Isabelle O’Connell’s Wide-Ranging Exploration of Contemporary Piano at the Irish Arts Center

Isabelle O'Connell headshot
Isabelle O’Connell

Pianist Isabelle O’Connell performed 13 different pieces at the Irish Arts Center on November 7. Each encapsulated a vastly different soundscape, but stories of O’Connell’s life and travels between Dublin and New York City connected them. The first piece on the program was George Gershwin’s Prelude No. 1, chosen in honor of her last concert in Dublin before moving to New York for school, where she had performed Gershwin’s famed Rhapsody in Blue. It was a peppy overture to the eclectic evening, made particularly enticing by O’Connell’s deft playing.

The atmosphere turned dreamlike as O’Connell presented 19th Century Irish composer John Field’s Nocturne No. 5, linking this whimsical work to Chopin’s darkly atmospheric Fantaisie-Impromptu. O’Connell took a moment to explain the connection between the two composers: Field’s nocturnes provided great influence for Chopin’s later series of similar works. The pairing of these two artists was a miniature history lesson, providing the audience apt context for their musical experience. 

Informational anecdotes were central to the concert experience – O’Connell introduced each piece with a brief background of both the music and her relationship to it. The personal touch was a welcome addition, especially as the concert diverged into more abstract territory. Before she played American experimentalist Henry Cowell’s Aeolian Harp, for example, she described how his boundary-pushing music sparked her lifelong excitement for new music. And then, she began to strum the strings of the piano, instead of the keys.

One of the night’s highlights was O’Connell’s stunning performance of 2016 MacArthur Fellow and Bang on a Can Co-Founder Julia Wolfe’s Compassion. A jarring alternation of rumbling, low-pitched pulsation and striking, high-pitched chords, Compassion’s extremes were further illuminated by O’Connell’s captivating performance. She nimbly emphasized the raw contrasts of the music, fully embodying the piece’s dramatic, heartbreaking climax and salient syncopation.

Another running undercurrent of the evening was a stylistically broad look into Irish musical culture. Seóirse Bodley’s The Tight Rope Walker Presents a Rose was a sentimental rumination on an Irish folk song, while Jane O’Leary’s Forgotten Worlds took a meditative look at Ireland’s remote Inisheer Island, and John Buckley’s Prelude No. 1, The Cloths of Heaven, was a questioning, dissonant musical interpretation of a Yeats poem. The evening ended with Bill Wheelan’s The Currach, a dance-like, Broadway-reminiscent piece inspired by a wicker framed boat traditional to Ireland. 

With the performance of Dutch composer Jacob TV’s Body of Your Dreams, humor also peppered the evening. The piece comprised a spliced recording of an overeager ab workout infomercial accompanied by spirited, minimalist-reminiscent repeating piano accompaniment; the absurdity of the words raised sporadic laughs from the audience. This boisterous work led directly into Missy Mazzoli’s Isabelle Eberhardt Dreams of Piano, a piece whose subtle, melancholy timbre felt like a sonic equivalent of lens flare. Unexpected pairings like this were what made the concert so refreshing.

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