Posts filed under:  Concert and Cultural Reviews

Not BB King, but Imperial Just the Same

Li'l Ed and the Blues Imperials

The tony Charles Hotel at Harvard Square is not where you might expect to clap your hands and shake your hips to a fantastic blues band, but that’s exactly what happened last Saturday night when Chicago-based Li’L Ed and the Blues Imperials played the swanky Regattabar at the Charles. This gal who loves J.S. Bach was there and loved it.

Yes, Li’l Ed is on the short side, but there is nothing diminutive about the way he plays the slide guitar. Dressed in long puffed sleeves and a pink-and-blue fez, which added several inches to his height, Li’l Ed’s guitar solos smoked – not so much with speed, but with expressive vibrato and slide effects that any violinist would envy. He was backed up by his tall, white-haired counterpart Michael Garret, whose own electric guitar playing alternated between wild, loose-wristed strumming to fast finger-picking solos. They were expertly supported by the expansive James “Pookie” Young on bass and drummer Kelly Littleton. The guys all sang in-tune and perfectly in sync. Another effect much appreciated by my tender ears: the Regattabar’s sound engineer amplified the music so that it was dynamic and clearly present but never distorted.

The Blues Imperials are masters of programming – switching from up-tempo, swing, rhythm and blues numbers to down and dirty Chicago Blues, with interesting key relationships between the numbers.  They played full-out for over an hour-and-a half without a break, but every moment was fully engaged and engaging. People drank, danced in the aisles, felt free to get up to go to the bathroom, tapped their toes, and had a good old time. Nobody sat still or fell asleep.

Hmm, we classical cats could learn a thing or two.


Meeting Christoph Wolff: aka “Mr. Bach”

Lunch with Christoph Wolff, renowned Bach scholar

One of the most endearing things about my father is that, at age 82, he remains a culture hound, just like me. Having retired to Orlando, Florida, he still sniffs out interesting cultural events within driving distance, and sets out to explore. When I visited him and my mom in February, we took in the HD simulcast of Gustavo Dudamel conducting a tremendous performance of Mahler’s Eighth Symphony with the L.A. Phil and the Simon Bolivar Orchestra in Venezuela. We also met, quite unexpectedly, one of my heroes of modern musical scholarship, Christoph Wolff.

Wolff’s tome on the life and work of J.S. Bach, Bach: The Learned Musician, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2001 and one of the best books on classical music ever written. Impeccably researched, it reveals a portrait of Bach the teacher, the performer, the father, and husband that complete our understanding of Bach the genius. I have read passages from Wolff’s book aloud to my own husband that I knew would interest him, such as the fact that Bach’s salary often included kegs of beer.

A native of Heidelburg, Christoph Wolff is a professor at Harvard and director of the Bach-Archiv in Leipzig, Germany. That I met him while visiting the Land of the Mouse is due entirely to my father’s interest in the Bach Festival held at Winter Park, Florida at Rollins College each year. For the Bach Festival Society’s 75th anniversary, Christoph Wolff was visiting scholar and guest of honor, and it so happened that the opening weekend of the festival coincided with my visit to Central Florida.

My parents and I set off for Rollins College to attend the festival’s Sunday morning service at the campus chapel. I was charmed to see that Professor Wolff, who commented on the Bach Cantata that the college choir sang (“Was Gott tut is wohlgetan” — “What God does is well done”) was unpretentiously dressed, in rumpled khakis and navy blazer.  Later, at the informal Lunch and Learn session, he kindly acceded to sitting with this boisterous fan (me) and talked about his work —  he likes to take care of office matters, e-mails, and correspondence in the morning, and then settles down to write, often late into the night. The book he just finished is about Mozart’s last years, and discusses how the increasing complexity of Mozart’s work was abruptly cut short by his untimely death.

Following lunch, Wolff answered questions off-the-cuff in a panel discussion, joined by John Sinclair, artistic director of the festival, and emceed by the eloquent Terry Teachout, playwright, critic, biographer, and blogger. A more congenial group of three discussing a more fabled musician cannot be imagined. (A full transcript I made of their talk may be posted later on this blog.)

