Ronan O’Hora in conversation with Melanie Spanswick

This is the ninth interview in my Classical Conversations Series, and, today, British pianist Ronan O’Hora is my guest.

Ronan studied at the Royal Northern College of Music with Ryszard Bakst. He won many awards as a student at the RNCM including the Dayas Gold Medal, the Silver Medal of the Worshipful Company of Musicians and the Concerto Prize. He has performed extensively throughout the world, playing concertos with such orchestras as the London Philharmonic, Philharmonia, BBC Symphony, English Chamber Orchestra, Academy of St Martin-in-the-Fields, Zurich Tonhalle, Indianapolis Symphony, Florida Philharmonic, Philharmonia Hungarica and Queensland Philharmonic. He has performed in every major country in Europe as well as across the USA, Canada, Australasia and South Africa and appeared at many of the most prestigious music festivals including Salzburg, Gstaad, Ravinia, Montpelier and Brno.

He has given many performances on television and radio throughout the world including a televised recital at the Chopin Society in Warsaw, a televised performance of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No 4 with the Netherlands Radio Symphony, two concerts of Mozart chamber music on BBC TV, as well as over one hundred concerts on BBC Radio 3.

Ronan has recorded more than thirty CDs for the EMI, Virgin Classics, Tring International, Dinemic and Fone labels. These include concertos by Mozart, Grieg and Tschaikowsky with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, solo CDs of Schubert, Brahms, Schumann, Beethoven, Mozart, Debussy, Chopin, Mendelssohn and Satie, and chamber music by Faure, Brahms, Dvorak, Mozart and Britten.

Ronan has been a piano professor at the Royal Northern College of Music and Chethams School of Music. He regularly gives masterclasses and sits on competition juries throughout the world.

Ronan has been Head of Keyboard Studies at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London since 1999, and in 2008 also became Head of Advanced Performance Studies.

Here’s the transcript for those who prefer to read interviews:

MELANIE SPANSWICK:  British concert pianist Ronan O’Hora has played concerts all over the world. He’s given over a hundred broadcasts for BBC Radio 3 and he is Head of Keyboard and Performance studies here at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London. I’m delighted he’s joining me today for a Classical Conversation. Welcome Ronan.

RONAN O’HORA:  Thank you very much.

MELANIE SPANSWICK:   I’m going to dive in and ask you all about your musical education? So, how old were you when you started to play and what was the catalyst?  Did you come from a musical family?

RONAN O’HAORA:  I didn’t come from a musical family in the sense that they had a great deal of professional musical experience although both my mother and my father  were  very naturally musical people. Uhm.. it’s difficult, my  older  brother  and sister were playing and I guess that must be when I heard the piano and somehow began to get captivated.  Ah I don’t know what exactly hooked me in so much.   I do know that…that during my, I mean, I guess I began when I was about five or six and I was very, very fascinated or well obsessed with music. It was a lot longer before I really felt I wanted to be a pianist.  That was a more circuitous process. I was obsessed with music.  I used to play a lot of orchestral scores at the piano, I used to play a lot of piano repertoire, but I somehow never, I didn’t narrow it down in my mind if you know for whatever reason.  I didn’t go to a specialist school and ahh.. I ..It mattered to me, I’m not sure I quite know why but it mattered to me to … to deal with music in a much more holistic way if you like. It was really only much more in my mid-teens that the piano became more serious in that sense at least playing concerts. I won the piano class in Young Musician of the Year, many millions of years ago. But at that time gave you considerable amount of exposure and concerts and it was I think at that point you just thought  somehow it seemed to be something that … that seemed to be not exactly fait accompli but it made me realize that this was something that you were  able   to enjoy doing on ah… a  deeper level  and I would have guessed beforehand.

MELANIE SPANSWICK: So which teacher then do you think was most influential in your development?

