Kevin O’Connell was born in Derry Northern Ireland in 1958 and began composing when he was twelve. He took composition lessons from organist Michael Hoeg (who also taught him organ and piano) and Redmond Friel (1909-1979). While still a school student he met the composer Cornelius Cardew, who was giving a lecture-recital in Magee College Derry.
O’Connell (pictured right, courtesy Frances Marshall) studied music at Trinity College Dublin from 1978-82. He was fortunate to be part of a class that included David Adams, pianist and organist, Conor Biggs, bass, David Jones, conductor, Fergus Johnston composer, and Peter Scott, musicologist. These have all been long-term colleagues and collaborators.
His first teaching jobs were at St Mary’s teacher training College in Belfast and his old Primary School of St Eugene’s in the Creggan, Derry. A continuing interest in music education and writing for young players has been the result.
His first BBC commission came with the 1985 Concertino for 12 players. An intense spate of commissions followed, including String Trio (a work which has received some 50 professional performances) Saxophone Sonata, Einzeichnung for large ensemble, and Failte don ean for choir.
In 1989 O’Connell completed his first large orchestral commission for the Ulster Orchestra, From the besieged city. This work was premiered in Derry’s Guildhall and the ensuing performance from the Ulster Hall in Belfast was transmitted live by the BBC.
The 1990s were dominated by opera. He completed three chamber operas in quick succession which were toured throughout Britain and Ireland and performed internationally. A long succession of chamber works was also composed during this period, including the Cello Sonata for Raphael Wallfisch and John York, transmitted live by BBC Radio 3. In 1998 the Ulster Orchestra premiered a new BBC orchestral commission, North.
In 2000 O’Connell was appointed composer-in-residence by Dun Laoghaire Council. As part of this residency he wrote his massive String Quartet, a work which lasts over 40 minutes. Its premiere by the Lotus Quartet of Stuttgart is one of the highlights of his career. In 2004 he took the part of narrator in the premiere by the Crash Ensemble of his dramatic concerto Apollo and Marsyas, based on the story from the sixth book of Ovid. For this work he also wrote the text.
In 2005 O’Connell was chosen by RTE to be artistic director of its Living Music Festival. For this he constructed a programme which featured music by Hans Werner Henze and modern German and British music. Featured ensembles included Ensemble Modern and the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, and the festival included the Irish premiere of Henze’s Seventh Symphony.
O’Connell’s recent output has been dominated by large-scale orchestral ventures. In January 2007 his Four Orchestral Pieces were premiered at the National Concert Hall Dublin by the RTE National Symphony Orchestra conducted by Gavin Maloney, and in January 2011 the same forces premiered his Symphony.
In 2009 O’Connell was commissioned by RTE to write a string quartet in honour of Seamus Heaney’s 70th birthday.
In his role as head of composition at the Royal Irish Academy of Music, O’Connell has composed works for many of the Academy’s soloists and ensembles. These include The young are always right for the Symphony Orchestra, premiered in February 2007 at the National Concert Hall, and the Suite for String Orchestra premiered by the RIAM Chamber Orchestra at the Dublin National Gallery in 2010. His piano work Ceimeanna, written for Archie Chen’s tour of China in 2008, has recently been toured in America by another RIAM colleague, Therèse Fahy.
O’Connell is one of Ireland’s most sought-after composition teachers. He has taught in the music departments of Trinity College Dublin, Queens University Belfast, and at the Irish Composition Summer School. He has also been visiting Professor of composition at the University of Perugia. He writes regularly for The Musical Times. In 2008 in Zurich he gave an address to the Conference of the International Jung Society on Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, and he has addressed musicology conferences on subjects as diverse as Sibelius, Berg, and the music of Gerard Manley Hopkins. Early in 2011 he completed his monumental two-piano reduction of Berg’s Three Orchestral Pieces, a task which has occupied him intermittently for 25 years. It is the first complete reduction of this work ever made.
Kevin O’Connell’s extensive awards have been testimony to his contribution to contemporary music. He has held the McCauley fellowship and a Bass Ireland Award. As an undergraduate he was composition finalist in the RTE Musician of the Future Prize. He has held Cork Choral Festival’s Sean O Riada Prize (for Failte don Ean). He is a member of Aosdana, Ireland’s academy of creative artists.
You can watch an interview with O'Connell here.