In the meantime, here are a few details from their conversation that taught me new things about Bach:

• Contrary to his reputation nowadays as being somewhat resistant to newer styles, Bach was well-versed in the latest instrument technology of his day — the modern organ, the early pianoforte. His close friend and colleague at the St. Thomas School, Johann Winckler, was involved with electrical experiments. Bach felt that understanding technology and science helped him to understand God.

• He did like to show off at the keyboard. For instance, the harpsichord cadenza of the 5th Brandenburg Concerto is way out-of-proportion to the rest of the piece. It’s a 72-measure cadenza! (A normal long cadenza would have been 15 measures.)

• Out of Bach’s 20 chldren, only 9 survived. (Women had 1 child a year back then: Mozart’s wife had 6 children, and only 2 survived.) Child mortality was great, and people experienced the heights of joy juxtaposed with sorrow all the time. Bach knew sorrow early on (he lost his own parents when he was 10.) He was one of the few who could translate this deep feeling into great art.

• Bach’s work contains lots of dark points, but they’re always balanced. Modern listeners may only hear the “burial” at the end of the St. John and St. Matthew Passions, forgetting that in Bach’s day they were followed on Easter morning with the sound of trumpets announcing the Resurrection.

Mom and Dad and I left Rollins College that afternoon enlightened and happy. We were reminded of the morning’s message at the college chapel, given by the lovely Dean Powers, who said that great art “should not simply envelop us, but reach inside and transform us.”


My dad with Professor Wolff

A Life of Song

The Doctor with the Hero's Voice

One of the astonishing things about art is how you can discover it in the most unexpected places. This happened to me when I was 18-years-old, and my then-new-boyfriend Tom brought me to visit his home in Appalachia. There, one evening, I accompanied on the piano an excellent baritone who introduced me to the incredible songs of Franz Schubert.

This singer had been nicknamed “Crow” by his medical school classmates in Goettingen, Germany, because he sang “Die Kraehe” (“The Crow”) from Schubert’s great song cycle “Die Winterreise” so often. This singer had once auditioned for a European opera impresario, who declared that he could become a sensation, not only because of the quality of his voice, but because of his personality, which exudes the force and light of a solar system. Sig turned down the opportunity to develop a singing career because he believed his destiny was to “serve” (which, incidentally, was Beethoven’s philosophy about his own life.) To that end, my father-in-law spent over forty years working as a general internist in Appalachia, serving the rural population of Southeastern Ohio, where he and my mother-in-law live to this day.

Be that as it may, sometimes I cannot help but think how he would have benefited from the cultural riches we have here in Philadelphia. Last night I wished he could have heard the program Austrian mezzo-soprano Angelika Kirchslager and pianist Warren Jones gave for the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society. Rather than offer up familiar, tuneful songs, they chose to perform complex, rarely heard lieder of Brahms, Wolf and Hahn, and selections from Mahler’s Des Knaben Wunderhorn.

How Sig would have enjoyed hearing Ms. Kirchschlager’s burnished, nuanced mezzo, and her penetrating interpretations. He would have been enchanted by her dramatic flair and the sometimes mischievous quality that make her appear a down-to-earth diva just inviting the family over to hear her sing.

My father-in-law would have admired, as I did, Mr. Jones’ gorgeous, virtuosic accompaniment that contained not one square edge.

Listening to this evening of lieder was especially poignant knowing that the following morning Sig, a doctor nearly all his adult life, would become a patient on an operating table in Columbus, Ohio, undergoing coronary bypass and replacement of an aortic valve that has been failing for some time.

Somehow the profundity of a great Lied, which deals with life or death as its subject matter, feels even more relevant when a procedure of this magnitude is facing someone you love.

Fortunately, all that singing has provided Sig with tremendous lung capacity, and as I write this, he has survived the operation and is recovering in the I.C.U. As soon as he makes it safely out of the hospital and into rehab, I will make sure he hears one of Angelika’s CD’s. I know he will appreciate it.


Summer at the Mann

The moon rising above the Mann Music Center, Philadelphia

Growing up, my summer weekends were often spent listening to the Cleveland Orchestra at Blossom Music Center, their outdoor home. My friends and I would join a festive line of cars snaking down a wooded lane, directed by parking attendants with flares and brown vests, to the graveled parking lots. We’d arrive early and wait with the crowds until the cedar gates opened. People would spread out blankets and picnic dinners on the immense sloping lawn to the concert pavilion –- the aroma of pate, cold roast chicken, and Chardonnay would scent the air. Under the stars and in the deepening twilight, the music sounded especially sublime.

