As career paths go, Irish pianist Isabelle O’Connell’s has been a smooth one. Born in Dublin, the 33-year-old started playing piano at the age of six, and by 11 she was attending the Royal Irish Academy of Music. Later when she finished high school she won a Fulbright Scholarship to complete her master’s degree here at the Manhattan School of Music.
But O’Connell’s upward trajectory wasn’t just academic, it was also professional. At the age of 25 in 2002 she made her debut recital at New York’s legendary Carnegie Hall Weill Recital Hall, the second Irish pianist ever to perform there, and she received a sustained standing ovation for her efforts.
In a world where Irish rock singers and Irish writers hog all the limelight, O’Connell’s list of achievements are just as impressive. On November 5 you’ll have the chance to hear her performing a solo set at the Music at First concert series in Brooklyn.
Last month O’Connell released her acclaimed debut solo CD Reservoir, which featured her playing the work of contemporary Irish composers, and for her forthcoming concert she’ll play the work of some contemporary American ones too. One of Ireland’s most successful pianists, O’Connell’s career has already taken her across four continents.
“I came here to New York to do my master’s, and just being in this city was a huge inspiration and challenge,” O’Connell tells the Irish Voice.
“From Dublin where there were just a handful of pianists, to New York where there were hundreds, was a total change of scene for me. I always felt the music scene in Dublin was so small and insular, and you can’t survive from just performing there. Everyone comes through New York at one point or another. That’s why I fell for it. You have open access to everything. It’s tremendously inspiring.”
Playing Carnegie Hall was a life changing moment for her, and she was anxious not to mess it up.
“I definitely felt a lot of pressure. I remember feeling almost ill with nerves 10 minutes before the concert, and then right before I started something just took over. One that ill feeling passed the adrenaline kicked in, and I calmed down and discovered I could do it. I walked out and everything went fine.”
But the trouble with contemporary music, O’Connell admits, is that most people don’t think they like it. The Irish are deservedly famous for their musical abilities, but for some reason contemporary composition has never shaken off that elitist aura that keeps it a rarified commodity. Breaking through that perception is the challenge for O’Connell and other Irish musicians like her.
“When people think of Irish music they think of Celtic folk music or else rock music,” O’Connell explains.
“The classical scene in Ireland was always smaller, and it’s been neglected, but I think that is changing and people are becoming a little more aware of new Irish composers like Donnacha Dennehy and Crash Ensemble. The fact is that the Irish contemporary composition scene has exploded over the last 10 years.”
To make a living and keep body and soul together while you’re pursuing your passion in New York is always a challenge. O’Connell teaches children and adults at two of Manhattan’s most prestigious music schools between her concerts and recordings. But having studied with some of the most intimidating teachers in New York, she’s found a way to impart her own skills without terrifying her students.
Says O’Connell, “The first teacher I had in New York was very intimidating. She was this older Russian lady (Nina Svetlanova) and she just had this aura about her. She used to wear dark glasses all the time, even indoors, so I could never tell what she was thinking. But she was also very warm-hearted, I have to say.”
If she could, O’Connell would persuade all comers that contemporary music is not the high faulting, unapproachable art that many fear it is. It can be pretty warm-hearted too.
But it’s only when you take the trouble to go and listen to it that it can work its real magic on you, O’Connell says, adding that anyone attending will her concert on November 5 will change their minds.
“Some of the pieces on the program are just really, really beautiful. There’s no other word to describe them. So I think if you do go you should prepare to be completely surprised,” she adds.
O’Connell’s show will be performed at the First Presbyterian Church in Brooklyn Heights on Friday, November 5 at 7:30 p.m. For tickets call 718-642-3770.