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This article by Elaine Strauss was prepared for the February 18,

2004 issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

An Irish Patriot & Pianist Salutes a Compatriot

This week Irish pianist John O’Conor graces Princeton with a two-day

visit incorporating two views of the music of his compatriot John

Field (1782-1837). He has programmed three nocturnes by Field for a

concert at Richardson Auditorium, Thursday, February 19, along with

music by Schubert, Chopin, and Beethoven. On Friday, February 20, at

4:30 p.m. O’Conor spotlights Field in an informal talk and

performance, presented by Princeton University’s Fund for Irish

Studies at Stewart Film Theater, 185 Nassau Street.

Are these events connected to his being an Irish patriot, I ask

O’Conor in an early morning telephone interview from Marshalltown,

Iowa, where he was on tour from his home in Dublin.

"I’m very much an Irish patriot, he says, "and Field is an aspect of

it. What raised my bile was when I read an English publication that

described Field as a pale imitation of Chopin." O’Conor establishes

himself as a man of supreme benevolence by not being able to remember

the name of the publication. "Chopin was four years old when Field

wrote his first nocturne," O’Conor explains. "The difference in years

between the Field nocturnes and the mature Chopin nocturnes is about

the same as that between early Haydn and late Beethoven. It would be

absurd to say that the mature Beethoven sonatas are inferior to

Haydn’s."

"The Field nocturnes have a charm of their own," O’Conor says. "They

don’t pretend to be anything more than they are. They come from a

different era than Chopin."

"Why is Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight Sonata’ on the program?" I wonder

aloud.

"Why not!" O’Conor answers.

"They asked me to play Beethoven. A lot of people know the first

movement, but not the second or third movement. The second movement is

a bridge between the calm of the first movement and the hurricane of

the last movement. A lot of people stay away from well-known pieces.

But I think that if you’re doing a program with unusual pieces, you

must include the familiar for balance. I’ve done concerts with the

second Viennese School – Berg and Schoenberg – and balanced them with

Mozart."

Born in Dublin in 1947 to a working-class family, O’Conor was the

youngest of four children, two boys and two girls. His curiosity about

the piano appeared when he was three.

"The only way I could get my sisters to play with me was to show an

interest in the piano," he told Johanna Crosby of the Cape Cod Times.

His piano lessons started at age six. Although music was a major part

of his life he also was a boxer and played rugby as a teenager. "I

wanted to be as macho as the rest," he explained in an interview on

NPR. After a rugby knee injury at age 17, he withdrew from sports.

However, he learned that being a performing artist is no protection

against physical injuries. He once sustained a hairline fracture from

the congratulatory handshake of a small sinewy man after a concert.

The independent musical tradition in the Ireland where O’Conor grew up

was thin. Handel’s "Messiah" debuted in Dublin in 1742, which was then

the second city of the British Empire. But ordinary Irish were outside

Dublin’s cultural eminence. "In 1800 the Irish Parliament was

abolished, and the 19th century was a low period in classical music,"

says O’Conor.

As with most things Irish, Protestant-Catholic confrontation

contributed to the musical situation. Until Ireland gained its freedom

from Britain in 1921, O’Conor explains, "the written and spoken word

were very Irish. It was a matter of keeping up opposition to the

British throne. The Irish voiced their objections in ballads and

stories. There was no education for Irish [Catholics], so how would

they learn to appreciate classical music? They would put up with

choral music because it would bring people together in church."

O’Conor credits Protestants with keeping classical music going after

Irish independence. "Since 1921 classical music was considered

foreign, and, therefore, bad. But a large Protestant minority was very

involved in the arts, and kept the arts going.

Changes in the arts started before Ireland’s economic miracle of the

1990s and O’Conor was part of the awakening.

"When I was a kid in Dublin, there were few classical concerts. I

became actively involved in music in the early ’60s. At that stage

there were free concerts of the Irish National Symphony Orchestra on

Tuesday and Friday nights. And there was the odd recital. As students

we made our own music – playing chamber music or listening to

recordings. We had what we called ‘gramophone societies.’ Now there

are three concerts a night in Dublin."

Despite their skepticism, his parents agreed to let him study music.

His father hoped he would become a banker. His mother saw pursuing a

musical career as a sign of lack of ambition. O’Conor’s university

degree is in musicology. He studied piano performance in Salzburg with

Carlo Zecchi and in Vienna with Dieter Weber.

He married in the early 1970s. His wife, who had been his pupil, is a

sex therapist. His elder son, Hugh, is a film actor who appeared in

the hit "Chocolat." His younger son, Keith, is a graduate student in

computer science at Dublin University’s Trinity College; he is working

on a PhD that deals with virtual reality.

