The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The music of John Field remains underappreciated. Pianist John O’Conor will perform concertos by Field and Mozart this Friday night with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra.

April 19, 2016
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (below), under its longtime music director Andrew Sewell, will close out its current Masterworks season this Friday night at 8 p.m. in the Capitol Theater of the Overture Center.

WCO lobby

The program – which features guest pianist John O’Conor (below) – includes the Piano Concerto No. 1 by John Field; the Piano Concerto No. 21 in C Major, K. 467 (“Elvira Madigan”), by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart; the Suite No. 1 for Small Orchestra by Igor Stravinsky; and the Symphony No. 1 by Carl Maria von Weber.

john o'conor pink shirt horizontal

Tickets are $15-$80.

For more information, including a full biography of John O’Conor and the purchasing of tickets, visit:

http://www.wcoconcerts.org/performances/masterworks-v-1/

John O’Conor, who has an extremely busy career performing, teaching, recording and judging piano competitions recently agreed to a Q&A with The Ear:

john o'conor with piano

John Field is best known as the precursor of Chopin when it comes to composing nocturnes. How right or wrong is that perception and how would you change it? What else should we know about Field, his stylistic roots and his influence, especially through his other piano music, in particular his concertos?

John Field (below) is indeed the originator of the Nocturne form for piano music. He realized that the usual forms of music of the 18th century (sonatas, variations etc.) were not really suitable for after-dinner performances at the residences of the nobility in the 19th century, so he published various short pieces entitled “Pastorale” and other such names until he happened on the idea of the “Nocturne” in 1814 (when Chopin was only 4 !!) when he published his first three.

They were an immediate sensation and he quickly published many more. It is said that one of his Polish students in St. Petersburg went back to Poland in the 1820s, played some of his Nocturnes, Chopin heard them and wrote his own and the rest is history.

John Field

Field was a prodigy in his native Dublin where he was born in 1782. His father recognized his talent and spent the enormous sum of 100 pounds to apprentice him to Muzio Clementi in London when he was only barely in his teens. Clementi was not only a famous pianist and composer but also a piano manufacturer.

He soon realized that when Field demonstrated his pianos, he sold more pianos! So he brought him on a promotional your around Europe in 1802. They visited Paris and Vienna and then St. Petersburg, when winter set in and they had to stay there until they could travel again in spring.

But during the winter the very handsome Field became the darling of the salons and all the daughters of the nobility wanted to study piano with him. So when Clementi (below) left in spring, Field stayed on. He spent most of the rest of his life in Russia and died in Moscow in 1837.

Muzio Clementi

What would you like the public to know about the Piano Concerto No. 1 in E-flat Major by Field that you will perform in Madison?

Apart from Nocturnes, Field also wrote four sonatas and seven piano concertos. The concertos were tremendously popular in the 19th century and his second concerto was often the debut concerto of young virtuosi — in the same way that Sergei Rachmaninoff‘s Piano Concerto No. 2 became so in the 20th century.

The problem with the concertos is that they often lack an advanced sense of form and meander quite a bit — but quite beautifully!

I love the first concerto because it is the most concise and best organized of the concertos. It is full of youthful exuberance and he obviously wanted to show off his considerable technique in the flying fingers of the outer movements.

The middle movement is a set of variations on a Scottish folk song and though he composed this piece while still living in London with Clementi you can already hear the gentle filigree figurations that became such a characteristic of his later Nocturnes.

The Piano Concerto No. 21 by Mozart (below) is best known for its slow movement that was used as the soundtrack to the popular film “Elvira Madigan.” What else would you like to point out about this particular concerto to the public? In your view, where does it rank among Mozart’s 27 piano concertos?

There is no connection between Field and Mozart that I know of. But the Mozart Concerto is another example of a composer showing off his virtuosity. Both the outer movements sparkle with vivacity and charm, and the beauty of the slow movement needs no introduction from me. It is one of the most beautiful movements that Mozart ever wrote. (You can hear the slow movement in the YouTube video — with 39 million hits!~ at the bottom.)

Mozart old 1782

You are very well known internationally as a both a teacher and an award-winning performer. For you, how does each activity inform the other?

I love teaching. I have always loved teaching piano. To some people, it might seem like drudgery, but I hope none of my students have ever felt that.

Nowadays I have incredibly gifted students who regularly win prizes at international piano competitions. But even when I started teaching, I hope I made the music fun for all my less talented students. It is a privilege to give them a love of the art that will keep for the rest of their lives.


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