Struck right note
PAULINE O’CONNOR BELVISO Pianist
Born: Perth, 1936
Died: Perth, aged 82
In late 1961, in Cape Town’s City Hall, I attended a recital by famed Italian pianist Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli. Afterwards, I went backstage in the hope of obtaining an autograph. Also in the dressing room was Michelangeli’s retinue which included — though I didn’t know this at the time — a young Pauline O’Connor (later Belviso) whose remarkable pianistic gifts I was to write about years later in Perth.
Pauline, then 25, was responsible, inter alia, for looking after “la borsa” (Michelangeli’s bag of cash). In her memoirs, we’re told that at night she slept with the bag under her pillow.
In early 1952, Pauline, aged just 15, left West Perth and the Sacred Heart College in Highgate and, accompanied by an aunt, travelled by train to the Sydney Conservatorium of Music High School.
Four years later, she graduated with honours.
Her teachers at the conservatorium included Sir Eugene Goossens and Alex Sverjensky. Pauline later recalled how she treasured every moment of her studies in Sydney.
In 1957, at a time when migrants were moving south to Australia, Pauline travelled north by ship to Italy; it took 45 days, stopping at Sydney, Ceylon, Bombay, the Suez Canal and Malta, before finally reaching Italy. She did not return to Australia for seven years.
Her lessons from Michelangeli caused Pauline to blossom in musical terms. One of her roommates was the then-unknown Martha Argerich, soon to reach stratospheric heights as a pianist.
Pauline soon learnt to cope with Michelangeli’s idiosyncratic, always demanding teaching method.
During the Italian years, Pauline gave innumerable recitals across Italy as well as surrounding countries, whether in tiny village venues, opera houses, medieval churches — an experience that profoundly enhanced the depth of her musical insights.
For much of the 1960s, Pauline was based in Tuscany. In late 1963, she won an international piano competition held in Bologna, Italy, to mark the 100,000th piano produced by Czech company Petrof. She later did a concert tour of Czechoslovakia and visited the Petrof factory where she gave a recital specially for the workers. The first prize was a Petrof grand piano, an instrument that the family still possesses.
Jean Roberts, Pauline’s colleague at the WA Academy of Performing Arts, and now back in the US, recalled: “She seemed to be everything at once — a mother, a sister, a friend, a colleague. She was larger than life. Pauline is at the very centre of our fondest memories. She had a unique sense of humour, too, and — oh my! — could she tell a story.
“At the conservatorium, we were a group of people from many nations — Hungary, Czechoslovakia, South Africa, England, the US — and Pauline’s willingness to embrace a potpourri of expatriates moulded us into a cohesive group. It was an extraordinary achievement”, Roberts says.
Cellist Suzie Wijsman (now based at UWA) recalls that Pauline “learned the art of home-style cooking and provided many memorable feasts for us. And after arriving in Italy, she learned elementary Italian from reading, inter alia, Donald Duck comic books in Italian.
“It is testimony to her exceptionally quick ear and intelligence that she went on to speak the language absolutely fluently . . .
“She was the wisest and most astute person I have ever known.”
Wijsman recalled a recital given by Pauline with violinist Pal Eder: “In lesser hands, these short pieces by Kreisler could sound shallow and mundane. But played by these two friends, the music came across as masterful and stylish with a compelling, old-world charm.” Wijsman recalled, too, the elegance, beautiful voicing and naturally flexible tempi that made Pauline’s playing such a meaningful listening experience.
Pauline had been one of an elite group of students of Michelangeli and the influence of this most eminent pianist was profound. Michelangeli had high regard for Pauline’s abilities at the keyboard. “In my view”, he wrote, “Pauline O’Connor is a pianist of the highest order, evident both in her brilliant career . . . and in her innate ability to communicate.”
Pauline met husband Paolo when sailing on the Galileo Galilei en route to Australia in 1966 when he was working as a senior engineer for the Lloyd Triestino line. They married in mid-1967. It was a small gathering in the Tuscan town where Pauline lived, worked in and loved so much — Arezzo. Paolo’s mother, sister and brother and a few mutual friends were present. The honeymoon consisted of one night at Florence’s Grand Hotel (all that the budget could bear at the time) and a few days in Verona. In Arezzo, Pauline lived and taught the piano full-time, as well as keeping up her performing career.
In 1971, with Paolo and two young sons, she returned to WA where she presented a number of concerts for the Festival of Perth and began decades of teaching in Perth. At 81, she was still teaching at the University of WA before succumbing to cancer on April 2.
Pauline is survived by her husband, five sons and their families.
Pauline O’Connor Belviso left WA to further her music.