In 1973 O’Conor won first prize in Vienna’s International Beethoven

Competition. During the competition, for the first time, he heard

Wilhelm Kempff perform the Beethoven piano sonata cycle. Studies with

Kempff followed.

O’Conor worked with Kempff on Beethoven sonatas and on his Diabelli

Variations in Positano, Italy, where, beginning in 1957, Kempff gave

an annual Beethoven Interpretation course at his villa. "It wasn’t so

much that he taught, but that we discussed the possibilities," O’Conor

told Fanfare Magazine. Since 1997 O’Conor has led the Beethoven

studies in Positano. Committed to the development of young musicians,

O’Conor is director of the Royal Irish Academy of Music and artistic

director of the AXA Dublin International Piano Competition which he

co-founded.

Participation in O’Conor’s Positano workshop is limited to eight

professional pianists. "I don’t like casual droppers-in." he says. "A

great bond develops. It wouldn’t be possible if there was an audience

of 100."

Receiving a warm reception, O’Conor played the cycle of Beethoven’s 32

piano sonatas in Dublin during the 1984-’85 season, and recorded them

for the Telarc label. He played the cycle again in New York and Boston

in, and in Dublin in 1994. He is planning to program it once more for

the 2004-’05 season.

"I’m always rethinking the Beethoven sonatas," he says. "You do that

every time you play a Beethoven sonata. When you meet great work of

art, you always rethink. You never know when a ray of sunshine might

land. It’s a constant wonder and a constant delight to replay and

rethink the sonatas. What helps enormously is running the Positano

workshop."

Like Kempff, O’Conor performs the Beethoven cycle chronologically

rather than programming the sonatas in what he calls "a potpourri." He

prefers to "grow with Beethoven throughout his life." The piano

sonatas give a better consideration of Beethoven’s development than

any other set of compositions, notes O’Conor, pointing out that the

first piano sonata is Opus 2, whereas the first symphony is Opus 21,

and the first string quartet is Opus 18.

O’Conor’s discography includes more than 20 recordings for the Telarc

label. The bulk of them are devoted to solo piano music by Beethoven,

Mozart concertos, Schubert, Schumann, and Field compositions. Still,

there are regions of music where he treads lightly. "I don’t play

Russian repertoire," he says. "My sound is not forceful or brash

enough. A projection of sound that aims to the harsh is not my thing."

His sound on recordings I have heard encompasses an enormous palette.

It is simultaneously transparent, subtle, and vividly sculpted. There

is no mistaking where the phrase leads. Not surprisingly, with his

aural know-how, he makes an exception by performing Rachmaninoff’s

Second Piano Concerto. "It’s not so Russian," he says. He also plays

Scriabin’s "Nocturne for the Left Hand." "It’s a special case," he

says, since it follows from the tradition of Field and Chopin.

Spanish music is an area that O’Conor avoids. "I love it, but I don’t

know enough about the language or the folk music. You need to know a

lot about the mental approach of people before you start," he says.

O’Conor speaks French, German, and Italian.

"I do quite a bit of Debussy," he says, "but it’s not a natural for

me, and I hope to do more. Debussy was more natural for me when I was

younger. The technique is different from the martellato [hammered]

effects needed for Haydn, or strength of downward finger movement in

late Beethoven. It’s a lot more playing on the pads of your fingers

and a lot more drawing your hands along the keys. Playing Debussy is

great fun. It’s a different color. People come up to me and ask, ‘How

do you do that?’"

"You have to be schizophrenic to play well," O’Conor says. "You have

to be three people. The first person has the sound in his ear. The

second person does it on the instrument; he figures out the physical

mechanics. The third person sits in the audience accepting what’s

coming out. He’s in communication with the first person while the

second person is doing the job."

"O’Conor is a wonderful talker as well as performer," adds Princeton

poet Paul Muldoon, director of the Program in Irish Studies. "I made a

film about him in 1986 while I was a producer at BBC-TV, but I knew

him before. Ireland’s a small country. Its artists know each other."

– Elaine Strauss

John O’Conor, Princeton University Concerts, Richardson Auditorium,

609-258-5000. Program of John Field, Schubert, Chopin, and Beethoven.

$20 to $33; all students $2. Thursday, February 19, 8 p.m.

John O’Conor, Princeton Fund for Irish Studies, Stewart Film Theater,

185 Nassau Street, 609-258-4712. O’Conor introduces and plays music by

John Field. Free. Friday, February 20, 4:30 p.m.


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