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Issue Date: July 2007 Issue


Classical Rock

As younger listeners fall away from the likes of Beethoven, Debussy and Ravel, will Christopher O’Riley — the host of NPR’s youth-focused “From the Top” and the renowned reinventor of songs by Radiohead, Elliott Smith and Nick Drake — be the one who brings them back? 


Jim Vickers, photography by Eric Mull
You don’t expect a classical pianist to immediately introduce you to a seriously tasty summer drink. But here we are: salt-rimmed glass of ice, squeeze of lime, splash of Tabasco, splash of Worcestershire and 12 ounces of beer over top — what’s known as a michelada.

“You’ve got to try this,” Christopher O’Riley insists, pushing his glass across the table in a way that suggests you’ve known him for years rather than minutes. So you take a sip. Soon, you’ve ordered one for yourself. Then, O’Riley mentions today marks his 51st birthday (though he looks to be about a decade younger) and any concerns that this meeting would end up stiffly formal are gone. His fiancée, Michelle, is at the table too. It appears this interview is doubling as a birthday dinner.

But such multitasking doesn’t seem to faze O’Riley, whose twin musical pursuits are keeping him plenty busy at the moment. It’s mid-April, and his fourth CD of reinterpreted rock compositions, “Second Grace: The Music of Nick Drake,” has just been released. He is also currently doing press for PBS’s “From the Top: Live from Carnegie Hall,” a new television version of the popular NPR radio show O’Riley has hosted for the past eight years. (The 13-episode series, which features young classical musicians, began airing in April. A second season will be filmed this fall.)

“It’s always been a pretty compelling idea,” O’Riley says of bringing “From the Top” to television. “If you’re flipping [radio] channels and listen to our show, you hear really great performances, and then there’s this kind of shock that you’re hearing a kid. If it’s on TV, it’s more immediate. You see that a 14-year-old girl is playing this piece.”

The show is the first classical-music television series of note since Leonard Bernstein last hosted his “Young People’s Concerts” in 1972. “TV has more or less passed classical music by since that time,” O’Riley says. “It’s been relegated to archival, museum-type concert footage. Whereas what we’re doing is closer to something like ‘The Tonight Show.’ ”
O’Riley’s “From the Top” radio program — specifically the piano treatments of rock compositions he performed during the show’s breaks — gave way to his string of classical interpretations of works by rock act Radiohead and the late singer-songwriters Elliott Smith and Nick Drake. The series of recordings have garnered praise (and a few digs) from mainstream magazines such as Entertainment Weekly and Rolling Stone.

“I didn’t set out to make them classical pieces, but classical playing infuses everything I do,” explains the Chicago native. “I would do these break pieces just because I believed in [the songs]. Afterward, the announcer would say ‘that’s Christopher O’Riley playing ‘Karma Police’ by Radiohead.” People would write in and ask, ‘who’s this Mr. Head? ”

When Radiohead’s rabid fan base latched on to O’Riley’s interpretations, it made him a cult figure among the British rock outfit’s loyalists. In fact, O’Riley met his fiancée on one of the band’s fan Web sites. Two years ago, he moved here from Los Angeles to be with her. Today, the couple and their four cats live in Sagamore Hills.

Even if classical versions of rock compositions are not unique to O’Riley, his approach of mimicking the textures and creating translations for the various sounds present in the original recording is distinct. “Part of it is just the conceit of trying to do something cool on the piano,” he says.

And if you’re one who sees the classical and rock music worlds as too wide a gulf to span or are among those who equate rock songs at the hands of a classical pianist as sacrilege, consider the reaction to O’Riley’s work by Claude Frank, the German-born pianist known for his milestone recording of 32 Beethoven piano sonatas for RCA.

“At one of my first Radiohead recitals, Claude was there,” O’Riley recalls. “He’s in his [early 80s] now and very traditional in the classical world. He has no business having a new idea at all. He comes backstage and says, ‘I didn’t know Radiohead from a hole in the head. But I loved the playing, I loved the arrangements, and I loved the music.’ ” 

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