Portrait of an Artist: John O’Conor
“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.
...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."
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.
As far as I am concerned Classical Music is NOT elitist. Lots of people like some Classical Music — without realising that it is 'Classical'."
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).
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