Family Concert Conductor Kalena Bovell: “Come Have Fun & Leave Excited”

June 14, 2023

Talented conductor Kalena Bovell will lead our 2023 Family Concert, which includes Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf, Eric Whitacre’s Goodnight Moon, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s “Danse Nègre,” and a suite from Bizet’s Carmen. Learn more about this concert and Kalena’s approach to conducting.


Colorado Music Festival: Good morning! My name is Erica Reid, I’m with the Colorado Music Festival, and today I am talking with poet and speaker and conductor Kalena Bovell. Kalena, I know you are hard at work with a number of projects. Can you tell us where you are right now, what you’re working on at the moment?

Kalena Bovell: Well, firstly, hi, nice to meet you!

Festival: Hello!

Kalena: Hello. So I’m actually in Toronto right now, or Toronto, still have no idea how you say it. And I have been here since May 15, conducting the production of Scott Joplin’s Treemonisha. And what’s really cool is that this Canadian production is the 10th performance in the history of the work.

Festival: Oh, wow.

Kalena: So it’s a really special moment. And then something that was kind of unbeknownst to me is that I randomly made history, in that I’m the first Black woman to conduct opera in Canada. I was kind of like, “Oh!” I mean, I said yes because I thought it was a really cool project and it was one that I believed in, but then to also have that attributed to it, I was like, “Oh, okay. Well, that’s pretty awesome.” So yes, I’m in Toronto right now.

Festival: Kind of a bummer to have to set that record, but congratulations! [laughs] I can see how it’s both celebratory and not.

Kalena: [laughs] Yeah, right? Because I mean one, you’re like, “That’s such a tremendous honor.” And then you also ask yourself, “But we’re still having firsts in 2023,” right? Yeah.

Festival: You’re also in our Music Director Peter Oundjian’s stomping ground. So, that’s kind of fun.

Kalena: Yes, exactly. Yeah, that’s right because he had Toronto Symphony.

Festival: Yes. For 14 years I think, yeah. So anyway, you are conducting for us in early July, on July 2nd, you’re conducting our Family Concert, which includes music such as Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf. How will you approach that concert, which is for families and young children? Will you approach it differently as with the operas and things that you’re dealing with, or how will you come at the family concert?

Kalena: I mean, honestly, I approach concerts the same in that you’re trying to establish connection with an audience. And my approach to conducting and my approach to anyone that I work with is just empowerment and uplifting. And so I would hope that any audience that comes to this concert just wants to have a good time because also, if you’re not having fun with what you’re doing, then why are you doing what you’re doing?

Festival: Yeah. That is a great answer. I love that. We spoke to your narrator, Janae Burris. I don’t know if you’ve had a chance to meet her or not. She’s wonderful.

Kalena: Not yet.

Festival: We talked a little bit about her approach to Peter and the Wolf, which she has wanted to narrate since she was a young girl and first heard it in school.

Kalena: Oh, how cool.

Festival: Do you look forward to conducting Peter and the Wolf? Do you have an attachment to that, or any comment on that piece?

Kalena: Well, it’s actually funny. This is my first time conducting Peter and the Wolf. And I’ll be honest, before this opportunity, I had never heard the piece in its entirety.

Festival: All right.

Kalena: So for me and who I am and my learning style, I just listened to a bunch of different recordings. One, to see what narrators do, and also just to get a feel for the piece. So I’m definitely excited because Peter and the Wolf is, I guess, I don’t want to say—the OG kind of family story, right? When you think about it. I mean, whenever you think family concerts, people immediately gravitate towards Peter and the Wolf because it’s still relatively accessible. It’s still such a fun piece. 

And then just the overarching story of it. I mean, it’s a young boy who goes out into the meadow and has these adventures. And I think the beauty of that, especially in today’s society, is that we’re all so attached to our technology, right? But then to see this story where it’s just a kid being a kid and to bring that to families, I think there’s something rather beautiful about that.

Festival: I think you’re going to have a lot of fun with Janae. Her first child is around one year old and she’s already a performer and a spoken word artist and it’s going to be a really fun, unique Peter and the Wolf. I think every Peter and the Wolf becomes really unique because of that narration piece and the approach to it. So I think it’ll be really fun.

So the other pieces on our family program are Goodnight Moon, which is set to music by Eric Whitacre; we have a suite from Bizet’s Carmen; and we have an overture from Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s African Suite. Do you have any thoughts on those other pieces or why they might be good introductions to children, to the world of music?

Kalena: Well, Goodnight Moon is based on a book of the same name, and it’s again, another really cute story of a young bunny who—basically his bedroom is covered, painted green. And he says goodnight to every single item in his bedroom before going to sleep. And I think that’s absolutely adorable. And when you think about that message, it’s just gratitude and appreciation for what you have and for the things that are around you. And I think, again, why it’s so important to introduce that story to audiences is because we need to teach… We don’t need to teach, but it’s important that kids learn about gratitude and grace.

And then also Eric Whitacre is considered a rock star in the choral music world. So to also be able to program a piece by Eric Whitacre is absolutely fantastic because I love his music.

Same with the Coleridge-Taylor. I mean, I have been a huge Coleridge-Taylor fan since I first discovered his Ballade, ooh, maybe almost a decade ago. And so with the “Danse Nègre,” it’s an overture that’s very fast. It’s very fun. I mean, it’s about six minutes long and he takes you through so many different moods. It starts off very fast, rambunctious, in your face. And then there’s this really lovely slow, melodic, lyrical section. And then again, Coleridge-Taylor being Coleridge-Taylor, he comes back to that fast, rambunctious section.

