Irish pianist John O'Conor on not knowing Bono, opera with horses and wrestling
Jenny Lee puts performers and artists on the spot about what really matters to them. This week, Dublin pianist John O'Conor
1 When did you think about a career in music and what were your first steps into it?
I dreamed of a career in music from my teens but my parents were so dead against it that I considered just about everything else in the hope of placating them until finally when I was 18 I knew that I couldn’t live my life without music.
My mother insisted that I do a degree in music at university so that I would “have something to fall back on” when this piano playing rubbish didn’t work out... and then refused to pay my fees so I ended up playing for ballet classes, every kid’s violin examination, lots of awful gigs in awful places just to keep some money coming in.
When I got my degree there was no possibility of going abroad to study as we didn't have the money and there were no scholarships available, so I took a full-time teaching job at the College of Music in Dublin.
I also used to travel up to Belfast once a week at the invitation of the amazing Daphne Bell to teach at the Ulster College of Music.
Then I heard of the possibility of an Austrian government scholarship which I applied for and won and off I went to study in Vienna. I found an amazing teacher, Dieter Weber, practised like a maniac and two years later won the International Beethoven Piano Competition in Vienna which started my international career.
2 Best gigs you’ve been to?
When I was 17 we went on a school trip to the continent which included my first visit to Rome and there I saw the opera Aida in which Rhadames charged on stage in the second act in a four-horse chariot. There were about 200 people on stage in the Grand March scene and in the third act – by the Nile – there was even a camel.
Another amazing event was the first time I saw La Boheme at the Vienna Staatsoper in the Zeffirelli production which was mind-blowing.
And the third amazing gig was the U2 concert I saw at the RDS in Dublin. I had attended a fund-raising concert at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin in the mid-80s and this guy exploded on to the stage and sang incredibly well. I turned to my wife and said, “Who is he?”.She looked at me in astonishment and said “Bono”. It may be the most sincere compliment he ever gets as I had no idea who he was but knew he was fantastic. Going to the gig at the RDS emphasised that.
3 Fantasy wedding/birthday party band?
U2 – why not?
4 The record you’d take to a desert island?
A recording of the final trio from Der Rosenkavalier, which is so hauntingly beautiful.
5 And the book you’d take?
Ulysses – because I might eventually finish it.
6 Top three films?
Buona Sera, Mrs Campbell (I adore Gina Lollabrigida), The Birdcage and Home Alone. According to my sons, Christmas only starts when we have all watched it again.
7 Worst film you’ve seen?
So many on the flights I have to take every year. I can’t stand all these monster movies. Why can’t they just keep giving us Cary Grant, Katherine Hepburn, Audrey Hepburn and the great classic movies?
8 Favourite authors?
Seamus Heaney, Jane Austen and Dick Francis.
9 Sport you most enjoy and top team?
I used to enjoy watching wrestling every Saturday afternoon on ITV but when that stopped we were subjected to the American wrestling which is so ridiculously theatrical and choreographed. So now I enjoy American football most.
10 Ideal holiday destination?
Any Pacific island where you can have one of those suites on stilts, so that you just dive off into the sea every morning. I’ve never been to one – but I can still dream about it.
11 Pet hate?
12 What’s your favourite:
Dessert? Blackberry and apple crumble.
Drink? Black Russian.
13 Who is your best friend and how do you know each other?
My wife Mary. We’ve been married for over 48 years now and we still laugh a lot and enjoy each other’s company so much.
14 Is there a God?
Yes, definitely. Just look at a glorious sunset over the Gulf of Mexico, or the first crocus in spring or listen to a blackbird sing on a summer’s evening.
John O’Conor will perform a programme of Beethoven Sonatas as part of the Belfast Music Society Northern Lights Mini-Fest 2020 on Monday October 26 at 6pm. Recorded in the Harty Room at Queen’s University Belfast, the event will be available to view online free of charge, but should be booked in advance at Belfastmusicsociety.org