Christopher O’Riley, at Miller Theatre, in New York, on March 27. He played Shostakovich Preludes and Fugues, along with some of the Radiohead transcriptions he’s played many times before. Full house. Young audience. Radiohead fans, I’d guess, but they applauded really hard for Shostakovich.
So why was this so important? Seems to me it gives us one model for putting classical music in the same world as popular culture, in this case by putting the two literally next to each other.
And don’t think the combination didn’t work! Chris didn’t segregate the two kinds of music into two halves of the program. He mostly alternated them, playing a prelude and fugure, then Radiohead, then back to Shostakovich. A couple of times he played two Radiohead transcriptions in a row. But there was a constant alternation, which made the blend seem entirely natural. Neither music seemed “better” than the other, or deeper, or whatever honorific you want to pin on whatever kind of music you admire.
Including “appealing”! Both musics here were quite appealing, and while I love those preludes and fugues (astonishing music that hasn’t, I think, quite made it into the heart of the piano repertoire, where it deserves to be), I wasn’t alone in likeing them. As I said, the audience, even if they cheered more loudly for Radiohead, applauded quite warmly for Shostakovich.
And some of the segues were astonishing. Sometimes Chris would go directly from the end of one of the fugues right into the start of the following Radiohead song, and the transition would be magical. For a moment, it wasn’t clear which piece was which, or, maybe more profoundingly, which genre either was supposed to fit into. They clearly belonged together. That was the bottom line.
Something else that made this good. It wasn’t an effort to win a new audience for classical music. Radiohead wasn’t the bait, put on the program to get people listening to something classical. Chris loves both. So he played both. He’ll be doing something similar on April 17, at Miller, where he’ll pair Nick Drake transcriptions with Debussy, and on May 5 he’ll link Elliott Smith and Schumann.
Because this wasn’t outreach — wasn’t didactic or eduational, wasn’t anything it didn’t seem to be, on its face — that made it genuine. No preaching to the audience. No hoping (as far as I know) that for the concert really to reach its goals, the people in the audience now have to start going to purely classical recitals. It was what it was. We can’t hope, in classical music’s future, to somehow convert younger people into the kind of classical audience we have now. They are what they are, and they’re perfectly willing to appreciate classical music, especially in a context that feels friendly and familiar. And artistically convincing to them.
I don’t say that all classical concerts in the future will be like this. I couldn’t possibly know such a thing. And there’s also no need for it. Once classical music really does take its place in mainstream culture (a better term, maybe, than “popular culture”), then people will go to purely classical concerts who don’t go now, and some will, you’d think, become classical music fans, just as people now might be fans of ska or punk or classic rock.
But certainly we’ll have concerts featuring classical music along with other genres, simply because many people like more than one kind of music. Which, in the end, is the key to the Christopher O’Riley performances. He’s playing music that he loves. And he’s breaking out of the traditional classical box to do that.
In the maintream classical world, you play your instrument, in Chris’s case the piano. Your instrument has a repertoire of music written for it by classical composers. If you’re going to give a concert, you choose your music from that repertoire.
Other kinds of musicians don’t work like that. They say, “I’m a musician. I play the piano. What kind of music do I want to play?” And then there’s no telling what they’ll come up with.
This, as I see it, is what Chris does. He’s a musician. He loves Radiohead. So he plays Radiohead (having done a great deal of creative work to write transcriptions of their songs for the piano). And he loves Shostakovich, and thinks the preludes and fugues will fit with Radiohead, so he plays both at the same concert. End of story! The key to this isn’t, again, that it reaches out to nonclassical audiences, or that it daringly breaks boundaries. The key is simply that it’s what Chris loves, an expression of himself as a musician. And that’s why it’s so convincing.