How Barack Obama's speeches have become focus of Ridgefield Symphony Orchestra

RIDGEFIELD — While Cody Keenan was attending Ridgefield High School, the thought of working in the White House never crossed his mind, he said. But under Obama’s administration, Keenan helped craft some of the most iconic speeches given by America’s 44th president.

Keenan, 40, served as the White House director of speechwriting during President Barack Obama’s second term. He started as a speechwriting intern for the campaign in 2007 and was part of the president’s speechwriting team from 2009 to 2011, when he was promoted to deputy speechwriter. After Obama left office in 2017, Keenan remained as his sole speechwriter and collaborator for four years.

This professional experience made Keenan an ideal candidate to assist Ridgefield Symphony Orchestra composer Paul Frucht in developing “A More Perfect Union.” The song cycle is based on six speeches from Obama’s presidency, which will debut at RSO’s season kickoff on Saturday — the ensemble’s first concert in almost 20 months.

“I had been wanting to write this for a long time — to capture the historical and cultural significance of Barack Obama’s words through our artform,” Frucht said in a statement. “The symphony is a celebration of deeply-rooted American values articulated by a president revered for his rhetoric.”

Frucht began developing “A More Perfect Union” in 2018. That year he arranged to meet Keenan at a bar at the Park Hyatt in Washington.

“I don’t know the first thing about writing music or even how to read it — it feels totally foreign to me,” Keenan said in an interview with Hearst Connecticut Media, “but (Frucht) walked me through what it entails.”

The composer sought speeches that shared “connective tissue,” Keenan said. The six speeches referenced in the symphony are: A More Perfect Union; Obama’s first inaugural address; an address to the American Medical Association; an address to the nation on U.S. military action in Syria; an address on the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday in Selma, Ala.; and a eulogy for the late Rev. Clementa Pinckney in Charleston, S.C.

From each speech, Frucht chose snippets containing universal ideals about thoughtfulness, plurality, unity, spirituality and the way we approach faith, he said. The libretto of “A More Perfect Union” will be sung by acclaimed American operatic baritone Jorell Williams.

“The one thread through all those speeches ... is what kind of country do we want to be, and the answer is never as easy as we think it is,” Keenan said. “Each of them tell a bigger story about who we are and who we can be as a country and a people.”

Obama’s address to the AMA in June 2009 provides one of his first arguments for health care reform, Keenan said.

Amid a “chippy” presidential primary in March 2008, Keenan recalled, Obama confronted racism head in his speech for which RSO’s symphony is named. “It turned the campaign around,” he added.

An updated version of that speech was given as a eulogy seven years later following the Charleston church shooting, which killed nine people, including Pinckney, in June 2015. The speeches address racial divides, divisions and misunderstandings, and how acknowledging our past mistakes as a nation can pave the path for a better future.

“Obama views this country as a big jangling symphony — you have all these wildly different instruments that look and behave differently working together to make something beautiful,” Keenan said. “It requires all of them — one section playing alone doesn’t contribute to the broader piece.”

The first movement of “A More Perfect Union” includes a line from Obama’s inaugural address in January 2009: “A man whose father less than 60 years ago might not have been served at a local restaurant can now stand before you to take a most sacred oath.”

“As a composer, you want to make an audience member think more deeply or feel something about a (certain) moment in their lives,” Frucht said, “and I hope that this piece does that.”

alyssa.seidman@hearstmediact.com