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The essence of Elliott Smith

April 25, 2006|Steve Hochman | Special to The Times

It's a challenge to convey the full nature of the late Elliott Smith's music without benefit of his voice or lyrics, especially given his way with attractive, sweet melodies.

That was the task for pianist Christopher O'Riley at the Getty Center's Harold M. Williams Auditorium on Friday in a recital of his classical-styled transcriptions of Smith songs featured on the new "Home to Oblivion" album. He certainly brought imagination and talent to the endeavor. With a relatively informal manner, he turned opener "Coast to Coast" from the original's stinging guitar-rock into roiling, dissonance-spiked Impressionism, the originally lo-fi "Speed Trials" into an almost Broadway-worthy dream.

While blending equal parts of Debussy-like waves and Rachmaninov-derived density, O'Riley also managed to coax hints of Richard Rogers romance from Smith's largely Beatles-influenced tunes.

But did he truly capture the nature of Smith's complex, conflicted emotions?

"Searching, powerful, reaching for something more, not satisfied," was how the music struck Priscilla Carney, a Studio City technology consultant with little knowledge of Smith or his music before Friday.

Of the jaunty "Independence Day," she added, "I was thinking, 'This was what he wanted to feel like.' "


Los Angeles-based O'Riley -- who moved from more conventional classical repertoire several years ago with two albums of Radiohead material -- discovered and ultimately immersed himself in Smith's music only after the singer-songwriter died from a knife wound in 2003 at his L.A. home.

In his tribute, he might have been a little too loyal to the originals rather than exploring places the themes might go in, say, sonata-form extrapolations. But he avoided gimmickry and triteness, and clearly conveyed Smith's elusive essence.

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