October 1, 2015

Meet the artist: Christopher O’Riley

Acclaimed pianist Christopher O’Riley will perform Mozart’s 22nd Piano Concerto with the RPO on October 15 and 17 under the baton of Conductor Laureate Christopher Seaman. O’Riley is known not only as a classical musician, but also for his inventive arrangements of popular music. He is also known as the host of NPR’s From the Top (coming to the RPO in January!), the preeminent showcase for classically trained young musicians, now in its 15th year on air. We caught up with O’Riley to learn more about the Mozart Concerto, why he is looking forward to returning to play with the RPO, and why he is committed to bridging the gap between musical genres.

Tell us more about the piece you will play with the RPO, Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 22, K. 482. What makes this particular work exciting to play?
It’s one of the most virtuosic of the Mozart concerti, but it’s also exciting because there are a lot of places where Mozart didn’t write out passages—it’s just one note per bar. There was a lot of improvisation in Mozart’s day and it’s up to the soloist to fill in those blanks. I don’t pretend to make up stuff on the spur of the moment; it deserves some thought. This is also a concerto where Mozart didn’t write his own cadenzas, so I have written my own for the first and last movement. There is a lot of opportunity for soloists to have our own input, so that makes it very exciting for me.

So it sounds like even if you have heard K.482 before, every performance will sound different because the soloist gets to add their own flair?
Yes, quite different!

You’re an accomplished solo artist in your own right, but what do you like about playing with an orchestra?
I like the chamber music aspect of playing with an orchestra, directly engaging with the players themselves. The RPO is a spectacular orchestra and they have been around forever. Last time I played with them was with Christopher Seaman. Christopher is an extraordinarily generous and gracious colleague as a conductor. I have fond memories of my work with him.

Speaking of that last RPO performance in 2000, I understand a Rochester blizzard led to both concerts being canceled.
We were supposed to perform the Schumann Concerto. We had a lovely rehearsal and then got 24 inches on the day of the concert. Then there was no snow on the day in between concerts, followed by 36 inches of snow on the second day we were scheduled to perform!

Well, we are making up for it by having you perform here twice this year! In January, you will return to the RPO for a recording of From The Top. What’s your advice to young musicians?
I think it’s important for kids to spend as much time as they can soaking up all the best music that they can. It’s important to be true to your passions. The more distinct and unique a musician’s personality, the more chance that they will resonate with a large audience.

You’ve certainly proven that with your own body of work. You’ve performed as a soloist with virtually all of the major American orchestras, but also have a keen interest in pop music. Your album of reimagined works by Radiohead earned a four-star review from Rolling Stone Magazine, and you are the only classical pianist to earn this accolade. Do you perform pop arrangements with hopes of bringing in new audiences to the classical world?
I’ve always been interested in all kinds of music. When I started out as a kid, I was playing classical piano exclusively. I don’t think girls were impressed with classical, so I started playing pop music. I had my own little rock band in junior high. When I started playing my new pop arrangements, it was because of my work with From the Top. It was a nice way of bridging the genre gap and playing music that I believed in. In my way of thinking, it’s just a matter of trust. A performer should be trusted to perform and prepare what they believe in, and an audience should allow their ears and hearts to tell them what is good, instead of some predisposition that you should only listen to classical music. It should be a matter of spontaneous interaction and reaction to what one is hearing. There is good music in lots of genres, and that’s why I continue to play pop music. It does help to bridge the gap between audiences with different tastes.

Will we get to hear Radiohead when you are here again in January?
I’m sure it will be whatever I am into at the time. Right now I am really into the composer Antón García Abril (a notable Spanish movie/TV composer) and the American rock group Sun Kil Moon!

If you go:
Seaman Conducts Brahms 4
Thu. Oct 15, 7:30 PM, and Sat. Oct 17, 8 PM
Kodak Hall at Eastman Theatre
Tickets start at $22
Student tickets $10

See Christopher again in January
From the Top Live with Host Christopher O’Riley
Sun Jan 17, 7:30 PM
Kodak Hall at Eastman Theatre
Tickets start at $15

See Christopher O'Riley perform his arrangement of Radiohead's "Karma Police."

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