Here in Philly, our hometown orchestra is away for most of the summer, but we do have the Mann Center, in Fairmount Park, where they play concerts in June, and where another Pennsylvania orchestra, the Pittsburgh Symphony, made a rare guest appearance this season. I’d been riveted by radio broadcasts of the Pittsburgh Symphony of late, so I got tickets and dragged my husband and friends along.

The Mann Center does not allow civilized noshing of one’s own gourmet items on the lawn – rather, one has to buy food purchased on the premises, like at a ballgame. So my friend Susan found a restaurant nearby which looked promising, though the surrounding neighborhood is rough. The Cochon Noir, we discovered, is a new jazz club which features ribs and Southern accompaniments. The owner, an elegant man in a three-piece suit, personally demonstrated how the properly cooked St. Louis-style barbecued rib should be chewy enough that one must “tug” the meat off the bone.  Susan’s husband Ulf declared with some disappointment that, in his opinion, the ribs were tough. They were also mammoth. We put most of the ribs in a to-go container and made our way to the concert.

Which was sublime. The Pittsburgh Symphony, directed by guest conductor Arild Remmereit, performed an all-Beethoven program, beginning with the Egmont Overture and ending with the Third Symphony. There is an intensity and energy at the core of Pittsburgh’s sound which is electrifying. Aside from some problems in the French horns (perhaps due to outdoor humidity) the winds produced a full, textured choir with gorgeous intonation.

Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto featured teen pianist Teo Gheorghiu, a Swiss-Canadian of Romanian descent. Gheorghiu is an actor too, and played opposite Bruno Ganz in the movie Vitus, which is about, not surprisingly, a piano prodigy. Listening to him was like hearing a pianist of the old school with creamy tone, flawless phrasing and technique. His encore, Rachmaninoff’s transcription of Kreisler’s Liesbesleid, displayed an approach that was mature, without pretense, and beautiful.

At home the next day, we put the ribs in the slow cooker and let them bubble away for hours. They came out perfectly soft and edible, and at last, the food matched our satisfaction with the music.


Mona Lisa’s New Reason to Smile

The captivating art of Micah Chambers-Goldberg

When my daughters were little, we loved reading together. We read all sorts of books — about clueless Papa Bears, and skunks who learned to eat their dinners. Our favorite books were not just entertaining, but powerful works of art which Mom could appreciate, and didn’t mind reading over and over.

The same is true of music. Like a great children’s book, a great children’s concert has the power to move everyone in the audience, whether young or old. One such concert, which I urge you to see the next time it comes around, is called “Who Stole the Mona Lisa?”

Produced by Astral Artists as part of the Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts, the April 9 show at the Perelman Theater featured several of Astral’s young musicians dressed in their own cheerful caps, T-shirts, and jeans. The stellar musical team included violinist Kristin Lee, cellist Clancy Newman, bassoonist Natalia Rose Vrbsky, trumpeter Stanford Thompson, clarinetist Benito Meza, and pianist Alexandre Moutouzkine.

During Martinu’s deftly played La Revue de Cuisine, a troupe of young actors/dancers, portraying pieces of cutlery and an art thief, cavorted alongside the musicians. For Poulenc’s The Story of Babar, the engaging storyteller Charlotte Blake Alston read aloud Jean deBrunhoff’s classic tale to the sensitive accompaniment of Poulenc’s incidental piano music, played by Alexandre Moutouzkine.

Everyone familiar with the story knows that Babar’s mother is killed by a “wicked hunter” early on in the book. As Ms. Alston intoned, “In the great forest a little elephant is born,” a 3-year-old in the audience, anticipating the worst, called out, “Uh-oh. UH-OH.” Talk about audience participation!

A young audience member, inspired to dance after the performance. (Photo, courtesy Steve Cohen.)

But the stunning fireworks, the part that left kids entranced and adults in awe, came at the end of the program. This was the animated video production, shown on a huge screen above the stage, entitled “Who Stole the Mona Lisa?”

