Christopher O'Riley challenges classical music, plays rock

Posted by Julia Grigel

It would be hard to categorize the kind of music heard at Christopher O'Riley's March 25 concert at Skidmore's Zankel Music Center — other than to say it was of the "good" category of music.

O'Riley came to the college as part of the Sterne Virtuoso Series, which has brought other prominent artists such as the Hawthorne String Quartet and The Bad Plus. As part of the Sterne residency, O'Riley gave a master class where he met and spoke with students.

O'Riley's many identities are equally intriguing: he is at once a classical piano virtuoso, admirer and arranger of popular contemporary artists and host of a leading National Public Radio music show.

The show, "From the Top," showcases outstanding young musicians from across the country, making classical music widely accessible and comprehensible.

He has successfully challenged traditional definitions of "classical music," arranging music by artists such as Radiohead, Elliott Smith, Nick Drake and Pink Floyd for piano, and performing these arrangements alongside works by classical composers like Ravel, Beethoven and Schumann.

O'Riley started off the concert with two songs by Elliott Smith, which showcased his technical skill and which also reminded me of why I quit piano in middle school — there are just too many notes.

However, Christopher O'Riley somehow takes what, for me, had always seemed like "too many notes" and turns it into something like an image in sound: a full experience in rhythm, melody and harmony.

He engaged the audience between pieces, speaking powerfully of the tragic and emotionally torn life of Elliott Smith and then following with a dynamic description of his next piece, Schumann's "Kreisleriana" cycle.

This piece, said O'Riley, is Schumann's "most bipolar work." Some movements seemed to be ruled by a chilling dissonance and a desperate effort to resolve to the "right" note.

Others were simple and catchy, and some were as triumphant as a royal procession. The whole piece ended furiously and in a huff.

The second half of the concert included three songs by Radiohead, Pink Floyd's "Us and Them" and Maurice Ravel's "Gaspard de la Nuit," which, in Ravel's own words, is "a caricature of romanticism."

Before he played, O'Riley eloquently described the piece's complexities: its three movements express somewhat morose, surreal visions.

The first movement is about a somewhat malevolent water fairy seducing a naïve sailor and the second is about the harrowing tale of the gallows, through which one note eerily maintains a constant tolling sound.

The last movement, said O'Riley somewhat deviously, "gets quite a bit darker." It is marked, he said, by "a molecular, malevolent presence." His description was spot on, and helped to paint an image in the mind of the listener.

Ravel's strange tone poem was followed by the comforting sound of Radiohead's perennially beautiful "Let Down."

As O'Riley began playing familiar notes, I thought I might miss Thom Yorke's vocals and the reassuring sound of the electric bass.

But my initial fear was quelled by O'Riley's creative take on the song — he used an entirely different bass line, tempting listeners' ears with the interesting sound of the fourth up from the actual bass note.

He then ascended until he finally reached the bass note, but in an uncomfortably high octave, making listeners subconsciously yearn for the drop down an octave (which he finally does give us, to the extreme pleasure of our ears).

It was actually just extremely beautiful and you should listen to his version of the song online.

I went away from the concert with a renewed love for the piano (not to mention a renewed admiration for Ravel).

It's great to see somebody doing something other than "replicating" written music or, what's 1,000 times worse, creating mind-numbing music that satisfies the ear, without creating space for dissatisfaction.

O'Riley plays with the space between what makes listeners comfortable and what makes them uncomfortable, and his music is smarter and better because of it.

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