John O’Conor’s 30-year competitive edge

O’Conor has done what many people thought impossible by putting Dublin on the piano map via the Dublin International Piano Competition. But now he worries for its future

John O’Conor: ‘At the final it has always been my great delight, when I announce the winner, to say that we have the money to do the next competition. This will be the first time I’m not able to say that.’ Photograph: Alan Betson

John O’Conor: ‘At the final it has always been my great delight, when I announce the winner, to say that we have the money to do the next competition. This will be the first time I’m not able to say that.’ Photograph: Alan Betson

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When John O’Conor first began to perform in the US in the 1980s, his agent introduced him to a Stateside concert presenter. “He said, ‘This is John O’Conor. He’s from Ireland’. The presenter replied, ‘Oh, so you’re a tenor?’ I said, ‘No. I’m a pianist’. And she said, ‘Who’s ever heard of an Irish pianist?’ ”

O’Conor was outraged. When he returned to Dublin, he decided to start a competition that would put Ireland on the international keyboard map. Many people – including The Irish Times’s music critic at the time, Charles Acton – thought he was mad.

Nearly 30 years on, however, the triennial Dublin International Piano Competition is firmly established on the global circuit. “Every piano teacher in every major conservatoire in the world knows about the Dublin competition,” he says. “It’s wonderful to look back at what we’ve achieved.”

The 2015 competition attracted a huge international entry, which he has whittled down to 64 competitors. “I was over in Florida at Christmas – we have a place there – and every day I was just sitting going through DVDs, non-stop,” he says.

To be able to see and hear the potential competitors in action is a big plus, he says. It also helps eliminate the dodgy ones. “In 1994 I put on a CD from a Chinese competitor. It was a Scarlatti sonata. I thought, Oh my goodness – that is just wonderful. There was a second sonata. I thought, That’s so good it sounds like a commercial CD. By the third sonata I thought, That actually sounds like András Schiff’s CD of Scarlatti.”

Most entrants are, of course, completely kosher. Nearly all come recommended by teachers known to O’Conor, who has built up a mammoth network of contacts over nearly half a century of performing and teaching. And many are experienced recitalists or have already won prizes elsewhere.

 

The ideal competitor

What does O’Conor look for in a potential competitor? “A magical quality,” comes the unhesitating reply. “A personality. An inner voice that speaks from the heart. It’s like when you’re teaching a really talented student. You teach them and you teach them and you teach them – and when they play in the lesson they do exactly what you talked about. And then they come back the next week and they’ve made it their own. Then you know that it’s not just recreating music but creating it. And there’s a big difference.”

There are six Irish competitors this year. “Last time we only had three,” O’Conor says. “I don’t know how far they’ll go, and some of them are very young, but it’s great experience for them, just preparing for an international competition.

“We’ve never had anybody as successful as Finghin Collins, who, when he was only 19, got to the semi-final. It was heartbreaking to be chairman of the jury, counting up the votes, and he was one away from making the final. But then, two years later, he won the Clara Haskil competition in Switzerland and it was the start of his career.”

Other winners now engaged in successful careers include Philippe Cassard, Pavel Nersessian, Davide Franceschetti and Max Levinson.

“I think the biggest thing that’s going for Dublin is we look after the winners,” says O’Conor. It’s not just a matter of the big engagements that come with the prize: debut recitals at the NCH, the Wigmore Hall in London and Carnegie Hall in New York, a tour with Music Network. “The day after the competition we sit down with them and say, ‘What kind of publicity are you doing? Do you have a website? Are you on YouTube?’ That’s how you do it these days. You can’t just sit at home and wait for the phone to ring. It’s all so different from when I started. I didn’t even know what an agent was, let alone how you might go about getting one. But now, you have to get out and hustle. Beethoven did. All the time.”

O’Conor, whose own international career began with a victory at the Beethoven Prize in 1973, could teach even Beethoven a thing or two about hustling. In the cash-strapped 1980s he secured Guinness Peat Aviation as a sponsor for the competition. Next came Guardian Insurance, which mutated into Axa, whose sponsorship continued for 10 years.

“This year they didn’t sponsor us, but have helped out. And I’ve twisted various arms. Carmel Naughton gave a donation. The composer Bill Whelan has been very good. John and Pauline Ryan from the US. But we just don’t know what we’re going to do for 2018. At the final it has always been my great delight, when I announce the winner, to say that we have the money to do the next competition. This will be the first time I’m not able to say that.”

For a moment he actually stops in his tracks: a rare thing for O’Conor, whose 19-to-the-dozen enthusiasm and ebullience are well known on the Irish music scene, and doubtless far beyond. But then, as he recalls the absence of government funding over the years, his outrage returns. “In Leeds the city council looks after the piano competition. In Bonn, Telecom are their big sponsors. We need to find a company who believes in us and believes in Ireland and wants to promote a different aspect of Ireland.”

 

Outlived their usefulness?

As for the idea that, in a world where highly accomplished pianists are 10 a penny, piano competitions may have outlived their usefulness, well, that really gets him going. Competitions are all about variety, and variety is, he insists, the spice of musical life.

“I like a certain style of playing and other people like a different style. It’s like some people are vegetarian, you know? Some people like the big Russian players who play very loud and fast. Others like something more refined – let’s say a French character who plays extraordinarily wonderful Debussy. And some people will say, ‘No, I need a Germanic pianist who will play Beethoven in the real way.’ ” Which flavour will win at Dublin this year? We’ll have to wait and see.

  • The Dublin Piano Competition is at the RDS from May 15th to 21st. The semi-finals are at the National Concert Hall on May 24th and 25th. The final, featuring a concerto performance with the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland, conducted by Alan Buribayev, is on May 26th
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