Conceived by Astral’s artistic director Julian Rodescu, and created by the visual artist Micah Chambers-Goldberg, this wordless animated film is set to Alexandre Moutouzkine’s transcription of Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite. The score was played live, with flawless timing and brilliance, by Moutouzkine himself. The film, a stylish fantasy reminiscent of Edward Gorey, contains moments of humor, whimsy, and wonder that are fresh and surprising. (The Cubist depiction of Picasso, with his nose to the left of his eyes, and one eye lower than the other, got plenty of laughs.) The story line loosely follows an actual historical incident, when the Mona Lisa was stolen from the Louvre, but, as in all good stories, returned home again.

I can’t remember an instance when music so enhanced a piece of visual art, and vice versa.

I think Astral Artists is on to something new that is both engaging and meaningful. The kid in me can’t wait to see and hear what they come up with next.

Let Me Down Easy

Playwright/actress/barrier-breaker Anna Deavere Smith

Anna Deavere Smith’s remarkable one-woman show “Let Me Down Easy” could be re-named “Lift Me Up Intensely.” Over a year ago, I’d read an article in the New York Times magazine about the play, so I knew it was about America’s health care crisis. The health care crisis is an important social issue, but not, I thought, the stuff of art. I bought my tickets to a recent performance of the show at the Suzanne Roberts Theater in Philadelphia, expecting to be provoked, outraged, and educated. I did not expect to be enthralled and moved.

I knew that Ms. Smith had done a huge amount of research for this play, interviewing over three-hundred people from around the world, then distilling these interviews to just twenty to portray onstage. Accompanied by music, stylish lighting, occasional props (mostly food and drink,) moving from table to comfy couch, she conveys the essence of each real-life character, from theologian to writer, to celebrity athlete, politician, physician, and patient — even a bullrider, and a Buddhist monk.

Ms. Smith hilariously embodies former Texas governor Ann Richards, as she was fighting esophageal cancer, and explaining why she couldn’t keep as many apppointments and do as many meet-and-greets as she used to: “I’ve got to protect my chi.” Lance Armstrong’s fierce description of his triumph against testicular cancer is followed by the sportswriter Sally Jenkins’ astute observations of the behavior of top-level athletes – that they don’t conserve anything, they want to go all out, want to be all used up -– they are going to compete to win, whether it’s a bicycle race or a boxing match, or death. Ms. Smith’s depiction of Kiersta Kurtz-Burke, the physician stranded with her impoverished patients at the doomed Charity Hospital of New Orleans, made me cry, as did her portrayal of Trudy Howell, who cares for AIDS orphans in South Africa.

But most moving to me was the scene with Susan Youens, a musicologist from Notre Dame. To the strains of the Adagio from Schubert’s string quintet, Ms. Youens explains that Franz Schubert contracted syphilis at the age of 25, and knew he was going to die. All his compositions from that point forward are tinged, Ms. Youens says, with poignancy, with brief rages against death, with acceptance, and occasionally the sounding of funerary “passing bells.” By the time he died, before his 32nd birthday, Schubert had left the world with a thousand incredible songs, sonatas, and symphonies.

“If I met Schubert, would I like him?” Ms. Youens says. “No, I would not like Schubert.
I would love Schubert.”

“Let Me Down Easy” is not about the health care system. “Let Me Down Easy” is about mortality, and its counterpart, living life. “Let Me Down Easy” expresses one philosophy as memorably as Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town:” that each moment we have on earth is precious, and we should therefore live each moment as if it were a treasured gift.

Legendary Variations

Simone Dinnerstein playing J.S. Bach's Goldberg Variations

Legends surround J.S. Bach’s legendary Aria with Thirty Variations, BWV 988. One well-known tale has Bach composing it at the request of Count von Keyserlingk in Dresden, who suffered from chronic insomnia. The idea was for Johann Goldberg, the count’s young harpsichordist (and a student of Bach’s) to play it at night, to help lull Kayerserlingk to sleep.

Although no firm historical evidence backs this story up, I can see why it became popular. The first time I heard the Goldberg Variations, I was a teenager, invited to hear a performance given by a harpsichordist at a museum. Sitting in the cavernous auditorium, I heard mainly an endless jangle of G major. I was too young to form an educated opinion at the time, but the piece did seem long and monotonous enough to put one to sleep.

