Kelley O'Connor joins the National Symphony Orchestra for a program steeped in romance. Composer Peter Lieberson set his "Neruda Songs" to five sonnets by Chilean poet Pablo Neruda for his beloved wife, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson. Like O'Connor, she had a commanding mezzo-soprano voice that conveyed the message of eternal love to the fullest.

Following his wife's death in 2006, Lieberson received the 2008 Grawemeyer Award for Music Composition for the song cycle. The Boston Symphony subsequently commissioned him to compose a second cycle of Neruda's songs. These "Songs of Love and Sorrow" were his memorial to her. Not long afterward, he was diagnosed with cancer. O'Connor is grateful for the time she had with him in 2008 before his death.

"Nobody but Lorraine had ever sung the cycle, so when Lieberson learned that I would be performing it, he invited me to come along to Hawaii and work on it," O'Connor said. "I got to know his daughters, who were there also, and learned more about his wife. We worked on one song each day. He was very opinionated and didn't hesitate to tell me what I was doing wrong. This helped me understand the music and what he expected of me. He came along to Chicago and several other cities on my tour and very graciously told me that these concerts represented his passing of the torch."

Wherever O'Connor sings, the California native receives rave reviews from critics. Offers keep piling up from major contemporary composers to perform their works. Later this season, she will sing John Adams' "The Gospel According to the Other Mary," which he wrote for her. The world premiere with the Los Angeles Philharmonic performed in this country and Europe will be conducted by Gustavo Dudamel and staged by Peter Sellars.

The NSO and Kelley O'Connor
Where: Kennedy Center Concert Hall, 2700 F St. NW
When: 7 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday
Info: $10 to $85; 202-467-4600; 800-444-1324;

In 2008, O'Connor created the role of Mrs. Goodman for the debut of "August 4, 1964" by the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. The concert drama by Pulitzer Prize winner Steven Stucky is based on the murder of civil rights workers in Mississippi.

When she is not performing, O'Connor maintains her voice by getting ample sleep, eating right and working out regularly. She especially loves being home long enough to cook and utilize "every kitchen appliance known to man," even a doughnut maker. But when she sings, she is eager to promote the modern music she loves.

"Each time I sing, I'm glad to share contemporary music with others," she said. "I feel very fortunate to have worked with living composers like Adams, [Osvaldo] Golijov and Lieberson, and now I look forward to sharing 'Neruda Songs' with the Washington audience. This love letter from Peter to Lorraine is written perfectly for a mezzo. It's an intimate, personal piece with a message that is a snapshot of a deep love and proof that it can last through time."