“Competitions are for horses, not artists,” said Béla Bartók. Esteemed Irish pianist and educator John O’Conor believes that they are “a necessary evil” – a way for young musicians to get noticed in today’s busy music scene. But what must a competitor do to succeed?

O’Conor is about to arrive in Australia as Jury Chair for the Lev Vlassenko Piano Competition & Festival, a 14-day event running at the Queensland Conservatorium from June 30 to July 12.

John O’Conor. Photograph supplied

O’Conor burst onto the scene when he won the 1973 International Beethoven Piano Competition. A former  Director of the Royal Irish Academy of Music, he is now Artistic Director of the Dublin International Piano Competition, which he co-founded; the Distinguished Artist in Residence, Professor of Music and Chair of the Piano Division at Shenandoah Conservatory at Shenandoah University in Winchester VA; Professor of Piano, Glenn Gould School at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto; International Visiting Artist at the Royal Irish Academy of Music, Dublin; and Visiting Professor at Showa University of Music in Japan. He has sat on the jury of many piano competitions, including the Sydney International Piano Competition on two occasions. He spoke to Limelight:

You came first at the International Beethoven Piano Competition in 1973. How important was that in helping launch your career?

If I hadn’t won 1st Prize at the Beethoven Competition in 1973 I would not have pursued an international career. I was married, on leave of absence from a permanent and pensionable job at the College of Music in Dublin (which greatly pacified my mother who felt that there was no money in music!!!) and giving that up for a questionable future as a concert pianist was a huge decision. If I hadn’t had the support of my wife I would not have done it. The day after my win I asked her for her advice and her answer was “I am not going to answer that on the grounds that you will blame me for my answer for the rest of our married life!” I said “Well, I have to give it a go” and she replied “Well, we haven’t starved yet!” So she worked as a secretary and I practised like a maniac. Many a time in the difficult years that followed I wished I had won 2nd Prize which would have meant that I would have gone back to Dublin and resumed my job. But now I don’t regret it one bit.

How important do you feel piano competitions are for young performers these days?

Piano competitions are a necessary evil. It is very difficult to be noticed as a young pianist and a prize in a major competition makes a difference. It doesn’t guarantee a career but at least people will give you a chance you might not have had otherwise. But far too many young pianists who win a major prize sit at home practising, waiting for the phone to ring with offers and I keep telling them that it won’t ring. You have to get out there and promote yourself, meet people, make connections etc. etc. If Daddy has a million dollars to put into publicity or if you become the protégé of a famous conductor or musical luminary then you probably don’t need competitions. But few start with that sort of backing. I remember the problem well.

Should young performers specifically train for competitions do you think? And is there a particular skill to doing well at music competitions?

Yes, if they are going to do competitions young, pianists need to train as seriously as any athlete preparing for the Olympics. Otherwise there is no point. Then the major skill they have to develop is to be themselves and not try to please the jury. I keep telling my students that good juries not only hear what they play, they also hear what they think and if the pianist is focused solely on playing all the right notes then we lose interest. We can program computers to do that. We are looking for someone who can reveal the glories of whatever piece they are playing and only someone with a musical personality can do that.

Do you enjoy being part of the jury at piano competitions?

Yes, I do enjoy being on juries of most competitions – when I can trust all the other jurors to be fair and honest. I have been on juries where one juror tries to influence the other jurors to their way of thinking which I object to. The best sort of competition are the ones where there is NO discussion before we vote. We all have our own opinions and it is best to allow us to express them honestly.

What attracted you to taking on the role of Jury Chair at the Lev Vlassenko Piano Competition in Brisbane?

I adore going to Australia. I love Australians! I have great respect for Natasha Vlassenko and knew her father well and loved him. She has asked me to come on the jury several times before and I was never free. I am so happy to be able to come this time.

You are performing at the Opening Concert. What repertoire will you play?

My repertoire for the opening recital will be Haydn’s Sonata in B Minor Hob XVI No. 32, Schubert’s Three Impromptus D 899 No 2, 3 and 4, Nocturnes by Field, Chopin and Scriabin (the one for the left hand alone), and Beethoven’s Sonata in C Minor Op. 13 “Pathetique”.

What advice would you give young musicians hoping to build a professional musical career?

Basically I tell all young pianists that there is a LOT more money in other professions but that if, like me, they couldn’t imagine doing anything else with their lives then go for it 110 percent. Practise like a maniac, find a great teacher, expand your knowledge of all the arts (literature, painting, etc, etc), get to know ALL the works of the composers you are playing, not just the piano music. After all you can’t play Mozart on the piano without knowing the operas, for Beethoven you need to know the symphonies and string quartets and for Schubert a knowledge of the Lieder is essential.

What is it about teaching young musicians, and being part of competitions that you value?

I love trying to help young pianists in any way I can if they are truly serious and avid for knowledge. I remember trying to find my way in music as a young person and how bewildering it was. If I can save them some heartbreaks then all the better.

What do you feel about the state of arts education in schools in Ireland and other places that you regularly visit? (It’s certainly an issue in Australia where we have people fighting for music education to be available in all primary schools).

Music education in Ireland is in the doldrums. In fact, all around the world it is a problem. Most politicians have no knowledge of classical music so they are nervous about it, not wishing to show their ignorance. That means that the funding is usually not forthcoming for development. There are some amazing teachers in schools who manage to instil a love of music in all their students and they should be recognised and treasured. But we need more,  and these ones should have more support.

The Lev Vlassenko Piano Competition was co-founded in 1999 by Natasha Vlassenko, Head of Keyboard studies at Queensland Conservatorium, and her husband, Oleg Stepanov, pianist and lecturer, in memory of Natasha’s father, then famous pianist Lev Vlassenko. Previous prize winners include concert pianists Jayson Gillham, Ayesha Gough, Tony Lee, Hoang Pham and John Chen. Presented by Griffith University Queensland and the Queensland Conservatorium of Music, the 14-day event will take place at the Queensland Conservatorium. After a week of competitive rounds, four pianists will compete in the finals for the first prize of $25,000, with prize money totalling $60,000.

Semi-finalists will each perform a work by Australian composer and clarinettist Paul Dean. The finalists will perform a concerto with the Queensland Symphony Orchestra under the direction of conductor Richard Davis. The prestigious 2019 jury includes John O’Conor (Chair), Russian pianist Konstantin Shamray, who won the Sydney International Piano Competition in 2008, and leading pianist and pedagogue Jan Jiracek von Arnim, a top prize winner at the Busoni Competition (Italy) and Maria Canals Competition (Spain), and one of the winners of the Tenth Van Cliburn International Piano Competition (USA). He is Chair and Artistic Director of the International Beethoven Piano Competition Vienna.

The festival will also include masterclasses, recitals and forums. The final concert on July 12 will be live streamed and broadcast live on 4MBS FM.

The 2019 Lev Vlassenko Piano Competition & Festival runs June 30 – July 12