Saturday, April 03, 2010

Brava O'Riley deserves to be on your Radar

Concert Review

Christopher O'Riley
Pick-Staiger Concert Hall
Northwestern University, Evanston, IL
April 2, 2010

(Note: You may enjoy playing the video at bottom while you read this; it's O'Riley's sublime studio recording of Let Down by Radiohead)

In the classic musical Gypsy, there's a song that opines, "You gotta have a gimmick if you wanna get ahead."

But although the word "gimmick" typically connotes something contrived or crass, the dictionary definition isn't quite so pejorative: an ingenious or novel device, scheme, or stratagem, esp. one designed to attract attention or increase appeal. 

As such, while even more elite classical pianists devoid of similar attention could conceivably resent Christopher O'Riley for press and popularity based largely on his interpretations of Radiohead songs--and his success as a radio host--I applaud him for taking classical music in a more mainstream direction (and vice versa).

Certainly some attendees of his solo performance at Northwestern's prestigious Pick-Staiger Hall--especially the sprinkling of senior citizens who complemented several students--may be oblivious to Radiohead and other pop sources O'Riley has added to his repetoire, such as Elliot Smith and Nick Drake. I heard a couple old ladies behind me convey as much during intermission, but I didn't get a chance to ask them how they were enjoying the compositions and Riley's playing on their own merits, without being able to mentally sing along as I often could. So I don't know how he comes across to listeners on whom the gimmick is lost.

I also don't pretend to understand the criteria that differentiates professional concert pianists from those considered the creme de la creme; regarding such elevated strata, I always think of the line from Good Will Hunting, where the esteemed MIT professor says to janitor-cum-math savant Will: "There's only a handful of people who can tell the difference between me and you. But I'm one of them."

But having seen some outstanding piano soloists at Orchestra Hall--such as Evgeny Kissin and Yefim Bronfman--and taking note that despite his popularity and having given many pure classical recitals, O'Riley never gets booked at the home of the CSO, I surmise that he isn't one of the Top 10--or maybe even Top 50 or 100--classical pianists in the world. (Are there such rankings, like in tennis?)

Yet despite not being Kissin or Lang Lang, O'Riley is an excellent performer I've now seen three times. As one would assume from the host of "From The Top," a radio & TV showcase for outstanding teenage musicians--I've never seen nor heard it--O'Riley does an excellent job introducing and explaining the pieces he plays. And while his exquisite renditions of Radiohead songs--most notably from their OK Computer album, but also Lift, a great rarity that I wouldn't know about if not for O'Riley--remain my favorites, he also impressed on pieces based on unfamiliar material, such as The Rip by Portishead and Cupid's Trick by Elliot Smith.

While I should note that O'Riley personally transcribes the pop songs into classical-style pieces that go far beyond piano bar renditions, he also played a few genuine classical compositions, most notably D-minor Sonata by a composer named Scarlatti; according to the Tribune's John von Rhein, O'Riley said the piece "rocks harder than Heart Shaped Box," which he also performed. I also really liked his haunting take on Mad World, an old Tears for Fears song better known by its reimagining (by Gary Jules & Michael Andrews) for the Donnie Darko soundtrack.

So are there better examples of pure piano artistry which I could seek out and find enriching? I'm sure there are. But as someone who once again gave me two hours of very enjoyable and enlightening entertainment--for just $18--I'm glad Christopher O'Riley is on my radar. (If anyone reading this can tell me Radar O'Reilly's real first name, I'll send you a special prize. And don't bother saying Gary).  

This is a video (though mainly just audio) of O'Riley's take on Radiohead's Let Down, from OK Computer. It may be my favorite of all his recordings, but doesn't truly kick into transcendence until the 4:00 mark.

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