You might not expect to hear Tears for Fears or Tori Amos at a High Desert Chamber Music concert—but mixing it up is radio personality and classical pianist Christopher O'Riley's specialty. He'll be doing just that at the HDCM season opener Friday.
O'Riley, who hosted National Public Radio's "From the Top" for 18 seasons, says he began writing arrangements for pop and rock tunes, in part, as a result of hosting the radio show. The program's aim was to introduce new audiences to a variety of music forms and regularly featured young aspiring musicians.
"It was initially designed to celebrate all kinds of music, then later narrowed down to be classical only," O'Riley explains. "So I decided to start doing these arrangements. We would have our announcer say, 'that was Christopher O'Riley playing 'Karma Police' by Radiohead,' and we would get emails into the program saying, 'Who is this Mr. Head, and where can I find more of his beautiful music?' So it really came from that and from my enthusiasm for various other artists." O'Riley will perform arrangements of songs by Radiohead, Tori Amos and Tears for Fears for the first half of Friday's concert. The second half will feature his arrangement of Hector Berlioz' "Symphonie Fantastique."
O'Riley composed his own piano arrangement of the symphony and performed it as part of last summer's five-month run of a multi-genre, underwater stage production of the same name by Basil Twist. "It is one of Basil Twist's most venerable works," O'Riley says of the production, "A great piece of visual abstract art."
The Berlioz masterwork is autobiographical in nature, according to O'Riley. "Berlioz presaged Wagner in his idea of the idee fixe, or leitmotif – associating a particular musical phrase with a character or a characteristic," he explains. "This love theme was associated with his real-life crush, Harriett Smithson, the Irish Shakespearean actress, for whom he wrote this piece because he fell madly in love with her.
"He pursued her, they married miserably and they had a child. She was on the decline from the moment he married her. He supported her, (but) then went off and chose poorly again, a soprano who was insisting on singing in all of his concerts, and she was rather grasping. So I think he spent a long time in romantic hell," he laughs.
Franz Liszt was the first to transcribe the symphony for piano solo – in fact, it was his first transcription, O'Riley says, and he feels like he picked up the task where Liszt left off. "I've spent a lot of time re-working what Liszt didn't get around to doing," he says. "There are many passages where he just kind of threw up his hands and said, 'Yeah, there's this other (more pressing) stuff going on in the orchestra,' and he'd just squiggle a line on top of a line but made no suggestion as to how to incorporate that material. I feel sort of proprietary about it. I care a great deal for the piece."
O'Riley has released numerous albums, and recorded episodes of his radio show, "From the Top," will continue to be broadcast by NPR through 2020. Individual episodes are available for listening online at fromthetop.org/listen/.