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A Key Player

Romance led Christopher O'Riley to relocate from New York to L.A., but his only real home remains behind the keys of a piano.

September 21, 1997|John Henken | John Henken is an occasional contributor to Calendar

Ask Christopher O'Riley, recently relocated to L.A. from New York, why he moved and this thoughtful and individual American pianist goes all Hollywood. "Love," he replies simply. "My fiancee is an actress and writer, and she has lived out here. She needs to be here for her career, while I'm pretty good anywhere as long as there is a decent airport nearby."

O'Riley will certainly get to know LAX well this season. Aside from his recital this afternoon at Pepperdine University in Malibu, his only other upcoming local appearance will be a stop in Santa Barbara while touring a duo program with flutist James Galway in the spring. He played a Mozart concerto with the Pacific Symphony at Irvine Meadows this summer, but otherwise his new hometown has not provided any of the dates on this artist's calendar.

Still, L.A. has been keeping him occupied, somewhat to his surprise.

"I imagined not having any will to work," O'Riley says. "How can you have any ambition where there's orange trees and sunshine all the time? Having lived in New York, where there's nothing but ambition, I didn't think anybody could be serious out here. But I was wrong--there are lots of interesting people in this town."

Not that O'Riley didn't try to realize his sunshine-and-orange-tree fantasy. He is speaking from a sunny, multi-decked house far off the boulevard in Topanga Canyon. All it needs is the cast of "Baywatch" trooping by to complete the stereotype. That house has, however, been sold out from under O'Riley, who is moving next month to a place in the Hollywood Hills.

"It's not any bigger than a New York apartment," O'Riley says with a sigh, "but they expect you to be grateful for it."

It will have room for his piano however. Raised in Chicago, O'Riley, 41, toyed with the instrument as a child but began formal training only after entering grade school.

"My father was tone-deaf," O'Riley says. "I can vouch for that, having stood next to him in church many times. But he played the piano anyway--that's the nice thing about the piano, that you don't have to struggle with intonation--and he had lots of records. My mother taught me to read early, and that made me a little bored and difficult in school. The principal told my parents that something would have to be done, and suggested either sports or music lessons.

"I remember my first piano lesson very clearly. Everything about the system, the keys and the notation made immediate sense. In junior high school, I realized that being a piano player by itself wasn't impressing anybody, so I started a little rock band. But even when I was trying to be popular I was always on the fringe. So it was art rock then, and in high school it was fusion jazz.

"I went to the New England Conservatory because they had a very nonexclusive idea of what music was all about. I was there in the days of ["third wave" composer] Gunther Schuller, who was always a great influence, and my master teacher was Russell Sherman."

After conservatory, O'Riley entered the almost obligatory young musicians' apprenticeship system, including the competition circuit. He was a finalist at the 1981 Van Cliburn Competition and took prizes at the Leeds, Busoni and Montreal competitions, plus an Avery Fisher Career Grant and an Andrew Wolf Memorial Chamber Music Prize.

Not surprisingly, he has strong ideas about the way young artists are groomed and managed.

"Competitions were more important when I was going through them, 16, 17 years ago," he says. "They gave you a great arena before an audience and a proving ground before professionals. Now, many have become freak shows, looking for the next 'Rain Man' playing Rach 3, and we have concert managers raiding child-care centers for the next prodigy."

O'Riley is certainly not one of those competition wonders who blaze brightly but briefly. He has built a steady and multifaceted concert career that now absorbs all of his time. "One of the most interesting and distinguished pianists of his generation," as critic Philip Kennicott described him in a St. Louis Post-Dispatch review, "a musician with a wide-ranging taste in repertoire and an always thoughtful and stylish approach to the diverse music he undertakes."

O'Riley carries about a dozen different concertos with him each year. This season he'll bring those concertos to orchestras such as the New York Philharmonic and the St. Louis Symphony. The new projects that he is most excited about, however, are a two-piano program of Astor Piazzolla and "other Argentinean stuff" that he will do with Pablo Ziegler and take to festivals, and a new Public Radio International show that he will host called "Young Performance."

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