RONAN O’HORA: I studied with Ryszard Bakst at Chets, who was extremely helpful.  I   particularly   needed at that time, he was at Chets, I of course, wasn’t. I needed to get discipline.  Because I was a very good sight-reader, I could read orchestral scores at the piano, reasonably easily.  I  had  this  certain  kind  of  facility  and  I had a   certain kind of musical mind that allowed me to cover up all sorts of things that I couldn’t do. And that has its uses as a pianist, you need some of that but there comes a time when you really need to sort out the detail and that is encountering him when I guess I was about fourteen or fifteen. It was very important from that point of view. I mean, others as well, but particularly that. You need occasionally,  if you are… as I was that time, you need   to run    into somebody  where you can’t  fake your way around it and you can’t cover up things and you can’t disguise things. Ah.. And so he provided me with that sense of discipline. And the real lesson I think is coming to, you need to learn to love detail I think in a particular kind of way. It’s not enough to just do it because somebody will get mad at you if you don’t.  You need to see the beauty.


RONAN O’HORA: And I went through a year where I couldn’t see you know. And that’s not very good of me and something changed and I realized the beauty of detail and that fundamentally changes your outlook of these things. But I always had.. I.. I mean I didn’t study with a vast array of teachers but I  feel I have learned from a huge array of people both pianists and non-pianists. I remember playing once when I was quite young, I remember playing at William Pleeth’s Cello chamber music course in the Britten-Pears School and I learned huge amount from that and from many other chamber    group,    master classes and    many    others.  I studied quite a bit with Vlado Perlemuter.


RONAN O’HORA: And I learnt an enormous amount from him. So I feel many, many influences and that … that there continues to be.  You know, it’s a continuous process.

MELANIE SPANSWICK: Yes. Yes. And how did you develop your technique then?

RONAN O’HORA: Well, As I said I it, it was very much a question of …Bakst had come from the Russian school, a pupil of Neuhaus, and you have to do develop fingers that will actually support you and do the job for you and you know, you need to be able to …to rely on them, to build them up.  And so I think, it’s that sense of your fingers taking responsibility.


RONAN O’HORA: I think it is very important. More and more.. ahm..  that that’s actually associated with ideas of physical comfort in a deeper sense of the word, or pleasure.


RONAN O’HORA: Because we tend to be psychologically conditioned to think that if you’re going try to do something very seriously that there should be something uncomfortable about. I think we do think… we don’t rationalize it that way but we do, we do often sort of have that association. And I think it is the opposite that with, I mean with great performers, they may well be demanding huge    amounts from themselves in all sorts of ways. I’m not suggesting it’s easy but I’m suggesting they are in contact with a very deep natural comfort in themselves…they are doing what feels natural. One of the things as a pianist I think, is you need to discover you know, like singers talk about their particular voice, you might be a soubrette soprano or a Wagner Heldentenor, they have a particular voice….


RONAN O’HORA: And no amount of a certain kind of technique will make you do things which God didn’t make you for as it were and this is also true for pianists in a way….


RONAN O’HORA: And you have to understand that the repertoire is unencompassable. Nobody, even the most talented pianists can’t, you know, partly its sheer volume and also just the sheer range of demand both technical and musical.  So you have to develop instincts and feelings for what you really… what is more natural for you, what you feel more drawn to both musically and physically at the instrument.  I think those things are important. Having said that you also need to go through periods where you can handle as it were, anything on some level, there aren’t areas that are forbidden to you, as it were.

MELANIE SPANSWICK: Mm-hmm… So when was the light bulb moment?  When did you think, ‘I just have to be a pianist?’

RONAN O’HORA: It was… It was more gradual in one sense. It was sub-germinating probably in the back of my mind as I didn’t come from a musical background which does tend to make you feel, although I was spending huge amounts of my life in music, you do, you do, I suppose in retrospect, think, well that’s for other people, that’s not something I could do because I’ve not come from that sort of world.


RONAN O’HORA: And as I said, the reason I gave the example of Young Musician of the Year, it’s not necessarily that absolutely at that moment everything started but there is a kind of sense of…of realising that, that you can be yourself doing that…. ahm because again that’s, that’s an important part of this because I think  people, it’s one of the hard things ahh, pressures of beginning education in music and particularly if people look they’re going to go into life of music.. And it’s a life. It’s not a career it’s a vacation which sounds pretentious when you put it that way.  It simply means that you have to do it, irrespective of the fact that deciding you would be successful by that age, it’ll be worth it. You simply don’t make career decisions in that sense because you do it because you would be deeply unhappy spending your life doing anything else and whatever the difficulties, the pressures, the frustrations, and the disappointments in music you’d rather that than the alternative. But having said that, within that there are many lives possible to have music and I think for many young people they feel a strong sense of pressure which I think, it is important we try to help them.  They feel a degree of guilt because they, it is not clear enough what exact path of music they should have.  And in fact it’s a perfectly natural, healthy reaction in my opinion.


