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Riffs on rock

Classical Music | Music

Christopher O'Riley puts Radiohead in a classical context. Call it 'OK Piano.'

June 08, 2003|Josef Woodard | Special to The Times

Christopher O'Riley is giving his Steinway grand a workout, coaxing it into a thunderous ostinato, a pining melody and a hypnotic, Minimalist web of phrases. His head is down, his fingers move lightly, and the sound leaks out his studio windows into the Hollywood Hills.

Not that his neighbors will be surprised. O'Riley is a classical pianist who, when he isn't on the international concert and recital circuit, sits at this piano and practices -- every day. On this occasion, though, the subject isn't the music of Mozart or Beethoven, it's Greenwood/Greenwood/O'Brien/Selway/Yorke, the collective compositional moniker of the British rock band Radiohead.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday June 11, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 38 words Type of Material: Correction
"From the Top" -- An article in Sunday's Calendar about pianist Christopher O'Riley incorrectly referred to the radio program he hosts as NPR's "From the Top." The show is distributed by Public Radio International, not National Public Radio.

On the brink of Tuesday's CD release of "True Love Waits: Christopher O'Riley Plays Radiohead," the pianist is demonstrating a few stops along the way in his arduous process of making Radiohead his own, translating its alt-rock sounds into recital repertory, a labor of love or, more precisely, of obsession.

He plays his ruminative take on the band's moody "Knives Out" and tackles the potent rhythmic force of "Planet Telex." Pulling out his self-penned notebook of Radiohead arrangements, he points to the mazelike melodic lines and rhythms of "Let Down," from the band's "OK Computer" album. As he plays, the music is recognizably Radiohead, but with a twist. If you weren't a member of the Radiohead cognoscenti, you might guess O'Riley was accessing other sources altogether.

"I wanted to take the material that they set down," O'Riley says of this song, "and let it ride. I always imagined it as a kind of a Lou Harrison or John Adams kind of thing." And in fact, the rippling texture of O'Riley's "Let Down" has a hint of the pulse-driven, lyric eclecticism that marks the work of those two California composers.

"Let Down" isn't a song the band often performs live, he says. "The one time I heard Radiohead do it [on a bootleg recording done in New York], when they let it stretch out, it went into that mandala feeling, so I figured I was on the right track."

He swivels on the piano bench with widening eyes. "Some might assume that this is a sort of busman's holiday for me. Out of the 23 [Radiohead arrangements] that I do, 16 of them are among the hardest pieces I play. It's not like I'm slumming it."

Last week, O'Riley played a contemporary work in Orange County with the Pacific Symphony, and he's scheduled to play Mozart in San Diego next week. Throughout the summer, he'll combine his usual soloist-with-the-orchestra gigs and all-Radiohead recitals around the country. (The closest his Radiohead recitals will get to L.A., according to the current schedule, is the Cabrillo Festival in Santa Cruz, in August.)

O'Riley, 47, who was born in Chicago and studied at the New England Conservatory of Music, has withstood the withering exposure of piano competitions (he medaled in the Van Cliburn, Leeds, Busoni and Montreal contests) and he's used to the critics' gaze. But he confesses to more than the usual pre-tour jitters when it comes to the Radiohead material.

Most of the reviews aren't in yet, but he was relieved to see a four-star review for the CD in Rolling Stone. "With unblinking virtuosity," wrote James Hunter, "he captures the band's signature contradiction: encountering something exhilarating -- a building, an airport lounge interior -- and feeling simultaneously unwell."

O'Riley shows off a sidelong grin. "It was never one of my ambitions to get a four-star review in Rolling Stone," he says, "but I can't complain."

Striking similarities

Among Radiohead's devoted fan base are some musicians who might not otherwise spend a lot of time tuned to rock music. Jazz pianist Brad Mehldau and a string quartet called the Section have expressed their admiration by covering the band's songs live and on CD. The New Yorker's classical music writer Alex Ross wrote a long feature on the band after its last big tour in 2001. And Los Angeles Philharmonic music director and composer Esa-Pekka Salonen says that what Radiohead has tried to do musically is "not that drastically different" from what he tries to do.

Like Salonen, O'Riley was lured into the band's blend of emotionality and experimentalism after hearing 1997's "OK Computer." He was nearly a decade out of conservatory, well-launched on his solo career, and a year away from moving his base of operations from New York City to Los Angeles.

Radiohead, he thought, sounded like "the new Beatles." He got interested enough to research set lists and visit Web sites. Then, in 2000, he became the founding host of NPR's "From the Top," which profiles young classical musicians and now airs on more than 200 stations (none in L.A., however). Amid the patter, interviews and performances, O'Riley inserts piano interludes. The radio show, which is meant, he says, to make classical music "accessible without talking down to an audience," became the first venue for his Radiohead arrangements.

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