK), Ed Harris (RFK), and Morgan Freeman (Ted Kennedy).

One of the first things Boyer did when the commission was finalized was to visit the Kennedy graves at Arlington National Cemetery, standing for a long time before the Eternal Flame at President Kennedy’s grave and the granite wall inscribed with quotations from his inaugural address.

“And I was struck by the enormity of this task that I was being asked to do,’’ he says. “What an incredible honor — not really about personal expression, per se, but here’s a chance to make a contribution to something that’s much larger than oneself.’’

Boyer eventually settled on 12 different quotations, and playwright Lynn Ahrens added a short prologue and a brief passage near the end, to be spoken by a female narrator — actress Cherry Jones, for the premiere. Many familiar phrases are included, some famous enough to have become part of the discourse of American history: “Let the word go forth’’; “Only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly’’; “Ask not what your country can do for you’’; “The work begins anew’’; “We all breathe the same air.’’

Beyond the responsibility he felt in setting words of historic dimension, Boyer says the chief task he faced was to fashion a small number of musical themes that could convey words of quite different character. “What I found was really a challenge was to unify so that the piece doesn’t feel like 12 30-second episodes, but actually feels like a piece.’’

As an example he points to the work’s main theme, introduced by the trumpet. When the first narrator begins a famous passage from JFK’s inaugural — “Let the word go forth’’ — the theme is taken up by the strings. When the music reaches Robert F. Kennedy’s speech on the death of Martin Luther King Jr. — grief-stricken, almost private words delivered extemporaneously the day King was murdered — Boyer gives the same theme to the French horn, playing high in its register, with quiet accompaniment from the harp and strings.

The musical style of “The Dream Lives On’’ is bright, open, and easily digested, a style that Boyer has used before, in film scores and concert works. Its accessibility is something of which he’s unashamed.

“For what it’s worth, I have embraced the fact that this is a language in which I’m comfortable writing as a composer and for which I seem to be regularly asked to create pieces,’’ he says. “There are those for whom that what makes you kind of anachronistic or irrelevant. But I have to say that for the concert-going public and certainly for the Boston Pops, there is a language that is understood by audience members that I think can be tapped upon in a piece such as this.’’

Besides, he adds, when Lockhart originally described the project to him, he used two words that stuck with the composer: cinematic and uplifting. “And that’s something that hopefully, with a great deal of effort, I’d be capable of doing — to give them an uplifting experience.’’

May 18, 19, at Symphony Hall; 617-266-1200, www.boston pops.org

Music and diplomacy
Politics and music will mix in a slightly different way tonight at a joint conference hosted by New England Conservatory and Northeastern University. “Musical Diplomacy: A Concert and Discussion on Race and Culture in the Age of Obama’’ offers a roundtable discussion as well as a concert including a new work by genre-crossing composer Daniel Bernard Roumain (who has a new CD out on the Thirsty Ear label). The organizers — Brian Kaufman and Michael Reichman — are graduate students at NEC and hosted a similar conference last year on the theme of privacy during wartime. All activities will take place at Northeastern’s Fenway Center.

Send comments to gsection@ globe.com.