A Meeting of Musical Minds: Veronica McSwiney and John O'Conor

In order to fundraise for the acclaimed Dublin International Piano Competition, two of Ireland’s finest pianists, Veronica McSwiney and John O’Conor, are uniting on stage in a joint piano recital of the music of Mozart, Tchaikovsky, Milhaud, and Rachmaninov, this November at the National Concert Hall. To show our support for the DIPC, Final Note sat down with the dynamic duo, and lifelong friends, to chat about the forthcoming concert.

So how did you both meet?

John: I was about 10 when I saw Ronnie for the first time. It was in the College of Music in Chatham Row, in the teaching room of Dr J.J. O'Reilly who was giving a lesson to Ronnie at the time. I had come in to meet him, as he had decided to take me as a student too. I was in awe of her, but from the very first time the thing that I remember (apart from her amazing playing) was her wonderful charm and the warmth of her smile. Anybody who has ever met her will know this, and I have never lost this love and respect that I had for her from the very beginning.

I watched her from afar until I was 17 when Dr. O'Reilly allowed me to enter for the Hamilton Harty Cup at the Feis Ceoil in Dublin, which meant playing Mendelssohn’s Piano Concerto No. 1. He arranged that Ronnie (who already had a developing career) play the orchestral part on a second piano for me at the competition. Rehearsals were a dream and I practised like a maniac because I wanted to look good in her eyesand I won First Prize! A lot of that was due to her encouragement and support. Thereafter, she was so good to me as whenever she was offered something that she could not do, she recommended me instead. All of those engagements (including playing full opera scores on the piano around the country with the Irish National Opera) helped pay my way through university, so I have been in her debt ever since for that.

Veronica: John and I go back a long way. We studied with the same teacher, Dr J.J. O'Reilly, at the Municipal School of Music, now known as DIT. I won the Hamilton Harty Cup for Concerto at the Feis Ceoil in 1958 and 6 years later I was delighted to be asked to play the orchestral part for John when he won it playing the Mendelssohn G Minor Concerto. I always knew John was destined for a great career. We have always been very close friends.

What was the purpose of joining up to perform together?

John: The main purpose of the upcoming recital is to raise funds for the Dublin International Piano Competition. The next Competition is due to take place in 2018, and we do not have a major sponsor, so we are desperately looking to raise sufficient funds to keep the DIPC going. In 2018 we will be celebrating the 30th anniversary of the first Competition, so I would be very grateful to everybody who buys a ticket for what should be a super concert–and will help the Competition survive too! The other purpose is to have an excuse to play with Ronnie again! We have never given a joint recital together, so the rehearsals for this event have been hugely enjoyable. Because I am in China and only get back to Dublin on Sunday night, we rehearsed a lot in July, August and September, and had a ball! I am so excited about Wednesday's concert.

Veronica: I was thrilled when John contacted me after a very sad and traumatic time in my life, and sowed the seed for the possibility of a two-piano recital. It really gave me the heart and determination to pick up the pieces and get back on track. I have been on the jury of the Dublin International Piano Competition on two occasions, and I believe it is a brilliant institution. At this moment they have no sponsors, so John comes up with all sorts of ideas to raise funds to keep the Competition going. This concert is one. The Competition deserves all the support it can get–what a wonderful platform and springboard for emerging young professional pianists.

What are the pros and cons of piano duets?

John: The main pro about doing a joint recital is the joy of playing this wonderful music which is heard so rarely. Just finding a venue with two compatible pianos in it is very difficult so a two-piano recital is an unusual event anywhere. The other main pro is playing with another pianist that you know and respect, and rehearsals can be great fun. As pianists, we spend almost all our practice time in a studio by ourselves, which can get lonely. Rehearsing with someone else is so enjoyable. And with Ronnie it is so precious. I can't think of a single con!!!

Veronica: I think there is nothing only points in favour of duo playing. You cannot be selfish! Pianists spend hours and years playing and rehearsing alone. What a great time and fun you can have playing duets and sharing ideas…and those 88 keys. Even better when you can play two different instruments.

The program is quite diverse and exciting – what can the audience expect?

John: We have a wonderful programme for the recital. The Mozart Sonata for two pianos is one of his absolute masterpieces and many in the audience will never have heard it before. As students, we often play this repertoire for fun together but the chance to play it in a big recital is very seldom, so we are relishing the anticipation of the recital. The outer movements are effervescent and joyous, and the slow movement is an absolute gem. Rachmaninov’s second Suite is another pinnacle of the repertoire. It is Opus 17, which means it is the opus number immediately before the famous second Piano Concerto (which everyone knows), and the piano writing is very much in the same vein–a stirring March as the first movement, a scampering Scherzo as second (with some lovely melodic asides), a glorious beautiful third movement with a majestic climax, and a finale which is a Tarantella–the Italian dance you are supposed to do if you are bitten by a tarantula spider in order to get the poison out of your body, so it is fast, furious and virtuosic, with a thrilling finish. After the interval we play the Scaramouche Suite by the French composer, Milhaud, which is great fun–an exuberant first movement, a slow jazzy second movement, and a Brazilian Samba as a finale which will have everyone wanting to get up and dance! To close the programme we are playing a terrific arrangement of Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker Suite, which is just delightful and everyone will know some, if not all, of the movements of this. And I hope the audience keeps clapping at the end as we have two wonderful encores up our sleeves which everyone will enjoy! We intend to make this an evening of pure magic and hope that the place will be packed!

Veronica: Our programme on November 2 is terrific. We start with Mozart, a perfectly divine work, beautifully written for two pianos. Then comes the Rachmaninov Suite No. 2, a tremendous work in 4 movements–a very demanding work with magnificent themes, which we all expect from this great composer...an extra-large pair of hands would be an advantage here! The Scaramouche by Milhaud is enormously attractive and we hope to send our audience home very happy with those wonderful dances from the Nutcracker by Tchaikovsky.

Further details on this concert are available at:
https://www.nch.ie/Online/Two-Piano-Recital-02Nov16
The Programme includes:
Mozart: Sonata in D for two pianos K448
Rachmaninov: Suite No. 2, Op. 17
Milhaud: Scaramouche Suite
Tchaikovsky: The Nutcracker Suite

To find out more about Veronica and John, take a look at our previous features on the duo:
http://www.finalnotemagazine.com/reflections-veronica-mcswiney/
http://www.finalnotemagazine.com/john-oconor/

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