RONAN O’HORA: I’m distrustful, of course there are some people and their sense of destiny, their sense of direction is so strong that from, you know, virtually from the cradle, you know, they feel it, but I don’t think is the norm.  I don’t think it’s the norm even for many great artists because it is very important, I think most of the best pianists would feel it, that you have to want music first and then the piano

MELANIE SPANSWICK: Yes, it’s interesting.

RONAN O’HORA: The piano is about making music and very few people ahm……it’s just an interesting thing about the piano that’s different from other instruments. Most people don’t love the piano just as a piano. They love it for what it can do: How it can transform itself, how it can imitate the voice, the orchestra, the string quartet. But you have to have some sense of the voice, the orchestra and the string quartet to appreciate that.

MELANIE SPANSWICK: (laughing) Yes.

RONAN O’HORA: In fact, in truth you know a piano that will only sound ever like a piano is not very interesting. As Brendel said, it’s the only instrument that you have to play by transcending its nature.  So it’s very, very important for musicians generally and pianists very particularly, to have a sense of context in which they play. If you’re playing, a Beethoven piano sonata and you don’t know the symphonies or you don’t know any of the string quartets, then you are lacking a context to put it in. You are lacking a sense of, particularly as for instance, many things in the Beethoven piano sonatas, are imitations of orchestral effects.  They are imitations of orchestral tremolandi in string sections or timpani, and if you have no context of how he uses those in his orchestral music then you’re sort of imitating in a vacuum.

MELANIE SPANSWICK:  Yes…yes.  You are professor of piano here at Guildhall, when your students come and ask how can they can establish themselves as concert pianists, what advice do you give them? Competitions? Or do you feel that there other ways?

RONAN O’HORA: There are a lot of ways.  There’s…. I mean more than anything particularly, the music profession is changing a lot and changing very, very fast. Exponentially fast, as so many walks of life are. And I think, when I started, which is 25 years ago now, there were particular benchmarks that were important; getting an agent, getting with the BBC, playing with the British orchestras. Now, those things still have central importance but they don’t have, I mean there are simply far, far less opportunities on the BBC than there were, and agents are still very relevant but they don’t quite occupy the same position because of things like social media people.  It’s much more possible for people to build more of their career themselves in that sense and agents play a slightly different role. And I think, more than ever, now, you sort of build a career on your own image.  You, you build, there are many opportunities, although we hear many times about there being less concert opportunities and orchestras doing less and halls doing less, and that’s true in some ways. Equally, there are new and different opportunities that did not exist so much before.  For instance, the fact that many musicians direct festivals now.


RONAN O’HORA: And many musicians broadcast, you know, verbally broadcast on the radio about music.. Ahm.. ….exactly what you’re doing now as a pianist.


RONAN O’HORA: This… this range is activity is very healthy.  We went through a period in a way since the Second Word War, of a very tight specialization that’s ah… you’re a concert pianist, that’s what you do.  You get on trains or planes and you play concerts and nothing else. And it’s not… if you said to ahmm…. Cortot, ‘Are you a pianist, or a conductor, or a teacher, or a cultural politician’ he wouldn’t have understood the question.


RONAN O’HORA: Because those things are all interrelated. I mean taking the bigger example, Liszt. You know. That, that’s again these people, their prime… their prime a drive was to have a life in music.  And that would lead to various things at various times, and various combinations of things. And as in many walks of life, variety is very important. Music is an appetite and you need to satisfy that appetite in different ways at different times I think.  So, you do need to bring a lot of genuine imagination and creativity to, to how you, careers don’t just arrive anymore because you happen to be in the right place at the right time. Probably never did arrive for that reason. You know… there… there is much more sense of you needing to have not only…ah the ideas about the music.  I don’t think anything has changed in the sense of needing to be absolutely serious about music and about the love of playing.  That has not changed I think, but what has changed often is being more imaginative and proactive about ways that you can communicate.


