For his appearance this week with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, Christopher O'Riley will perform works by 20th-century French composer Maurice Ravel and Radiohead, the British alternative rock band - a perfectly normal juxtaposition for this pianist.
"There never was a plan," O'Riley says of his emergence from traditional classical artist to multimedia celebrity to crossover success story, acclaimed for brilliant arrangements of rock songs. "It was just a matter of willingness, and doing what I like doing, and playing what I like playing."
O'Riley has lately begun performing recitals that balance such classical giants as Robert Schumann, Claude Debussy and Dmitri Shostakovich with the likes of singer/songwriters Nick Drake and the late Elliott Smith, as well as Radiohead. And his next album offers his takes on songs by Nirvana, Pink Floyd, Tears for Fears and more.
"It will be the first piano recording to induce long-term hearing loss," O'Riley says from New York, where he has been listening to the final edit. "I'm very proud of that," he adds with a laugh.
The Nirvana track from the new CD is due to be premiered by the pianist on the Late Show with David Letterman at the end of April. "It will be taped the night before, and there will be video with it," says O'Riley, who won't be invited over to the host's desk. "I'll get my three and a half minutes of fame and that's it," the pianist says.
He enjoys plenty of air time in other ways. O'Riley, 53, is the engaging host of the weekly NPR show From the Top, carried by more than 200 stations, and its PBS counterpart, From the Top at Carnegie Hall. In both versions, the pianist chats with young classical musicians and provides them an invaluable showcase.
It was the original NPR version of the show that afforded O'Riley with an extra showcase for himself. Thwarted from pursuing an idea to include different musical genres on the program - "I was told, 'One minute of jazz and you're off' " - he still found a way to enjoy his nonclassical interests.
"My solo spot on the show was to fill in the gaps where stations can do local IDs," he says. Instead of playing little bits of Bach or Mozart, O'Riley slipped in some of his Radiohead transcriptions. "There was a little subversive subtext to this. It was my way to play music I believe in," he says. "The stations would get calls, 'Who is this Mr. Head and where can I find more of his beautiful music?' "
O'Riley subsequently recorded two well-received CDs of Radiohead transcriptions.
Madeline Adkins, the BSO's associate concertmaster, is another classical musician who has been turned on to Radiohead, in her case by her boyfriend. "He's been dragged to Mahler and Brahms, so he introduced me to Radiohead," Adkins says. "I've been to their concerts - that was a true crossover experience. I like them. Their songs are harmonically interesting, and you're always hearing new things in them."
The violinist is looking forward to hearing O'Riley's take on Radiohead in person this week (she's already checked out the pianist on YouTube). "He's not trying to create a replica," she says. "It's his own interpretation. And I think he really captures the emotional intensity of the music."
Born in Chicago, O'Riley formed his own rock band in sixth grade. In high school, at that point living in Pittsburgh, he was playing in a jazz club. Once he started studying at the New England Conservatory in Boston, he didn't confine himself to the classical canon; he was a member of the school's notable ragtime ensemble. (The pianist, who is divorced, now divides his time between homes in Sagamore, Ohio, and Los Angeles.)
O'Riley's piano career, which got a boost when he was a finalist at the 1981 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, has included appearances at many a prestigious recital hall and with a long list of major orchestras. Whether O'Riley is incisively exploring Mozart, Beethoven or Liszt, or digging into one of Radiohead's distinctively moody songs, the pianist's enthusiasm is contagious.
"You always want to be in the moment, not just presenting something, but enjoying the hall and the audience," O'Riley says. "Someone I've always revered is James Galway. He's always alive to the moment and alive to the audience. Bobby McFerrin is the same way."
O'Riley joined singer/conductor McFerrin in some improvisations when the two shared the stage for a 2005 BSO program. "With his emanation of energy, he makes you feel you can do anything," O'Riley says.
He's pretty fearless on his own, invariably making an individualistic musical statement. That can't be said of everyone out there in the classical field. Young American musicians, in particular, have long been faulted for having more technique than personality.
"That used to be a pretty apt description," O'Riley says. "Kids were not getting much help from the recording industry, which was putting out so many middle-of-the-road performances. I think this was worst in the violin category."