Portrait of an Artist: John O'Conor

Interview and write-up: @EmerNestor

Photographs: @FMarshallPhoto

Do not practice art alone but penetrate to her heart; she deserves it, for art and science only can raise man to godhood!  — Beethoven (1812)

 

When we think of the great Beethoven interpreters of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, the name of Irish pianist, John O'Conor, immediately springs to mind. His sensitive, intelligent and historically-informed pilgrimage through the herculian pianistic mire of 32 sonatas and 5 concertos has garnered worldwide acclaim. Notwithstanding the standard greats of the piano repertoire, O’Conor has received notable respect and adulation for his performances of the concertos of Mozart and Field. His talent, wit, charm, dedication, and no-nonsense approach to playing have collectively seduced audiences of the National Concert Hall in Dublin, Carnegie Hall and the Lincoln Center in New York, the Kennedy Center in Washington, the Wigmore Hall and South Bank Centre in London, the Wiener Musikverein in Vienna, the Dvořák Hall in Prague, and the Bunka Kaikan in Tokyo.

An enthusiastic champion of the arts and devoted pedagogue, O’Conor is constantly in demand for his breadth of musical knowledge by conservatoires and music institutions the world over. His former role as director of the Royal Irish Academy of Music, and current position as founder/artistic director of the Dublin International Piano Competition, has led to O’Conor’s appearance on the jury panels of the world’s most distinguished piano competitions. For his services to classical music, the esteemed pianist has been decorated with many accolades including: Officier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French Government, Ehrenkreuz fur Wissenschaft und Kunst by the Austrian Government, and Order of the Rising Sun by the Japanese Government. In Ireland O'Conor has received Honorary Doctorates from the National University of Ireland, Trinity College Dublin, and the Dublin Institute of Technology. He is also an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Irish Academy of Music. As a Distinguished Artist in Residence, and Professor of Music and Chair of the Piano Division at Shenandoah Conservatory in Virginia, O'Conor also holds a faculty position at the Glenn Gould School of the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto.

We speak with the larger-than-life Dublin man in between his numerous concert and teaching engagements in America.

Let’s go back to the beginning John, what are your abiding memories of your early lessons with Dr J. J. O’Reilly at the College of Music?

The "Doc" — as we all called him — was an inspiring teacher in many ways. He was very exact in making me play scales with the correct passing under of the thumb. He talked all the time about sound — and would never let me play a harsh sound. He talked about opera, string quartets, encouraged me to go to as many concerts as possible, and talked about making special moments in performances. When I was about 16 he announced that it was time for me to learn my first complete Beethoven Sonata — but before doing so, he insisted on my reading a book about Beethoven's life...which he lent to me. "You have to understand what he was like as a person", he said. And he was so right. It was in that book that I realised how rude Beethoven could be. Being brought up really well by my father, who was a stickler for good manners, I was astounded at some of Beethoven's rudeness...and intrigued too! It started my life-long fascination with the man, which has never waned. He also encouraged me to play as much chamber music as possible and introduced me to Jaroslav Vanecek, who was the amazing violin teacher in the College at the time. We became great friends and I played for almost all his students.

The Doc also brought me to Veronica (Ronnie) Dunne when I was about 16. "His sight-reading is terrible!...throw anything at him!", he said. And she did! It was the beginning of a love affair with Ronnie that has lasted to this day. I learned so much from watching her teach: learning how singers could vary the sound and tone so much (which is what Mozart and Chopin wrote about in their letters), and how to make a performance more telling. I played for all her students at the Feis Ceoil, and could spend up to 13 hours at her house some days, just rehearsing — and it never seemed long! At the end of the day she would throw a few steaks on the grill, pour a glass of wine, and I thought I was in heaven!

I suppose the main thing that the Doc gave me was a sense of imagination — even as regards a career! I loved proving him right when my success happened! And still...when I think of him...it is always with a cigarette dangling from his lips and the ash falling down on the front of his three-piece suit!

At this time, did any particular classical musician inspire you?