RONAN O’HORA: And increasingly, people are able to, you know, because the traditional record industry for instance, has so much of it has fractured and disappeared. That also has led to possibilities for young musicians and young artists, to create their own recordings, their own leading ideas or their own repertoire of ideas so it’s not all negative by any means.

MELANIE SPANSWICK: You’ve been a jury for many international and national competitions, what are you looking for in a potential winner?

RONAN O’HORA: I think above all, you’re looking for someone you’d be very interested to hear again if you weren’t being paid to hear them. Do you see what I mean?


RONAN O’HORA: That for me is by far the simplest way of putting it.  You know, there are people who you know, you….it’s very rare hear bad playing in competitions, you can hear playing that lacks awareness and playing that has not yet become mature and you know.  You can hear many things you might subjectively like or dislike but there’s a lot of very good playing…..both pianistically, musically, what you’re looking for is something that has a stronger, more compelling communicative edge.


RONAN O’HORA: For me, that’s more important fundamentally than whether I happen particularly agree with what this or that pianist is doing.  I don’t think it’s the job of someone who’s in a competition  which I am on the  jury, that they should somehow  be able to give the performance that’s the closest  to what I would if I was sitting on the stage.  You know, very often, you can be hugely struck and impressed and moved by someone who does things in a way that’s radically different to one’s own convictions. But they have that conviction at the moment of playing that convinces you at that moment because music exists in real time that way. There’s a capacity of certain kind of music making that you suspend your disagreement.  You suspend your ah, you might still walk out of the hall with different convictions. That’s… that’s not surprising.  But they can create that strength of communicative conviction. Ahm…. and that’s the kind of person who I think is the most important ….. the kind of person who you would be interested to know how they played the first Brahms concerto. You know, Murray Perahia comes in to Guildhall to do master classes and he has a wonderful phrase at times; ‘the difference between playing that’s impressive and playing that is interesting’.


RONAN O’HORA: You don’t go back to hear somebody repeatedly just because they’re impressive. If they’re impressive, you know they’re impressive.  And you won’t buy a ticket because they’re impressive. There must be something that you feel is going to interest you, is going to stimulate you, is going to move you, perhaps to provoke you, that is part of it. But not….. there must be something there that provides a memorable experience because concerts do change lives.  I’ve had the experience and I’m sure you’ve had the experience of going to certain concerts that you feel have changed your life.


RONAN O’HORA:  I mean I remember I only heard Rubinstein once in the flesh.  I was very young and… And you know.  As I was saying earlier, it was at a time when I was…. I was obsessed with music but often not in a particularly focused way. I just have this image of this tiny man coming on to the stage.  I was sitting very close, I was actually sitting on the stage and I… I.. it’s interesting I can  remember what he played because I didn’t know a lot of repertoire then. But I remember he began with the last Schubert Impromptu from the first set and then he did the Brahms F minor Sonata. And he was in his late 80’s…..he would have been about 87/88 by that stage. But I can still hear it and I can still remember the sense of the communicative pleasure that he radiated which is rare in concerts perhaps too rare at times.


RONAN O’HORA: Ahm.. It’s not….it’s… for very obvious reasons but it’s very important to remember again that … that pleasure in that sense should be a central part of what we do.  Of course it should be deep, not trivial pleasure which should be aligned to serving the music but it should be pleasure both to give it to the audience and for the audience to receive it.

MELANIE SPANSWICK:  Yes.  Which composers are you particularly drawn to?  What do you enjoy playing?

RONAN O’HORA:  I have … I mean a lot in my repertoire is round Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann,  French, Debussy and Ravel, and Chopin, a lot of Chopin.  There are many other composers I play with great pleasure.  But as a body of the repertoire, that’s probably the most representative answer. One thing I like about the duel life of teaching as well as performing is that it does give the opportunity to engage with a range of repertoire that you might love very deeply but either you think it’s not for you to play, you can’t play, you don’t want to devote that much to time to actually learning the piece, but you want to spend time intensely with it. And so actually it’s a great privilege in the piano repertoire, one of the things that is most fascinating and stimulating about teaching say in a conservatoire is all well as the interaction with the students, is the interaction with the repertoire.

