Isabelle O’Connell

Photo courtesy of Jennifer Warren

Irish-born pianist Isabelle O’Connell (aka “Izzy”) is another great piano soloist I’ve come to learn about in the new music world. Along with an impressive solo career, she’s the brain-child of the fabulous project for 6 pianos called the Grand Band, a super ensemble that grew out of the initial performance of Julia Wolfe’s “my lips from speaking” from several years previously, and eventually became a massive blend of multiple pianos that was one of the major highlights of the Bang On a Can marathon this past June.
The Grand Band are in fact going to be performing a full-concert at Le Poisson Rouge in New York on Tuesday, August 7th at 6:30 PM, and they will be playing both the Julia Wolfe piece and the Steve Reich “Six Pianos” piece they performed at BOAC along with a whole list of other works.

Izzy had time to chat via Skype.

CM: Where did the idea begin for the Grand Band?

Isabelle: I had in my my head that I really wanted to play the Steve Reich piece “Six Pianos” going back 4 or 5 years, and I applied for a grant from the Arts Council of Ireland, which I got to sort of put it together. The hard thing was actually getting six pianos…[both laughing]

CM: I would imagine!

Isabelle: There aren’t many halls that have that! So, I was in talks with Yamaha, and eventually I brought it to the Bang On a Can people, and they wanted to do last year, but then the dates didn’t work because I was on tour in Europe, and then we managed to make it work for this year. so, I got together with Lisa–We did Julia Wolfe’s “my lips from speaking” about 3 years ago. She selected the other pianists, and we just worked on it together. We used the grant for Steinway & Sons to provide the pianos, and then we did the Reich and the Julia Wolfe pieces at Bang On a Can. It went down really well, and we all had a blast playing together, so there was definite interest to do something together again, and Blair got in touch with LPR and got that date for us on August 7th–That’ll be on keyboards instead of grand pianos, but we’ll make it work!
[Photo above courtesy Glenn Cornett]

Messiaen: Visions de l’Amen (excerpt; Mvt. 4; w/Laura Berger;  NYC; May 2008)

CM: You have a wonderful classical repertoire as well with Schubert and Beethoven on top of Messiaen and Ligeti–You almost never see soloists that specialize in older and modern classical and/or new music all together.

Isabelle: Currently, I’d say probably 90% of what I’m doing at the moment is new music, but in a week and a half I’m doing a concert with Crash Ensemble that’s all new music, and then I’m touring with a fantastic viola player named Lisa Dowdall, where we are doing a recital with Brahms, Schumann, Arvo Part, Piazzola, and some contemporary Irish composers. It’s not that often that I get to do the classical stuff, but when I was on tour in New Zealand last year for 2 weeks just doing solo recitals, I had to mix it up, and some recitals were new music, and some venues wanted more traditional Beethoven or Ravel and some contemporary stuff thrown in the middle.

I think, for me, the new music is what always felt more comfortable than the older classical rep, and I think I was always moving in that direction. I started playing contemporary pieces when I was maybe 15, and immediately I just felt very at home with that kind of music as opposed to Mozart sonatas, which never really sort of fit for me.

CM: When did you hear your first contemporary music?

Isabelle: I heard contemporary music before I started playing it. I remember when I was about 9 or 10 going to a recital, and the pianist was wearing fingerless gloves and playing with his elbows and fists–I can’t remember what he was playing, it was some English pianist, but obviously pretty out-there stuff…

CM: If he was English and he played with fingerless gloves, that has to narrow it down to somebody! How many English pianists play with fingerless gloves? [both laughing]

Isabelle: I don’t think I’ve seen anyone playing with fingerless gloves since!
I was just drawn to this other sound world, and the first piece of contemporary music I ever played was when I was 15, it was suggested by my teacher, and we had to have a piece from each period. What I loved about it was it wasn’t in traditional notation, so that was the first thing that appealed to me–I had to decipher this weird notation that was like a treasure map to the music, and then the music itself was a combination that was traditional Irish mixed with atonal stuff, and I really liked the clash of these two worlds. There’s always more music to discover, and I love working with the composers.

CM: That’s the other great dynamic with living composers is you get to talk to them! [laughs]

Isabelle: Absolutely, and you get to ask them “What on earth were you thinking when you wrote this?”!
It might be something that’s not written pianistically, and you can actually ask them if they can rewrite it so that it just looks visually different. It’s just more of a back and forth, and that’s way more exciting!

Donnacha Dennehy: Reservoir

CM: Can you talk about the arrangement of The Beatles’ “Julia” by Bunita Marcus?

Isabelle: What a beautiful piece!

CM: Yes it is! You have to sing at the beginning of that?

Isabelle: I do, unfortunately! [both laughing] Actually, I like doing stuff outside the box, and that did appeal to me initially, because I do a lot of extended techniques stuff, and that can require vocalization, whistling–In George Crumb’s Makrokosmos, there’s one movement where you have to pluck the strings, play on the keys and whistle all at once! I love that kind of stuff!

CM: In new music, it’s very common–I’ve seen Meredith Monk, Kathleen Supové, Lisa Moore and Jenny Q. Chai all performing pieces where they have to act out, do spoken word, sing a cappella, make animal sounds, perform on the piano like it’s a drum, etc. It’s no longer just having to be straight playing-the-music.

Isabelle: There’s a element of performance art.

CM: So how did you happen upon Bunita’s arrangement of “Julia”?

Isabelle: I was looking for pieces to play, and I think it was just random online searching. I played a piece of Bunita’s called “Adam & Eve at Bang On a Can’s Summer Festival–It was for a small ensemble, and it was a beautiful piece. I was just researching to see what kind of piano music she had, and there was a clip of Aki Takahashi playing it, and I was like "Oh my God, that sounds beautiful, I want to play it!". So I learned the score, and I got in touch with her and asked if I could come and play it for her. We met up and had a great session, and I'd been performing it ever since! One of the most beautiful pieces out there! Aki Takahashi actually commissioned it with a whole bunch of other arrangements from other composers to do the same with other Beatles' songs.

Lennon-McCartney: Julia (arr. by Bunita Marcus; Dublin, Ireland; 3/28/11)

Click here to buy tickets for the Grand Band concert at LPR

Isabelle O’Connell pianist


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