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Pianist O'Riley Blends the Unexpected


A versatile, intelligent and virtuosic pianist moved to Los Angeles from New York last year and somehow seemed to get lost in the Southland sprawl. Only Sunday afternoon did Christopher O'Riley make his presence known--or was it that L.A. finally discovered him?--at a recital in the tiny Raitt Recital Hall of Pepperdine University.

It's hard to imagine how New York will get along without O'Riley. Always game for a challenge, he could be found one night playing his remarkable piano transcriptions of Stravinsky ballets ("Apollo" and "Agon" among them), the next premiering an important new piece by Aaron Kernis. I'll bet a great many New York music lovers miss him on the chamber scene--his Brahms with cellist Carter Brey has surely not been forgotten.

And it is equally hard to imagine why Los Angeles hasn't yet recognized the value such a pianist could bring to local musical life. Sunday's recital, along with an appearance this summer in Orange County, was a start.

The venue for the Stotsenberg Recital Series feels hardly more spacious than a large closet. It seats 110 and doesn't give a pianist with O'Riley's big technique and a big sound much room to breath. It was also, for the first half, stifling. But there is at least a friendly intimacy to Raitt, and intermissions can be spent with an impressive modern art collection in the adjoining art gallery. There is also that very blue ocean of Malibu down the hill.

The recital itself was a typical O'Riley calling card, which means a blending of the unexpected into a whole that makes a lot of sense. Also typical of O'Riley, he presented himself with a ferociously difficult program to pull off, one full of hidden pitfalls. Atypically, however, he wasn't at his best, although he was formidable nonetheless.

O'Riley began with Bach, and with what Bach wrought, by pairing preludes and fugues from "The Well Tempered Clavier" (and the six-voice ricercare from "A Musical Offering") with preludes and fugues from Shostakovich's Opus 87.

Two-hundred-fifty years separate the compositions of these sets. Bach's series was written before the invention of the modern piano or the modern concert recital and just as the modern notion of tonality was being standardized. They were teaching pieces, meant for hearing at close range. They are full of exquisite learning, their beauty lying in the way notes seem to flow effortlessly into natural patterns.

Shostakovich's preludes and fugues, modeled closely after Bach's, are angry artifice. They are arch conservative works of a composer fighting the decline of tonality. They are works defiant of the Soviet system that found even Bach a representative of Western decadence. And they are works of a composer showing off--for his public and for his dedicatee (an exciting young pianist, Tatiana Nicolaeva, with whom the composer was smitten).

O'Riley's four pairings of Bach and Shostakovich were not by key but by mood and technique, and did not seem dogmatic. Still, the effect was always that of going from Bachian light to Shostakovichian gloom.

After intermission O'Riley played Chopin's Twelve Etudes, Opus 25, written midway between Bach and Shostakovich. This music is the best of both worlds. The etudes, each a study on a technical difficulty, are nothing if not showy. But unlike Shostakovich, Chopin found no need to imitate his idol, instead assimilating the ideas of perfect functioning form into his own language. The effect, after experiencing the struggle of centuries in the first half, was one of pure exhilaration.

Exhilaration, too, was in the playing. O'Riley is an incisive, strong and bold pianist with iron fingers. He brought clarity of texture to the music made of distinct contrapuntal lines and thunder and lightning to the pianistic fireworks. He also brought a useful sense of large-scale structure to each half of the program.

But he is not infallible, and his memory failed him at times. The heat in the hall may have made concentration more difficult in the first half. In the Chopin, he suffered that nightmare of all performers--a memory lapse too great to vamp out of. It came in the famous "Winter Wind" etude, just at the climax of a great dramatic arch the pianist was building in his interpretation of the set.

But these things have a way of righting themselves. The effect was actually spectacular, that of a Chopin so powerful it explodes. Looking shaken but determined, O'Riley played the etude as the encore, which is what it is most commonly used for. But this time it now felt like a force of nature, not just something for a pianist to breeze through.

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