MELANIE SPANSWICK: Yes.  Yes. Well the next thing I want to ask you is you’ve… you’ve recorded 30 discs, which of those discs are you happiest with? Which do you feel represents you’re playing.

RONAN O’HORA: I…that’s a difficult one to answer because that… it’s a… it’s a weird sensation making a CD in some respects, because you’re taking  something, music life is always  in motion  and


RONAN O’HORA:  and you freeze it in effect and so it’s a bit like when you say to somebody ‘which photograph of yourself are you really happiest?’


RONAN O’HORA: Nine times out of ten people become hmm…not because…because you’re not in motion at the time…so that’s the… so I’ve been very lucky. I’ve been extraordinary lucky to make quite a number of CDs and also, more than that to make these CDs of the repertoire that I, I haven’t had to record stuff that I just didn’t really want to do.

MELANIE SPANSWICK:  No. That must be difficult.

RONAN O’HORA:  I was extraordinarily lucky when that was concerned because it’s… it’s just one of those things that  most of my recordings were made at one time for Tring and they wanted a catalogue of a lot of music which I very much was delighted to record.  I think I’ve very special memories of some particular session, I remember recording two Schubert sonatas, the G major and the B flat, the last sonata, recorded at St. George’s, Brandon Hill in Bristol. And they are very special memories of those sessions simply because Schubert is something you have to record in very long takes. It’s actually very, very hard to edit Schubert and I think you never pedal the same way twice in two takes, and also for the flow, for the momentum of the music, you have… you have to take it in a long sweeps I think.


RONAN O’HORA: And I have very fond memories of that and the Brahms F minor Sonata but, If I listen to those recordings now, which I don’t very often but when I do or if they come my way for some reason, it’s always as it should be, it’s like looking at a photo of yourself fifteen years ago or something, part of you almost feels like a different person…..


RONAN O’HORA:  ….and you know, it is very important that feeling that music or life goes on. It evolves. It changes. It I would find it very … disconcerting if there is some piece about which I feel exactly the same about fifteen years ago because something would have frozen somewhere.

MELANIE SPANSWICK:  Yeah. (Laughing)

RONAN O’HORA:  I think music… one of the most valuable lessons of music is to help you realize how much you change and renew all the time.


RONAN O’HORA: I mean any performer; you will have had this experience, where you can play concerts on two successive nights, the same piece, sometimes even the same piano, same venue and somehow they are completely different experiences. Not only that they a little bit different but they are complete chalk and cheese experiences.


RONAN O’HORA:   …..and I think that is helpful; not about music but about life because it does teach you about …it..we’re… we are human beings in constant motion all the time and music’s part of that….


RONAN O’HORA: So we shouldn’t … It’s one thing to… I think what we do have to do when you go out and play, as Gould says, fire yourself to a peak of conviction.


RONAN O’HORA: You have to have to allow for the possibility that you’re thinking the development, evolve and change and not be worried or threatened by that.

MELANIE SPANWHICK: Which aspect of teaching do you particularly enjoy?

RONAN O’HORA: I enjoy… as I say I’m very lucky here at Guildhall, I have a wonderful class who are very, very serious and dedicated and … and we can spend a lot of time on the centre of the music if you like.  You know, what it is to, because very often with very talented young people that they … they …  It isn’t necessarily that you know, putting one finger after another that’s the problem at all. It’s actually learning to release yourself as a performer.


RONAN O’HORA: Learning to … to take down those barriers one way or another that stop you from being you on the platform.  And I find that a very fascinating process, to help somebody, I mean I don’t have any goal that my students should sound like me. In fact, again, I would be very alarmed by trying to do that, you know. I want them to sound as much like them as they can and of course it is important you challenge them because something very, very important in playing is building awareness all the time.  Say, whether stylistic issues, or how to produce sound, or what the different rhetorical effects of playing can be. Those are things, very often where a young… a young player will need to gain more and more awareness of how to do certain thing things and how to put themselves in the right place to put that energy at the disposal of the music.


RONAN O’HORA: Music … music is a natural substance.  Music is like water.  You can’t command it. You can only collaborate with it.


