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The ivory tower: pianist John O’Conor

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Joseph Hurley

Celebrated classical pianist John O’Conor will keep a busy schedule during a brief visit to New York that begins Sunday.

The Dublin-born musician will be making three appearances on three successive days, Nov. 11-13, but even a well-regulated schedule like that could put a crimp in the style of many a lesser artist.

O’Conor, however, is not your ordinary performer. His daunting strength, both physical and psychological, infuses everything he attempts, at the keyboard and away from it.

O’Conor will first appear on the Walter Reade Theater stage as part of the Lincoln Center series “Sunday Mornings at 11.” He will play works by Schubert, Ginastera, Chopin, Scriabin, and the Irish composer and pianist John Field.

Keeping alive the memory of Field, a Dubliner who lived from 1782 until 1837, has long been a cause for O’Conor and he has recorded selections from the composer’s works ranging from nocturnes and sonatas to piano concertos. In fact, O’Conor has recorded all seven of Field’s concertos in a 3-CD set with the new Irish Chamber Orchestra conducted by Janos Furst.

The following evening, Monday, Nov. 12, at 7:30, O’Conor will take part in another Lincoln Center institution, again at the Walter Reade Theater. For this series, “What Makes it Great?” hosted by National Public Radio commentator Robert Kapilow, author of the book “What Makes it So Great?” on which the series is based, the subject will be what is probably Beethoven’s greatest work for solo piano.

Speaking on the phone from the Washington, D.C., home of Sean O Huiginn, Ireland’s ambassador to the United States, O’Conor described his feelings about Beethoven’s “Appassionata Sonata in F-Minor, Opus 57,” the work he will play for the “What Makes It Great?” series on Monday night, and the greatness of which he will attempt to convey to his audience.

“I think the sheer excitement of the rhythmic impulse of the piece, the drama of some of it, as opposed to the beauty of other parts, combined with the way Beethoven uses the dignity and majesty of his themes, particularly in the slow movement, and the variations which he builds on it, are things that make it a great work,” he said.

O’Conor remembers playing the “Appassionata Sonata” for the first time at age 17. It was also the first recording he made for Telarc, the company for which, at age 54, he still records, with some 20 CDs to his credit.

“We’ll talk about the piece first,” O’Conor said, “about its structure, and try to analyze it in a formal way, talking about the human reactions it invokes in people, and then, after a brief intermission, I’ll play it.”

The two Washington concerts O’Conor gave at the Kennedy Center on the second and third of this month, plus an earlier one he’d done in Midland, Mich., marked the artist’s first American appearances since the events of Sept. 11. He notices a subtle difference in the response of U.S. audiences since the disaster.

“I think they’re definitely more sober, more somber,” he said, “but at the same time, you get a feeling that they are both grateful and pleased that foreign artists are willing to come here, and unafraid to come here. But they’re definitely less carefree now.”

O’Conor is both pleased and proud that Ireland observed an official day of mourning on Friday, Sept. 14, just three days after the disaster.

“It was all very spontaneous,” he said. “Music is so healing because it doesn’t need speech, and there are really no national boundaries. The Irish day of mourning seemed to say, ‘We’re all one nation.’ ”

O’Conor’s final concert on the current trip will take place Tuesday, Nov. 13, at 8 p.m. at Merkin Concert Hall, a couple of blocks north of Lincoln Center. In a sense, the last appearance of the three may mean the most to the pianist, at least in the area of sentiment, because the evening will mark the American debut of the Royal Irish Academy of Music Chamber Orchestra.

Imposing as the name may sound, the orchestra is, in reality 16 musicians, all of them between 17 and 22. They’ve all received their musical education at the Royal Irish Academy of Music, of which O’Conor is the director. Apart from a brief appearance in Paris last year, the group has never before performed out of Ireland.

“Two of the 16 are still students at the school,” the affable pianist said, his voice clearly reflecting the pride he feels in the quality of the students the Academy produces. Although O’Conor played a role in the education of these young musicians, he didn’t actually teach any of them, obviously, since they all play stringed instruments, while he teaches only piano.

On Tuesday, O’Conor will join the group for Mozart’s “Piano Concerto No. 14” in E-flat. On their own, the leaderless ensemble will perform Mozart’s “Divertimento K-136,” Samuel Barber’s beloved and familiar ‘Adagio for Strings” and a “Nocturne for Strings” by the modern Irish composer John Kinsella.

In addition, the group will perform a new arrangement of old Irish airs, and another brief number that O’Conor likes especially. “It’s an old Irish tune called ‘The Coulin,’ ” he said, “and it will be done as an unaccompanied piece by the viola soloist Marie-Louise Bowe.”

As it happens, “The Coulin” is one of the numbers on the pianist’s recent CD, “My Ireland,” on which O’Conor plays 16 Irish melodies, most but not all of them drawn from the familiar Celtic repertoire of folk melodies, reels and hornpipe tunes.

As for the Royal Irish Academy of Music Chamber Orchestra playing without a conductor, O’Conor heartily approves.

“They listen to each other and they watch each other,” he said. “Of course, it all depends on the nature of the piece, and particularly on the complexity of its rhythms.”

In the course of the last year, O’Conor has appeared in Germany, Switzerland, Isr’l, Holland, Italy, Korea and Japan, not to mention a stint at the Yale University School of Music’s summer session.

Despite all the years O’Conor has been playing on a regular basis, he still practices every morning, generally from 7-11 a.m.

“You always need to practice,” he said. “For one thing, you’ve got to keep your fingers in trim. Also, there’s the matter of self-confidence. You’re playing the music straight to the audience, with nothing in the way. If you’re stressed, they’ll feel it.”

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