Friday, February 23, 2018
Music News, Concert Reviews

Florida Orchestra's all-Beethoven concert features Irish pianist

By Jon Carter

Times Staff Writer

Don't be surprised when world-renowned Irish pianist John O'Conor doesn't play a single note for what seems like an interminable time as the Florida Orchestra begins Beethoven's Concerto No. 3 for Piano and Orchestra.

It has the longest orchestral introduction of any of Beethoven's concertos — just over three minutes, depending on the tempo.

What does O'Conor think about during such a potentially awkward or unnerving time onstage?

"It seems so short because I love every moment of it!" O'Conor said during a phone interview from his seasonal home in Belleair Beach.

The concerto, part of the orchestra's all-Beethoven program this weekend, is like an old friend to O'Conor. It was the first Beethoven concerto he studied, at about age 12, and he knows it so well that it will be as if he is conducting alongside guest conductor Marcelo Lehninger.

For O'Conor, the concerto made him realize the strength of the German composer who was struggling with impending deafness. It was around the time the concerto was composed (1800) that Beethoven began writing to his friends describing his symptoms and the difficulties they caused him.

Widely regarded as one of the most important interpreters of Beethoven's piano music today, O'Conor gives a series of master classes known as "Beethoven Bootcamp" every year in Positano, Italy. He believes musicians should know Beethoven as a person first when they perform his music. For instance, most know Beethoven wasn't always the nicest guy, but many might not realize he also had a great, if slightly warped, sense of humor. He would go to elaborate lengths to use puns, often in a slightly derogatory manner.

O'Conor thinks each generation of musicians should pass on their knowledge. He's a good example. A direct line of pianists can be traced from O'Conor back to Beethoven. In fact, there are only five pianists between him and the composer, including O'Conor's own teacher and legendary pianist Wilhelm Kempff as well as the composer Franz Liszt.

Although O'Conor has a local home, he said his primary residence might as well be an airplane. He is still in demand as soloist and teacher, even though he has retired from his post as director of the Royal Irish Academy of Music in Dublin. In addition to his international performance schedule, he is now visiting artist and professor at Shenandoah Conservatory in Virginia and at the Showa University of Music in Japan.

"I travel so much that I forget where I've been," he said, "but I always know where I'm going."

Also on the Bravo Beethoven program will be the Overture to Goethe's Egmont and the Symphony No. 6, "Pastoral." Also offered this weekend are onstage seats for $75. They are sold out at Mahaffey and Ruth Eckerd Hall, but some still remain in Tampa for Friday night.

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