Versatility may as well be Christopher O'Riley's middle name. The popular pianist's three-pronged career is spent as a concert soloist performing the revered classics; interpreting the music of contemporary rock bands in original arrangements; and promoting the burgeoning careers of young classical musicians on his nationally syndicated radio show, "From the Top."
On Thursday, October 15, and Saturday, October 17, O'Riley will join the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra and Conductor Laureate Christopher Seaman for Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 22 in Kodak Hall at Eastman Theatre in a performance that also includes Brahms's Symphony No. 4 and "Iberia" by Claude Debussy. In a recent phone interview, O'Riley shared his thoughts on interpreting Mozart, learning from young musicians, and the evolution of his musical curiosity. An edited transcript of that conversation follows.
City: You've interpreted everything from classical repertoire to seminal folk, rock, and indie songs. What would you say is the origin of your musical curiosity? Can you pin it to a particular moment in your a life or a specific piece of music?
Christopher O'Riley: I think it was basically growing up, playing classical music, and getting interested in girls early on, and realizing they weren't going to be that impressed with Beethoven or Liszt. So I started getting into [the] art rock of the time. It had no immediate effect on my social life, but it got me interested in the keyboard bands of the time, like The Doors, Iron Butterfly, and then later on I moved into sort of fusion stuff and started playing jazz professionally in high school. When I was choosing a music school, I ended up at New England Conservatory because they had a good jazz department and I wanted to pursue both [jazz and classical] ... I kind of kept with classical for a long time and let my pursuit of popular music lapse for a while.
And then, actually, my radio program, "From the Top," was originally designed as a forum for all kinds of musicians, but when we were shopping the program around, the stations -- predominantly classic stations -- were saying, "OK, well, you play one minute of jazz and you're off." I play a halfway point -- sort of a "halftime" piece on every show -- and so I thought it would be a nice way of sort of tweaking the sensibilities of a predominantly classical audience and share with them small bits of music that I was passionate about. And the audience would, knowing me as a classical pianist, presume that whatever I was playing was classical.
So when our announcer would come on and say, "That was our host Christopher O'Riley playing 'Karma Police' by Radiohead," we would get emails from listeners saying, "Who is this Mr. Head, and where can I find more of his beautiful music?" So that was kind of how it became sort of a habit and more of my activity was involved with basically arrangements of anything that I was really passionate about. So I haven't really been listening too assiduously or keeping up with a lot of music, but every once in a while, an artist would catch my attention -- Radiohead, Elliott Smith, Nick Drake.
One of my most recent collections of arrangements was by all kinds of bands: Cocteau Twins, The Smiths, Nirvana, Pink Floyd. And most recently, a song popped up on my iPod by Sun Kil Moon, formerly of Red House Painters -- Mark Kozelek -- so he's another artist that, you know, has been out there for a while. I just kind of discovered for myself, so I'm going to be doing a lot of his music. So it's just kind of whatever strikes my fancy, and it's basically, you know, kind of the same way that I feel about all of the classical music I play. I play whatever I can't not play. So that's kind of how it happens.
It sounds like what you choose to perform is very much a reflection of your personal journey as a listener, as much as anything else.
Many of your piano arrangements of popular music -- particularly Radiohead -- are characteristically dense, awash in harmonic and rhythmic ambiguity. Does performing a piece of such comparative clarity like Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 22 allow you to cleanse your musical palette or reset yourself as a performer?
Well, it's interesting because this particular Mozart concerto leaves a lot of room for not just interpretation, but actually compositional contribution. First of all, you usually have your solo cadenzas in the various movements, first and last, in this particular one. And Mozart did not provide cadenzas for this concerto, so I do sort of a standard one in the first movement but I wrote my own cadenza for the third movement. But then along the way in all the movements, there are passages for the solo piano that are notated rather skeletally, and the implication is that he didn't get around to finishing them off or he never decided what was the ideal and he would make up something in each of those passages in live performance. So yeah, there's quite a lot of filling in that I've been able to do with this. It is a sense of clarity, but I still do get to contribute a lot of my own material to this piece.
I don't necessarily think of Mozart as a composer whose music allows for that kind of creativity in the performer, so I feel like it's nice to present the listener with music that re-contextualizes the composer a little bit. What attracts you most to Mozart's music?
There's a lot of cross-fertilization. There's a lot of opera in his piano music, and there's a lot of piano music or chamber music in his opera. And so how that translates into my personal approach to a piece like this is that I'm really trying to think lyrically at all times, so that my articulation, my choice of articulation is not cut and dried. It's somewhat informed by lyrical impulse. So if I imagine the notes are infused with lyric meaning, then that informs my articulation and my phrasing in a way that makes a run of 16th-notes a little less pianistic and a little bit more vocal.
There's a fair amount of freedom, even within the passages with the orchestra, that I like to bring to this piece. And especially those passages where the piano is unaccompanied, I think the composer's intention is basically, "Well, you don't need to be synchronous with the orchestra at this point, so make your own time, really." I mean I don't take it way out, but there's a certain amount of flexibility that I think people don't take advantage of which has made it a lot more fun for me to play this piece.
I first saw you perform about 10 years ago in a program that combined Radiohead arrangements with Shostakovich's "Preludes and Fugues." You've continued this kind of juxtaposition of classical and colloquial with projects like "Shuffle.Play.Listen." Why is this dialogue between classical and non-classical so important?
I think the question is really more what the need for genre distinctions are. I think there's all kind of great music in all kinds of genres, and I think to make a value judgment based on genre or historical context of a piece of music is really sort of approaching music from a blinkered standpoint.
I like to approach things with Duke Ellington's adage in mind, that there are only two kinds of music: good music and the other kind. That puts the question squarely in the hands of the performer. We are responsible for preparing and presenting what we feel most strongly about. And for an audience, the responsibility is to be open to that experience, and not take it in terms of market pressure or what somebody says you should like, but really view the evidence of your ears and your heart.
Do you find that balancing your professional career as both a solo artist and a radio host helps to keep both avenues fresh?
Well, I get the most selfish pleasure and benefit from my interaction with my young musicians, because I make it a point in my collaborative work to make sure that they are playing exactly as they wish, and that they don't have to accommodate me in terms of being terribly clear or predictable. And as a solo pianist who is constantly falling back on my own idiosyncrasies at the instrument, it's really nice dancing with four different partners every week because if you're really open to the experience, then you're enjoying their own sort of language of rubato and phrasing. And you can really gain quite a lot from the experience in terms of having that infuse your own playing with a certain amount of freshness and just a different point of view. So yeah, that's been my main inspiration, and that is what keeps both of them vibrant and strong and engaging.
Have you ever met a young musician through "From the Top" whose performance inspired you to rethink your own interpretation of a particular piece or composer?
Absolutely, I think that's absolutely fair. And it's not just the novelty of a young performer. I mean, these kids are extraordinarily dedicated, and we're asking them to play their favorite five minutes of music, so it's really always a matter of them bringing really world-class performances of these pieces to their audience and to me, so I'm always keenly aware of where the kids are and where they're going, and I have occasion to engage them on the road in professional concert experiences. I'm just starting a festival at Tippet Rise, Montana, where we'll do a bunch of summer concerts, and a lot of "From the Top" alums will be showing up there to perform with me.