Veronia Mc Swiney was my idol when I was a kid. She played so well and I used to love watching her perform. She was also a pupil of the Doc and sometimes I would manage to slip into one of her lessons, which was a bonus! When I was about 11, I was still doing a lot of drama in the Burke School of Elocution, and one day I was coming out of a rehearsal with Joe Dowling (who went on to become Artistic Director of the Abbey, and is now with the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis), and he saw an Abbey actor walking along the street. We were around the same age and my mother was putting pressure on me to give up either music or acting, as I would be soon going into secondary school. When I saw how excited Joe was I realised that if it had been Ronnie Mc Swiney I would have been as equally excited — so I gave up the drama!

Later, Ronnie played for me at the Feis Ceoil when I was 17 and won the big concerto competition (the 'Hamilton Harty' Cup). I was so thrilled to be playing with her. She always encouraged me greatly, and when the Irish National Opera were touring around Ireland, she recommended me to play for them when she was not free. Our friendship has lasted to this day and I love her as much as ever. I am thrilled that she has agreed to come back on the jury of the Dublin International Piano Competition in May of this year.

Many performers struggle with the hours devoted to theory and musicology when studying music at university level, did you have any issue with this at University College Dublin?

I had a major problem dealing with my musicology degree at UCD in the 1960s. My mother was so totally opposed to my choosing music for a career, that we had major rows in my home. I was supposed to study accountancy and take over my uncle's business! The compromise we reached was that I would undertake to do the music degree at UCD so that I would "have something to fall back on when all this piano-playing nonsense was past!" Even then, my mother refused to pay for the degree, so I taught piano, played every gig around (including playing for ballet classes, accompanying anybody doing any examination etc...), so that I could survive. I lived at home so that helped.

But Professor Anthony Hughes in UCD ran a very strict ship, and I was not enamoured of the degree. When he spent one entire history lecture reading word for word from a book, I bought the book and stayed home. There were also so many unbreakable rules we had to follow in harmony — at the same time I had friends studying for the music degree in Trinity where Joe Groocock would say: "Yes, parallel 5th are not acceptable — but Bach does them every so often where it works so you have to develop your own judgement!"

Once, towards the end of 2nd year, when Prof. Hughes and I were having yet another argument, he said to me: "When are you going to stop practising the piano and start studying your music?" I was deeply shocked by that. And at the same time, I learned a lot.

For my final exam I did write a complete fugue (I think I was the only person to finish it), wrote the exposition and sketched the development of a String Quartet. I also developed a deep love of the operas of Richard Strauss and Britten. And it was Prof. Hughes who told me about, and encouraged me to apply for, the Austrian Government scholarship, which changed my life. So, I am always grateful to him for that.

The ultimate outcome of my studies at UCD was that I determined to develop an undergraduate Performance degree in Dublin where performers would have enough time, freedom, and encouragement to practise their instrument, and when I got to a position of influence at the RIAM that's what we did, and I am proud of that — and the Masters and Doctoral degrees, subsequently.

As a performer and teacher, what elements would you consider important in implementing a better pedagogical structure for our future musicians?

The performance degrees in Ireland have developed enormously in the past two decades. To develop them more needs more money — and a government that understands the value of the Arts...which I have not seen recently. Micheal D. Higgins was a wonderful Minister for the Arts, and John O'Donoghue did an enormous amount to advance the Arts — but since then, the situation has been extremely depressing.

Ireland has a fantastic collective of wonderful and passionate instrumental teachers, but many lack sufficient technical and musical knowledge to educate young musicians properly, and yet they still teach — what are your thoughts on this?

I was very lucky to study the piano under inspiring teachers and am happy to pass on to others what I have learned. Others were not so lucky, but the Local Centre Examination System in the RIAM is always trying to help, and they are developing ways of establishing music teaching networks which can give opportunities to teachers around the country to expand their knowledge, without necessarily giving up their regular teaching, or having to go to study for a degree.

What is your view on the value of Classical Music?

As far as I am concerned Classical Music is NOT elitist. Lots of people like some Classical Music — without realising that it is 'Classical'. The main problem in Ireland is the education system, or rather the lack of a music education system. If you are lucky enough to have parents who value the Arts, you are much more likely to develop a love of Classical Music. If you are sent to a school where the Arts are a valued part of the education system, then you are much more likely to be exposed to Classical Music, and can decide for yourself whether you like it or not.

