Love without Boundaries
|By Lawrence Cosentino|
If the names Scriabin, Busoni and Shostakovich make your neck pleasantly hot, you will connect deeply with pianist Christopher O’Riley. The star of the Lansing Symphony’s first concert of the new season has played the hell out of all three classical composers, among the toughest and most intense of a tough, intense lot.
But if you take them for a German subcompact, a pasta dish and a painful fungus, O’Riley may love you even more.
“A lot of people think of classical music as an exclusive — and exclusivist — enterprise,” the globe-trotting pianist, American Public Radio personality and die-hard Radiohead fan declared. “If you don’t know the names, dates and places, we don’t want you in the audience.”
“One must take it on its own terms and react honestly and emotionally,” he said.
So you should stop reading this. No — wait until this next bit. Legend has it that an irate lady walked out on the 1928 premiere of Maurice Ravel’s “Bolero,” that famous vortex of mounting repetition that happens to be Saturday night’s Lansing Symphony closer.
The story may not be true, but O’Riley’s fondness for it is telling. He, too, listens from the gut, and only then applies his considerable craft. This approach has taken his career around some odd bends.
To be sure, you can overdo the rebel stuff. It’s not as if O’Riley has fallen in with a knot of glass-eating demon rockers. Though probably not a household name among Lansing Symphony subscribers, Radiohead’s intricacy and passion have made the group a darling of the NPR set. “The weave and counterpoint is what excites me, along with a compelling and sensual harmony,” O’Riley said.
Conductor Timothy Muffitt admires the way O’Riley captures it all, from guitars to vocals to electronic blips, on keyboard. “It’s not just taking these tunes and playing the notes on the piano,” Muffitt said. There’s a comprehensiveness and sincerity in O’Riley’s approach that defies scoffers. “It’s about creating the presentation, with the piano as the voice, that retains the character and qualities of the original, but also perhaps sheds new light on it.”
The result could be called a transcription, an arrangement, or a re-imagining. (O’Riley uses all three terms.) Whatever you call it, O’Riley insisted it’s always “a real reaction to the music.”
The same goes for his albums of music by melancholic singer-songwriters Nick Drake and Elliott Smith. O’Riley even had a go at Nirvana’s “Heart-Shaped Box.”
“Whatever song I can’t get out of my head is what I’ve been working on,” he said. Will the pianist uncork some Radiohead Saturday after his legit bit with the orchestra? He said he’s willing, but will defer to “local custom,” having been burned before.
(Muffitt said he’s game, but no promises have been made.)
On top of his concerts and recordings, O’Riley is widely known as host of National Public Radio’s weekly series “From the Top,” a showcase for young classical musicians.
“The excitement all music has to offer should be celebrated,” he declared. “There’s an excitement in the mosh pit that’s very much like playing the Tchaikovsky violin concerto. Why look down your nose at it?”
He knows his rock- and pop-based work is a juicy target for classical snobs. “It smacks of opportunism and commercialism,” he volunteered cheerfully.
But classical music’s dirty secret is that it’s been dipping into the muddy well of folk and pop for half a millennium.
Mozart wowed the ladies by riffing on popular arias of the day. Beethoven used a drinking song to crown his epic Ninth Symphony. Chopin was better known as an improviser than as a composer. Franz Liszt, foreshadowing O’Riley’s Radiohead adventures, reworked Hungarian folk tunes into piano masterworks. Even the cerebral grand masters of the 20th century, Bartok and Stravinsky, built some of their most serious work on folk tunes.
“Chris is taking a centuries-old tradition of working popular music into the classical setting and making that work here in the 21st century,” Muffitt agreed. “And he’s getting a lot of much-deserved attention for it.”
Besides, in Muffitt’s view, O’Riley has earned the right to rampage wherever he likes. “He’s been established for quite some time in the classical world,” Muffitt said. “Nobody can take that away from him, nor would they want to when they hear him.”
What locals will hear from O’Riley Saturday falls, believe it or not, in line with the atmospherics of his Radiohead work: a lush score by Spanish composer Manuel de Falla, “Nights in the Gardens of Spain.”
The tides of classical and pop began tugging at O’Riley early in life. As a youngster, he fell in love with his dad’s classical records. (Toscanini’s Beethoven and Van Cliburn’s Tchaikovsky were favorites.) But in grade school, O’Riley found himself forming a rock band. “I realized that the girls weren’t that interested in Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsodies,” he said.
Despite the bid for street cred, O’Riley may have tipped his hand by naming his group the Three-Part Invention, after a famous set of Bach keyboard music. A series of musical phases lay between the boy rocker and his classical career, but true love waits.
From there, O’Riley worked his way to masters of acoustic piano jazz, such as McCoy Tyner, Bill Evans and Keith Jarrett. By the time O’Riley finished high school, he was playing jazz professionally at a club in Pittsburgh.
Some people pass through musical phases like they switch lovers, with barely a look back, but O’Riley still carries a torch for all his crushes, from Top 40 to art rock to fusion to jazz.
Only when he arrived at the New England Conservatory of Music did he realize that a professional had to stick to one thing to do it well.
“That’s where I really became solely a classical musician, although I never stopped listening to all that other great stuff,” he said.
As a revenge of sorts, his classical piano has become a hungry amoeba, engulfing any digestible, attractive bit of music, regardless of genre.
MasterWorks 1: Espana