John O’Conor has loved the music of Ludwig Van Beethoven since he was a child. He’s become one of the most acclaimed classical pianists in the world thanks in part to his recordings of Beethoven’s music.
And there are a lot of those recordings.
His catalog includes all of Beethoven’s sonatas, his five piano concertos and all of the composer’s bagatelles (short pieces), a collection that The New York Times called the best recordings of those works.
And yet, after decades of learning about the composer and the man, O’Conor says he still wants to know more.
“If you’re going to play Beethoven, you need to understand the man,” he says. “I still read about him all the time.”
Which is fitting, given the influence Beethoven has had on O’Conor’s career. The first concerto that O’Conor ever played with an orchestra was Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in C major, and he essentially launched his career in 1973 by winning first prize in the International Beethoven Piano Competition in Vienna.
That win came at a pivotal time in the Irish pianist’s life, when he was considering leaving the stage to be a teacher in Dublin. After the competition, O’Conor became one of the most acclaimed pianists in the world. The Washington Post wrote that he had “the kind of flawless touch that makes an audience gasp,” and the Chicago Tribune wrote that he “represents a vanishing tradition that favors inner expression and atmosphere over showmanship and bravura.”
Not that O’Conor pays too much attention to his reviews, especially the positive ones.
“You don’t remember the good ones,” he laughs. “When someone says something nasty about you, you wonder why they said that, and then when someone says, ‘Oh, you’re fantastic,’ you tend not to remember. But I don’t really take any notice, because you’re only as good as your last performance.”
It’s interesting, though, that O’Conor once considered abandoning the stage to become a teacher, because he never lost his passion for teaching. For much of his 46-year career, he’s given almost as many master classes and lectures as he has performances, often combining the two at places like Juilliard, Harvard, Yale, the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto, the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing, and the Royal Academy of Music in London.
“I do a lot of teaching,” he says. “I’m passionate about it, and I’ve always loved it. Students become your family in a way, and it’s a pleasure to work with them. It’s a wonderful relationship. I always had great teachers who encouraged me and made it fun and opened doors for me to the most amazing repertoire in the world.”
O’Conor will once again combine instruction with performance in Columbia next week, leading a master class at the University of South Carolina School Of Music on Monday and performing Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor with the USC Symphony Orchestra at the Koger Center as part of the Orchestra’s Mahler & Beethoven program on Tuesday night.
“They wanted me to come down and play a Beethoven concerto with them because of Beethoven’s 250th birthday next year,” O’Conor tells Free Times, “and they asked me what my favorite concerto was. I felt like a kid in a toy shop.”
O’Conor says that the key to performing Beethoven’s music, or indeed that of any classical composer, is to view oneself as a messenger, not an interpreter.
“I don’t consciously try to put my own stamp on it,” he explains. “I think you have to go inside the music and bring out what you see there. It’s arrogant in the extreme to think that you can improve on it. I tell students that there’s always going to be someone in the audience who has never heard this work before. And you have to say to them, ‘Listen to this.’ You have to highlight everything.”
O’Conor says he also tells his students that the best performances are more about passion than perfection.
“Students ask me, ‘What do you listen for?’” he says. “And it’s not playing all the right notes. Computers do that. What you have to do is bring out the passion and the struggle within the music. Nothing is ever perfect. My mother used to say to me that practice makes perfect, but if I could, I would argue with her now and tell her there’s no such thing as perfection.
“You always have things you could have done. The day you walk offstage and think, ‘That was perfect,’ you should give up, because your critical standards have dropped.”
What:University of South Carolina Symphony with John O’Conor
Where:Koger Center, 1051 Greene St.
When:Tuesday, Dec. 3, 7:30 p.m.
Price:$8-$30 (USC students free with ID)
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