I was lucky (again!). My mother sent us to everything — to see if we were good at anything! My sisters did piano, played a string instrument, ballet, speech and drama; I was sent to piano, speech and drama (6 wonderful years with the legendary Ena Mary Burke — I still remember a 10-year-old Brenda Fricker giving a terrifying recitation of the poem The Snare in front of the class before she went off to compete in a Feis), Irish dancing (I was quite good at it and still retain a great love of it!), scouts (terrible!), and the viola (1 disastrous year!). My sisters were terrific pianists (never of a professional level) and taught piano throughout their lives. My brother did the piano for 2 years, the violin for 6 months, and at the age of 8 announced to my parents that he was going to play the gramophone for the rest of his life! Some take to it, some don't — but everyone should be given the chance. Our government does not believe in this and gives little support. I don't like all Classical Music (I have never taken to the Bruckner Symphonies!) but adore so much of it. I wish everyone could get to know it earlier — and in an encouraging way.

Within the vastly diverse world of the performing arts, the words of critics are never far from the artist's ear — what are your thoughts on the words of music commentators?

I am my own worst critic so the words of a music critic usually do not bother me — except when they are stupid. In Europe and the USA major music critics usually have to have a music degree before they are employed. In Ireland we have had music critics who cannot even read music, and one who was asked to leave the music degree by the Professor. What do you think my impression of them is???

With sell-out performances across the globe, you remain one of the top pianists on the international stage — how long do you practise for these days?

I practise for as long as I have time. I managed to do a few 8-hour days last week which was so wonderful — but some days I am lucky if I can find 4 hours in which to practise. I try to do a minimum of 3 hours every day.

Your reputation as one of the foremost piano teachers in the world precedes you — would you ever consider writing a book on piano pedagogy?

I have often thought about writing a book about my life in music which would have to include some of my thoughts on teaching. I just don't have any free time! I treasure every moment I can spend practising.

What advice would you give to aspiring young pianists in Ireland?

The best advice I can give is to find the best teacher you can, trust them — and practise AT LEAST 6 hours every day while you are a student. When a career starts there are so many interruptions that the years spent practising as a student pay off handsomely! It is also important to work out HOW to make a career. Sitting in a room all day practising is important — but it is also important to develop inter-personal skills, develop as an artist in general by going to the theatre, reading books, exploring poetry, visiting art galleries etc... You don't have to like all art — make your own choices. And go to LOTS of concerts, and operas and read about the composers as people.

As an adjudicator, what do you look for in a pianist’s performance and, to speak in the colloquial: what is the ‘X factor’ in classical music?

As a judge or adjudicator I listen for what the pianist is saying about the music. Wrong notes or memory lapses usually do not worry me unless they disturb the performance. As I often say to my own students: good listeners (be they audiences or judges) not only hear what a performer plays, they also hear what a performer THINKS. If they are thinking "I must play all the right notes", then as far as I am concerned, they might as well be playing a typewriter! When a performer makes me hear a work as a magical composition then I cherish that performance — even if it is flawed. No performance is ever perfect. There is no such thing! But there can me magic — and that I crave!

Did you enjoy filming the RTÉ series Piano Plus, and would you consider doing something similar again in the future?

I loved doing the series, for which I did about 30 programmes in the 1980s and 1990s. I would love to do another TV series. I am happy to do anything to convey the magic of classical music to the widest possible audience.

Is there any ‘new’ repertoire that you would like to tackle?

I would like to play almost every piece in the repertoire — but I don't have time!

How are you finding your time at the Toronto Conservatory of Music?

I am enjoying teaching in Toronto very much. Great students, great Conservatory, great city!

John will be returning to home soil this month with an exciting appearance at the National Concert Hall, Dublin on 27 April. His program includes Schubert's Sonata in B Flat Major, D.960 (the composer's last sonata), and Beethoven's rousing Diabelli Variations, Op. 120 (considered one of the greatest sets of variations for keyboard). For more information see https://www.nch.ie/Online/John-OConor-27Apr15

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