Charm o’ the Irish

Irish Pianist John O'Conor

Irish Pianist John O'Conor

On St. Patrick’s Day, I like to wear green and toast the Irish. Who can resist a culture that has produced writers like James Joyce, Frank O’Connor, William Trevor and Edna O’Brien, as well as such musical icons as the Chieftains, and Danny Boy? Let me now add to that list the pianist John O’Conor, whom I heard the day after St. Paddy’s, at the Philosophical Society near Independence Hall, in another stellar concert presented by the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society.

Let me first say that Mr. O’Conor defied my visual expectations. The recording that I associate most with him, of John Field’s Nocturnes, demonstrates the utmost in delicacy and grace. Thus I expected a rather wispy person to float from the wings up to the piano. But no. Mr. O’Conor is a substantially built man with a jolly smile who looks like he could captain a rugby team or break up a brawl in South Philly.

The sound that he produces at the keyboard can be, not surprisingly, gargantuan. But what made this performance unique was the way it breathed with life. His interpretations of Haydn, of, yes, John Field, Beethoven’s Sonata Op. 110 and the monumental late C minor Schubert Sonata were intensely personal, while clearly delineating the harmonic surprises and the melodic flourishes of each piece. Occasionally his rubati at the ends of phrases, especially in the Haydn and Beethoven, were a bit too prolonged for cohesion, and sometimes I wished for a more subtle gradation of his fortissimos, but these were minor points in an otherwise exhilarating performance.

A few guys in the audience wore full Irish regalia that evening: kilts, knee socks, and fur sporrans at their waists. Several women could not hold back their enthusiasm, and bobbed back and forth in time to the music. Mr. O’Conor rewarded the audience with two encores, both Nocturnes: the famous Chopin E-Flat, and a rarely-heard jewel of a piece, the Scriabin Nocturne in D-Flat for left hand. The Steinway onstage was lush and warm throughout the program, but especially in this last piece.

They say Koreans are the Irish of Asia. If that means I’m a wee bit like John O’Conor, I’ll raise a glass to that.

A sporran

A sporran

There are 3 responses to “Charm o’ the Irish”

  1. Hi Debbie, Sounds like an lovely evening. Love your writing. BTW have you heard Johnny Cash’s rendition of Danny Boy? It’s chilling. xx.

  2. Even back in the early 70′s in Vienna, everyone at the Akademie fuer Musik knew that John O’Conor would be reckoned with on the world stage of music. I remember hearing his “student” recital. Ha! No student he was – or so it seemed.

    He played the 4th Piano Concerto at the Beethoven Piano Competition. A memorable performance to this day!

  3. Thanks for your comments, Susie and Christoph. I have not heard Johnny Cash’s recording of Danny Boy, but I’ll bet it is soulful!
    Christoph, how exciting it must have been to hear John O’Conor in his student days and predict great things for him. He is still not a “household” name here, which puzzles me.