Pianist Christopher O’Riley has programmed an unconventional swathe of music for his concert in Hightstown’s Peddie School on Saturday, May 20: he alternates Preludes and Fugues from Dmitri Shostakovich’s Opus 87 with his own piano transcriptions of music by the English five-man rock group Radiohead, with one exception. In a telephone interview from his home in the Hollywood Hills, the articulate O’Riley makes a convincing case for constructing a program by drawing on compositions remote from each other on the musical map.
The space of more than a generation separates the two sources of O’Riley’s program. In addition, the two are at odds in their adherence to compositional rigor. Shostakovich wrote his 24 Preludes and Fugues in 1950 and 1951 following his return from a music festival in Leipzig, the hometown of Johann Sebastian Bach, to mark the 200th anniversary of the baroque composer’s birth. Adapting Bach’s model, Shostakovich wrote a Prelude and Fugue in each major and minor key. Shostakovich is of particular interest this year because of the 100th anniversary of his birth in 1906. O’Riley plays Preludes and Fugues Nos. 18 through 24 in the Hightstown program.
Radiohead came into being in 1986 at Abingdon School, a boys’ school in the suburbs of Oxford, England, and has become known for its variety and versatility. Its lead guitarist, Jonny Greenwood, who plays other instruments as well, has been BBC’s composer in residence, and is the only classically-trained member of the group. Lead singer Thom Yorke writes the lyrics for the band and plays various instruments. Radiohead’s sonic arsenal includes guitars, piano, keyboards, vocals, bass, and percussion. O’Riley has transcribed Radiohead’s music for piano and has issued the transcriptions on two albums: “True Love Waits” and “Hold Me to This.”
In Hightstown O’Riley will intersperse Radiohead transcriptions among Shostakovich’s Preludes and Fugues, including one piece from his latest album of transcriptions, “Home to Oblivion,” which is based on the songs of Elliot Smith. The tribute to the troubled Smith, who died in 2003, was released in April.
Accounting for the thinking behind the Peddie program, O’Riley says: “The music of Radiohead and Shostakovich is compelling, and also similar. First of all, there is the texture. The Shostakovich pieces are texturally integral. They are complex and fascinating with three or four-voice fugues. Bach and Shostakovich are the two who did a good job at fugue. They were setting up textures specific to the needs of those textures. Radiohead is similar in a textural way. Unlike the average rock group, which plays chords all the time, and makes music that’s homogeneous and not texturally interesting, Radiohead is more texturally oriented. Each member contributes one motive.”
I am surprised at O’Riley’s characterization of the Radiohead pieces, which I listened to and heard as homogeneous and texturally uninteresting. Playing devil’s advocate, I ask if transcribing the work of Radiohead to piano doesn’t reduce the texture. “Piano transcription does not egregiously reduce music to one texture,” O’Riley answers. “The piano is coloristically diverse. It has a colorful arsenal. It emulates voice, symphony orchestra, and string quartet. Shostakovich and Radiohead are also similar in having an interesting harmonic language.” When I ask him what he means by “interesting harmonic language,” he replies, “I mean a chord that, when you hear it, gives you a little shiver.”
Wrapping up his explanation, O’Riley says, “both Shostakovich and Radiohead have a commonality in their sense of irony. Shostakovich was trying to express himself as a composer in the midst of the Stalinist regime. He had to express himself in a subtle way, not overtly. Radiohead’s sense of irony consists of beautiful music combined with dark lyrics.”
Perhaps O’Riley’s summary statement is most telling: “I play what I like, and I happen to like both of them.”
O’Riley performed a combination of pieces similar to the pairing in his Hightstown program when he was Fred Child’s guest on NPR’s “Performance Today” on Wednesday, April 26. On that program he played a suite by the 18th-century French composer Jean-Philippe Rameau and music from his new Elliot Smith CD, “Home to Oblivion.” To me the contrast between Rameau and the Smith was dramatic. When I tell O’Riley that I think that the Rameau was crisp and perky, while the Smith transcriptions were soft-edged, he says, “Smith is not perky. He’s never perky. He’s intimate. Debussy and Smith give a sense of drawing one in. Rameau rarely used keyboard. When he did, he wanted fireworks. Smith is all about the song writing; he’s not orchestral. He wasn’t forthcoming about how he wanted people to interpret his lyrics. His ambiguity has an appeal for me.”
I listened assiduously to “Home to Oblivion,” the new Elliot Smith transcriptions, and “Hold Me to This,” last year’s Radiohead transcriptions, but to no avail, trying to find O’Riley’s recastings appealing. What I heard was static music delivered by a pianist with a supple technique. Above the thick, constantly present repetitive bass chords was a cramped melody line, confined to a limited territory of pitches. Only once did I notice a spot where the melody migrated to the left hand. The blur of pedaling was omnipresent; I would have welcomed a crack of silence. I realize that I have a need for musical surprises, musical tension, and rhythmic drive. For me, the music is tedious: George Winston on downers.
The variety and freshness that I found lacking in the CD transcriptions, however, bursts out in O’Riley’s NPR radio show “From the Top,” which debuted in 2000. Recorded live, the one-hour show captures the spontaneity and wonder of classical musicians aged 9 to 18. It is distributed to nearly 250 radio stations, with an audience of nearly 750,000 listeners. “From the Top” airs at noon Saturdays on WWFM, and can be heard on the web or as a podcast.
Born in 1956 in Chicago, O’Riley grew up Evanston, Illinois, and moved to Pittsburgh when he was in high school. His father was in advertising. His mother ran a radio station.
Since childhood, O’Riley was musically “bilingual.” “I had piano lessons from an early age,” he says, “and I had friends who listened to rock.” By age 12 he played in a rock band. By the end of high school he was playing in a Pittsburgh jazz club. At Boston’s New England Conservatory of Music, where he focused on classical music, Russell Sherman was O’Riley’s mentor.
‘I chose the New England Conservatory because of its serious jazz program,” O’Riley says. “Gunther Schuller, the head of the New England Conservatory, had the belief that there are only two kinds of music — good and bad. Duke Ellington had the same belief. I concentrated on classical piano because I thought that keeping both classical and jazz would have a bad effect on my piano technique. With jazz you are throwing your hands at the keyboard. You are conducting, rather than playing the notes. You use more energy than you need for good contact with the instrument and you move more than necessary. When you are improvising, you are inhabiting the notes, and the way your body moves is important; it’s not just the way your hands move. Jazz piano is rougher than classical piano.”
From early in his career O’Riley has pursued both classical and non-classical music. He has performed classical piano concertos with leading orchestras and noteworthy conductors. As a chamber musician he has an ongoing duo with Carter Brey, first cellist of the New York Philharmonic, which has brought him to Princeton frequently.
An advocate of new music, he has developed programs with fellow pianists. His collaboration with jazz pianist Fred Hersch produced “Heard Fresh: Music for Two Pianos.” His collaboration with Argentinian pianist Pablo Ziegler resulted in a program of two-piano arrangements of Astor Piazzolla’s tangos.
My guess is that the Shostakovich on O’Riley’s solo program in Hightstown will be stimulating and adventuresome, and that the transcriptions will be soporific. I intend to go to the concert in the hope that my expectation of being bored half the time will turn out to be wrong.
Christopher O’Riley, Saturday, May 20, 8 p.m., CAPPS, Mount-Burke Theater, Peddie School, Hightstown. Pianist and host of NPR’s “From the Top” performs a program of Shostakovich and piano transcriptions of the music of Radiohead. $20. 609-490-7550.