Since 2012 the National Concert Hall has presented an annual Lifetime Achievement Award to Irish musicians of international renown. Not confined to what can be loosely termed ‘classical artists’, the award spreads its wings across a broader spectrum of musical genres.
James Galway, Veronica Dunne, Paul Brady and the Vanbrugh Quartet followed the first recipients –the ubiquitous Paddy Moloney and the Chieftains.
This year’s honour fell on Dublin-born pianist John O’Conor [pictured] who rec-eived his accolade – a bronze replica of John Behan’s original sculpture – from President Michael D Higgins during a recent NCH ceremony.
The actual presentation came at the end of a concert that, despite an element of formality, created an intimate and genial atmosphere with John O’Conor ‘interviewed’ by journalist, broadcaster and music lover Olivia O’Leary.
Other artists joined them and, between their musical offerings, contributed various anecdotes about their O’Conor connections over the years thereby giving the event its relaxing character.
Not surprisingly the musical proceedings began and ended with Beethoven, a composer with whom John O’Conor has become almost synonymous since winning the prestigious Beethoven International Piano Competition in Vienna in 1973. An Austrian Government scholarship helped him study in Vienna with the distinguished Dieter Weber and be tutored by legendary pianist Wilhelm Kempff.
Here the opening movement of Beethoven’s Appassionata Sonata was intense with the finale from his Third Piano Concerto, with the RIAM Chamber Ensemble, more light-hearted.
Mr O’Conor also duetted engagingly in Milhaud and Grieg with his contemporary, Veronica McSwiney and prodigious twelve-year old pupil, Joe O’Grady. He imaginatively accompanied singers Suzanne Murphy and Tara Erraught in song and aria and gave sterling support to Ms Erraught and clarinettist John Finucane in Schubert’s beguiling Shepherd on the Rock.
Among former students, Finghin Collins was the commanding soloist in the opening allegro from Mozart’s A major K 488 Concerto while the quartet of Dearbhla Brosnan, Orla McDonagh, Fionnuala Moynihan and Ray Keary elbowed together for Lavignac’s giddy one-piano-eight-hands Galop Marche.
A French tribute came through a Fauré Nocturne sensitively played by Philippe Cassard, winner of the initial Dublin International Piano Competition in 1988. Established by O’Conor, who is still its chairman, the 11th triennial competition is scheduled for May 2018.
As well as his worldwide performing career, John O’Conor is revered as a teacher both at home and abroad and he is in global demand for his master-classes. Along with his work at the RIAM, where he was director from 1994 to 2010, he holds professorships at Shenandoah University, Virginia, Toronto’s Royal Conservatory and Japan’s Showa Music University. His skill as juror is highly valued at many international piano competitions.
John O’Conor’s highly–acclaimed recordings include the concertos and nocturnes of John Field, four volumes of Mozart concertos, sonatas by Haydn and Schubert and, naturally, Beethoven – sonatas, bagatelles and concertos.
His eagerly awaited Diabelli Variations CD was released last year on the Steinway & Sons label – STNS 30058 – with one reviewer finding it “humorous and mercurial, profound and awe-inspiring and displaying a fine balance between vigorous virtuosity and sublime restraint”.