RONAN O’HORA: I think for young performers we all know, that desire often out of a kind of insecurity to control, as you feel the situation absolutely gripped as it were, can be unhelpful musically, you do need to develop that command pianistically, I’ve certainly ran into a time where I knew that without it you can’t be a pianist but in terms of planning, how are you going to use that? That is a whole different issue of building awareness and I find that a great stimulation and I’m privileged to do that.  As I say we’re also blessed as pianists to be playing a repertoire that you cannot get through in ten lifetimes, really. So… so that’s also a great pleasure. And also, as I get older I find more and more pleasure being with young people as well. They keep you young.

MELANIE SPANSWICK:  Yes.  What is your favourite concert venue? Where have you enjoyed playing most?

RONAN O’HORA: That’s an interesting question. There’s been a lot. There are some wonderful halls in this country now which didn’t exist 15-20 years ago.  One of the last concerts I did with Martin Roscoe, who you have also interviewed, a colleague here on the faculty at Guildhall. Martin turned 60 this year and a group of his colleagues and friends who he has played with many times over the years; Peter Donohoe, Kathy Stott, Noriko Ogawa and others, we played concerts in a few venues but particularly in the Bridgewater Hall in Manchester, which is an orchestral hall obviously, it’s the Halle’s home, but it’s still a wonderful hall for chamber music, for instance Martin and I did the Schubert four hand F minor Fantasy. That’s a wonderful hall for that kind of detail. It’s a very special hall.  Ahm… I mean there are many, I remember with great pleasure in Salzburg, at the Mozarteum Hall, that’s a beautiful recital hall. The Zurich Tonhalle is another one….there are many, many wonderful halls. Wigmore Hall, of course it always a great joy to play in. I would be sacked from Guildhall if I didn’t mention our new hall.


RONAN O’HORA: It hasn’t opened yet but I think it will be right up there. It’s very close to be finished, very close to being built. It can be visited and viewed.  I think it will be very, very nice.  So, in our next interview I’ll report back!

MELANIE SPANSWICK: So, what exciting plans have you got coming up for 2013?

RONAN O’HORA: I’ve got a lot exciting stuff to do here in Guildhall which…which as I say, I find ever more stimulating.  I have a lot of travel alongside that both to play and making my recital debut in Japan. And…..also doing a two piano concert with Noriko Ogawa in Japan. I go off to France for a tour of 8 performances of the Mozart D minor Piano Concerto with Orchestra in Nantes, and also to the states. And I also have other trips to teach, I go off to Banff where I go quite regularly in the rocky mountains which is beautiful, master classes there.. And ah yes, there’s quite a lot to keep me busy.

MELANIE SPANSWICK: What does playing piano mean to you?

RONAN O’HORA:  I think it’s … it’s a way of being in contact with … it’s a way of expressing things which I can’t express in any other way.  And I think that’s what music does.  I think it’s very, very important. I think it is actually a great uniting thing between professionals and amateurs. I don’t think it’s a different  experience. It obviously is, you know, the whole focus on intensity and level of demand and finish. It’s of course quite different when you’re professional, but the need I don’t think is necessarily different. I think, you know the French meaning of the word ‘amateur’ that is, in a sense, doing something for love. That’s what you do, not the fact that you’re not paid but you do it irrespective of that. There’s a sense in which we all need to stay amateur even you’re paid.


RONAN O’HORA: Because it is very important in the sense of, again, these things can sound very pretentious when you put them that way, but I think to remember what the privilege is to create sound is a very deep human need that we have and being able to sort of bring sound to life and help tell stories. Music has this extraordinary power. We know more and more now about its therapeutic power and what it can do in situations where people who have all sorts of issues, autism or other kinds of things, where music is enormously healing. And I think it to be in constant contact with that… to remind yourself what a privilege it is something that brings very, very deep pleasure in life.

MELANIE SPANSWICK: Thank you very much for talking to me today.

RONAN O’HORA: Thank you.


Melanie Spanswick has written and published a wide range of courses, anthologies, examination syllabuses, and text books, including Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). This best-selling graded, progressive piano course contains a large selection of repertoire featuring a huge array of styles and genres, with copious practice tips and suggestions for every piece.

For more information, please visit the publications page, here.

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