But he also, whenever he writes, he uses… He always finds a way to interject his culture or to include his culture within his pieces. So that might be done with some of the instrumentation that he uses, or even the way he writes his melodies using some of the offbeat rhythms, meaning rhythms that don’t necessarily line up with where a beat should. So, I love that he kind of puts who he is into his music.

And the importance of that for me is just self-acceptance, meaning that everything is for everyone. And that’s what I love about Coleridge-Taylor’s music, because he was a Black British composer living in London, and I know, I believe that when he was coming up as a young musician, he wasn’t accepted at first. He was still trying to find his own voice, but to see him find his voice through music, I think there’s something fantastic about that. And I would love to share that with audiences in that it’s okay to not know who you are, but eventually you will discover who you are.

Festival: Oh, I love hearing this. It sounds like a program, such a diverse program in terms of mood and energy, like you’re talking about gratitude and grace, and you’re talking about self-acceptance, and I’m also hearing rhythm and dance and fun. And it just seems like it sort of crosses the board, it’s going to be a varied program, which is great, I think, for those young attention spans we’re always trying to capture.

Kalena: Oh, definitely. Because then you look at the Bizet suite from Carmen. I mean, every person knows Carmen because every person has watched a commercial that has the “Toreador” music scene in it. And so with Carmen, it comes from an opera, but it takes you through so many different moods, whether it’s fast, lively, slow, melodic, lyrical. The Carmen suite definitely has something for everyone, and I know audiences are going to love it.

Festival: It sounds like there will also be a mix of the familiar with the maybe new-to-you. You’re likely to hear something you’ve recognized before as well as something that’s going to be a new favorite, maybe.

Kalena: Most definitely. And I think that’s also part of our jobs as a musician, and something that I take very seriously as a conductor, which is introducing people to music they didn’t know they needed to hear. And the fact that Colorado Music Festival also, we curated this program together to be able to do just that.

So, to start out with the Carmen and then take people through this road of the Coleridge-Taylor, followed by Eric Whitacre, which I’m sure most people will not have heard before. And then closing it with something that’s familiar, with Peter and the Wolf. I mean, it’s a lovely little journey, I think.

Festival: Yeah. I just keep thinking about, so again, Janae Burris was talking about how she fell in love with Peter and the Wolf as a child and has been waiting all this time to get a chance to read it or whatever. You will be a lot of children’s first memories of some of these pieces of music, that maybe decades later they are playing in their band or they are exploring in different ways. I think that’s one of my favorite things about the Family Concert is beginning families’ or children’s traditions with music and giving them their first exposure to pieces that they may love for the rest of their lives.

Kalena: Most definitely, yeah. And I think overall, that’s the beauty of music. I was going to say classical music, but at the end of the day, that’s the beauty of music.

Festival: Yeah. Well, before I let you go, I want to ask you about poetry, because I was really excited to talk to you because I’m a poet. Anybody who’s watched any of these videos has had to suffer through listening about poetry. [laughs] So I just wanted to ask quickly, how do your poetry practices and your music practices, are they separate for you? Do they work together? Can you comment on that at all?

Kalena: I think they definitely work together. The classical music sometimes was very hard for me before because as just a poet, words are very important. And I don’t always listen to classical music. I mean, I’m a huge death metal head. So, I tend to listen to metal and alternative. And when people have that similar reaction, it’s like, “Well, how?” And I said, “Because it’s all about the words for me.” It’s about the emotion and what’s going on behind the text.

And so for me, for poetry, it helps me with conducting because I’m able to craft stories and I’m able to put words and text through different sections in the score. So with Peter and the Wolf, it’s simple because he put the text for you. But for the “Danse Nègre” by Coleridge-Taylor, I’m actually crafting a story so that when I get to certain sections, oh, I know this is what’s going on in my head. So if anything, I feel like being a poet and a creative just enhances what I do as a conductor because it allows me to tap into another medium of my creative side.

Festival: That must also come into play when you’re conducting opera and things like that, to be able to honor the text as much as the music itself. I think that it must really come into play at that as well.

Kalena: Most definitely. And what was interesting is the, excuse me, the Scott Joplin was and is my very first opera. And so to not have experience with it before, I mean, I had many conversations with friends who conduct opera, and I just said, “How do you approach this?” And they all said, “It starts with the text.” I read the libretto like it was a book, and I just read it backwards and forwards trying to understand the meaning. And you’re absolutely right. It’s like at the end of the day, the music is there to enhance the drama of the text.

Festival: Yeah. And I think the same is true—I mean, Peter and the Wolf is sort of an opera in a way. It’s sort of a small opera of its own, kind of. Well anyway, thank you. This has just been really fascinating to get to know you. I think our Family Concert sounds like one of our best. Just sounds like a thrill ride. It is on Sunday, July 2nd at 10:30. It’s about a 45-minute concert for those young attention spans we were talking about. Is there anything else you’d like to say before we sign off?

Kalena: Yeah. What I’d like to say is I want people to come have fun, enjoy, and hopefully they leave excited to just listen to more.

Festival: Yeah. All right. Perfect. Thank you so much. Thanks for spending time with us this morning.

Kalena: No, thank you.

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