A more modern legend comes in the form of a man, one of the most famous proponents of the Goldberg Variations, Canadian pianist Glenn Gould. Gould’s 1959 recording of the piece is revolutionary, brilliantly fast, and possesses the precision of a gorgeous machine. Gould possessed one of the most eccentric personalities in music, too -– painfully reclusive, he eventually gave up playing in public except through the medium of the L.P. recording. He became so unkempt that Leonard Bernstein’s wife had to wash his hair under the bathtub spigot when he came to visit. The eccentricities only added to the legend.

I wonder if the pianist who removes himself to the isolation of the recording studio is as deserving of ongoing legendary status as the pianist whose platform is the unadorned stage, with breathing, wide-awake human beings sitting in the audience, expecting magic.

A month ago, I heard a pianist who stepped into this most challenging arena with nothing but herself, a new Steinway concert grand, and a glass of water. No score, no do-overs, no editing help. Simone Dinnerstein, whose career ascended after her debut recording of the Goldberg Variations climbed to the top of Billboard’s Classical chart, gave a performance of the Goldberg Variations at the Church of the Holy Trinity at Rittenhouse Square, Philadelphia, for the benefit of Astral Artists, the non-profit organization which did much to nurture her career.

I sat in the keyboard-side balcony with Tom, girding patience –- I had found the deliberate slowness of much of Dinnerstein’s recording to require an almost meditative state of concentration.

Maybe her tempi were faster in live performance, but one thing was for sure –- she commanded my ear from first note to last. Yes, she did take every repeat of every variation, but the effect, while remaining largely introspective, was compelling. I might have wished for a bit more tonal variation in the brilliant, fast variations, and I would have welcomed a greater invention of ornamentation, but overall, I found her performance mesmerizing and masterful. She demonstrated the power of a quiet personality who persuades through the strength of her unsparing inquiry and understanding.

It is said that Anna Magdalena, Bach’s cherished second wife, a soprano, loved the Aria of the Goldberg Variations so much that she hand-copied it into her music notebook. This Notebook, started by Johann Sebastian so that Anna Magadelena could become proficient at keyboard instruments, remains, some 300 years later, a necessary part of every young pianist’s repertoire. This legend surrounding Anna Magdalena and her Aria is, like Ms. Dinnerstein’s performance, one I’m happy to believe.

Diva Power-A Recital by Denyce Graves

Denyce Graves, John Conahan, and Laura Ward

If the devil knocked on my door and said, “I’ll turn you into a great singer, Deb, but you have to give me your little finger – on both hands,” I’d say “yes!” Nothing moves me more than great singing, maybe because my father has a beautiful tenor voice. Growing up, I often accompanied him at church. Despite the fact that his sense of rhythm is quite, shall we say, creative, accompanying singers remains one of my favorite things to do.

Two weeks ago, I had the unbelievable good fortune to fall under the spell of one of the truly great voices of this century, when I was invited by a friend to hear a private dress rehearsal given by the mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves. Ms. Graves was preparing for a lieder recital at the Strathmore Festival near Washington, D.C., and her Philadelphia-based pianist, Laura Ward, arranged a run-through at her church in center city Philadelphia.

It was a cool and drizzly day for June, and the massive doors of the church were locked. Laura herself answered the buzzer and let me into the building through a side entrance. I was uncharacteristically early, and took a front pew seat in the silent church. With all the exits shut, the air inside the sanctuary felt close and dusty. The light filtering through the stained glass windows was dim.

All dusty dimness vanished, however, when Denyce Graves stepped to the front of the church to sing. Though wearing a knee-length dress, she looked every bit the glamorous diva, and I was touched that even for this tiny, impromptu audience, she cared enough to create an imposing stage presence.

That care translated beautifully into her stunning recital, which began with songs by Purcell and Handel and continued with a remarkable interpretation of the Robert Schumann masterpiece, Frauenliebe und Leben. The burnished yet pure timbre of Ms. Graves’ voice soaring above Schumann’s singular, lush harmonies, transported me, and I couldn’t help but weep.

