Pianist lures classical fans into the indie rock world

by Len Righi

The Morning Call (Allentown, Pa.) (MCT)

4 March 2008


On several occasions during this decade, pianist Christopher O’Riley has performed the works of Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich and interpretations of English singer-songwriter Nick Drake’s material on the same program. Ditto French composer Claude Debussy and British experimental rock act Radiohead.

So how did audiences listening to the 51-year-old musician’s mix-and-match concerts react?

“The people there to hear Nick Drake or Radiohead (material) would be polite,” says O’Riley from his fiancee’s home in Sagamore Hills, Ohio. “They would treat me like an opening act at a rock concert, patiently waiting to flick their Bics. ... The classical people seemed to be pretty shocked, because kids would applaud at the beginning of a piece when I was doing Nick Drake or Radiohead. But everyone got along.”

Classical music aficionados will remember the Chicago, Ill., native for the many awards he has received at the Leeds, Van Cliburn, Busoni and Montreal competitions and his many recordings of the works of Ferruccio Busoni, Maurice Ravel, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Jean-Philippe Rameau, John Adams, Igor Stravinsky and Alexander Scriabin.

But on occasion O’Riley will bypass his usual repertoire and completely indulge his affection for Radiohead, Drake and singer-songwriter Elliott Smith with concerts featuring an almost equal number of selections from each artist’s work.

“It’s always a matter of what songs capture my imagination,” says O’Riley of what he will play. “I get into specific artists pretty obsessively.”

O’Riley first began performing Radiohead songs as a time-filler during breaks in the weekly National Public Radio program he has hosted since 2000, “From the Top!,” which features interviews with and performances by pre-college classical musicians from around the country.

“It was actually an expedient,” he says.

It also led to some amusing questions from listeners to the show, which is carried by 250 NPR stations across the country. “I would play `True Love Waits’ or `Karma Police’ and announce that it was by Radiohead,” says O’Riley. “People would call in and ask, `Who is Mr. Head, and where can I find more of his music?’ They assumed it was classical music because I was playing it.

“We also heard from Radiohead fans who became Mozart fans. They would say, `Mozart, I always wanted to check him out.’”

O’Riley, who also admires the music of R.E.M., Cocteau Twins and Tori Amos, has recorded two CDs of his own piano arrangements of Radiohead songs, 2003’s “True Love Waits” and 2005’s “Hold Me To This.” Both were moderate successes on the classical crossover charts. “Home to Oblivion,” a piano tribute to Elliott Smith, arrived in 2006, and last April, he released “Second Grace: The Music of Nick Drake,” which also featured his own arrangements (O’Riley’s extensive liner notes are beautifully written and particularly perceptive).

The common thread for Radiohead, Smith and Drake? “All three inhabit a sort of ironic place in music,” says O’Riley. “The more struggle there is, the more interest there is. It’s like a pulsar, all that potential energy.”

O’Riley calls Smith “a brilliant lyricist with a very wide dramatic range. Intermittently, some of his words sound flippant, but they occupy a tragic, dramatic place in a song.”

O’Riley is still astonished that it took him so long to discover Drake’s music, which was recorded in the early 1970s before his death.

“It was a lightning-bolt moment,” says O’Riley, recalling the first Drake song he heard “five or six years ago” while dining at the Three Muses in Minneapolis.

“I wondered why I hadn’t heard of this guy before. I was a big Radiohead fan, and searching though a series of interviews on the Web, I found that band members submitted the names of artists they admire, and at the top of (frontman) Thom Yorke’s list was Nick Drake.”

Drake, whose work was ignored in his lifetime, now ranks among the most influential English singer-songwriters of the last half-century.

“He was somebody who performed mostly for friends,” says O’Riley. “He had ingenious ways of retuning his guitar from one song to the next.

“His guitar style, along with the interesting sound of his voice, is layered with so many influences. They’re brilliant statements.”

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