Struck right note

The West Australian - - OBITUARIES - Neville Cohn


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.

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