As mezzo-soprano Suzanne duPlantis, who was in the audience, told me later, “That was probably the best interpretation of that song cycle I’ve ever heard.”

On the second half of the program, Ms. Graves again created magic in her set of four standards from the American songbook, which were arranged in anything but a standard way by young Philadelphia-based singer, composer, and arranger John Conahan. Ms. Graves delivered Gershwin’s “The Man I Love” and Grand and Boyd’s “Guess Who I Saw Today,” with piercing intelligence, perfect narrative timing, and devastating emotion. Again my tears flowed.

Of course, her great liberty to express was made possible by Laura Ward’s superb intuitive accompaniment. The women generously gave two encores, “Mon coeur s’ouvre a ta voix,” from Samson et Delila by St. Saens, and a spiritual that Ms. Graves grew up hearing her mother sing, “Give Me Jesus.”

Gracious in person, Ms. Graves told me afterward she had been a little nervous because all these pieces were “new material.”

“Don’t change a thing,” I said.

Denyce Graves, through the hard work of honing an incredible gift of voice, embodies the power of woman. I’d wish for any group of oppressed women, anywhere in the world, to be able to hear her sing. They would understand immediately that within them, too, lies power.

To Produce or to Play?

Wading Girl by Marybeth Hughes

Wading Girl by Marybeth Hughes

Would you rather be Chopin or Artur Rubinstein? Stravinsky or Maria Callas? Sofia Coppola or Scarlett Johansson?

Would you rather create art or re-create (perform and interpret) it?

My friend, the acclaimed short story writer and essayist Robin Black, believes that interpreting works of art is just as challenging and important as creating new work. (She’s well-acquainted with interpretive art — her brother is a harpsichordist.) As Robin eloquently puts it, “I think interpretive art is the equal of generative.” It’s a question I pondered the other day as I palled around with two friends who are visual artists and whose lives are consumed by creating something out of nothing but paint, canvas, and found objects.

The day was planned because my friend Ginny Fry, a thirty-year-old octogenarian, drove up from Annapolis at the invitation of my husband and me to hear a recital given by phenomenal young guitarist Lukasz Kuropazsewski at the Settlement School. Ginny has recently published her first book, BASKING SHARKS, a volume of original poetry. Facing each poem is a reproduction of one of her vivid abstract expressionist paintings –- the book is a brilliant generative double-whammy, if you will.

The day after the concert we met up with our friend Marybeth Hughes, who had just hung a show of her newest work at the Rosemont School of the Holy Child. The thirty or so paintings, small to moderately-large-sized oils, show Marybeth’s mastery of color, traditional landscape and human subjects, and plein-air painting. One oil, Divine Marta, indicates her movement toward more abstract and allegorical work.

Vortex by Marybeth Hughes

Vortex by Marybeth Hughes

From there, we stopped at the Haverford School, where Marybeth also has an outdoor ceramic installation as part of Mexican-American artist and teacher Antonio Fink’s tile exhibition. Her piece depicts the Pacific Vortex, a trash pile the size of Texas, composed of plastic debris that has gathered, whirlpool fashion, in the North Central portion of the Pacific Ocean. The installation is made up of hundreds of blue ceramic fish which Marybeth fired and then attached to three metal-work panels, at the top of which are threaded lengths of brown video tape that shimmer in the wind and represent the plastic debris of the vortex.

“Where did you get these great metal panels?” I asked her.
“Oh, in a pile of old stuff that I found in the basement when we moved into our house,” she said.
Something out of nothing.

Finally, we headed to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which is hosting an exhibition of the master Generator of the twentieth-century, Picasso. This large-scale show demonstrates how Picasso moved into and out of cubism, how he influenced and was influenced by his colleagues Georges Braque and Juan Gris, Brancusi, and many others. Viewing the juxtaposed pieces, one can immediately see that these artists were all trying to solve the problem of how to express point-of-view in a new way. It’s clear they had a lot of fun solving the puzzle while they were at it.

So is generative art greater than interpretive art? Perhaps the ideal answer can be found in those rare artists like Mozart or Rachmaninoff, who were touched by the creative spirit in the utmost way. These beings, more than human, wrote as divinely as they played.

Three Musicians by Pablo Picasso

Three Musicians by Pablo Picasso

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