Pianist O’Riley brings Radiohead and Rachmaninoff to MU

The NPR host and musician will perform Thursday at Jesse Hall.
Ashley Lane / Graphic Designer

In his upcoming performance at Jesse Hall, Christopher O’Riley, renowned pianist and host of NPR’s “From the Top,” will weave together the worlds of classical and alternative music.

O’Riley’s tour is titled after his newest album, Out of My Hands, which he said is an accurate description of the agenda for his show.

“The title Out of My Hands refers to the fact that I don’t like to plan what I play, because there are always new things coming out of my repertoire,” O’Riley said. “The brand new R.E.M. single is in the program now, and there are lots of things that I’ve never recorded on the program.“

O’Riley doesn’t decide what songs to arrange based on what genre they are or what artist they're by, but rather how the individual songs appeal to him.

“When I decide to arrange something for piano, it’s usually a song that I’ve listened to hundreds of time and after about the 600th time I think, ‘Yeah this could really work as a piano piece,” he said.

When he decides to arrange an alternative song for the piano, O’Riley said it is usually because it has classical attributes.

“Whether it’s a vocal line or a hook in the guitar part, there’s usually one foot in the door with the song and then it’s a matter of starting the process of arranging it,” he said.

O’Riley’s usual concert set-list effortlessly blends the music of alternative artists such as Pink Floyd, Radiohead, Nick Drake, Elliott Smith and Nirvana with classical composers like Rachmaninoff and Debussy. He said these artists all have more in common than it appears.

“Nick Drake listened to a lot of French classical music, and I think that kind of French sensibility to his music makes it easy for someone like me, who has played a lot of French music in my career, to pick up,” he said.

He said he believes Radiohead’s music offers a classical-like range of sound in each song.

“Radiohead’s music and a lot of classical music are a weave of different verses, rather than an onslaught of sound,” he said. “That’s what I think makes Radiohead’s music in particular amenable to a classical audience. It’s like how music and math appeal to the same side of the brain — I think classical music and Radiohead appeal to the same thing.”

O’Riley, a self-proclaimed Radiohead fanatic, said that although its newest album King of Limbs isn’t his favorite, attendees of his Thursday show can expect a performance of the song “Morning Mr. Magpie.”

“’Morning Mr. Magpie,’ was a song that Thom performed on the Christmas webcast in 2004,” he said. “At that point it was just a guitar and vocal performance and I really loved the song, so I made an arrangement back then. I couldn’t put it on a record yet, because it wasn’t released by Radiohead at that point.”

O’Riley said his unique mixture of music mirrors modern society’s ability to broaden its music taste through the Internet.

“I don’t think there are many listeners who just sit around and wait for their favorite band to put out a new record — they go to websites that recommend music and are experimental in their listening,” he said. “I think my program tees into that idea of experimentation and trying new things.”

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