Concert for the future

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.

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  1. says

    Very nicely stated, Greg, but there’s one more thing worth mentioning: O’Riley’s concert sold out well in advance, and there was a standby line snaking up a stairwell near the entrance. That, to me, was huge.

    And what did you make of the video component?

    Hi, Steve. Thanks for mentioning the video! I forgot to.

    There was video projected on a screen behind Chris, during this concert. It was created in the moment by [two guys with laptops] Stephen Byram and Jonathon Rosen sitting at a table on the side of the stage. So they were performers at the concert, alongside Chris.

    I thought it added a nice bit of ambience. Made the concert more friendly, but also more poised, and more of an event. The effect, in the end, was to take us out of the formal concert hall, and to put us into a space Chris specially created for his performance.

    As I’m writing this, I’m thinking that I underestimated the effect of the video (which might be one reason I forgot to mention it). Now I see how much it did to set this concert apart from standard classical performances — to make this, in yet another way, a concert for the future. (But no — I don’t mean that all future concerts will need to have video! We all can help make the future in our own way.)

  2. says

    Greg, thanks for this description. I’m going to O’Riely’s Nick Drake / Debussy concert next week. I didn’t realize O’Riely had programmed the evening with segues in the way you described (Steve, did you mention this in your review? It really makes a difference in what I’m expecting from next week’s performance…). That’s great – he sounds like a very thoughtful and creative musician.

    P.S. I’m the only composer in NYC who isn’t a die hard Radiohead fan, by the way. There! I said it! For breadth of technique and compositional creativity, I thought My Morning Jacket or MeShelle Ndegeocello’s 2007/2008 CDs blew away In Rainbows but what do I know?

    Yo, Chris. No need to march with the herd! You’ve given me more music to listen to, and I’m always happy for that.

  3. says

    …but you know, when you think about it, Christopher O’Riely isn’t doing anything James Booker didn’t do years ago and probably did much better.

    I think most of my friends in New Orleans would find it kind of amusing that the NY Press is amazed that people were standing outside of a sold out O’Reily concert.

    Who’s James Booker?

    I don’t know, Chris…doesn’t seem from the Wikipedia entry that Booker does what Chris does. Which doesn’t make him any less impressive.

    And something else. When you do something is important. I’m sure Chris isn’t the first to alternate classical and nonclassical tracks (so to speak) at a concert. But doing it now — when the wave is moving in that direction — might mean more than doing it 20 years ago, let’s say, when you’d be an isolated pioneer. In some of my public talks I’ve held up Miles Davis’s On the Corner as an example of music that does what classical music needs to do now. (Because he infused jazz with some of the contemporary pop and classical music of that time, the early ’70s.) But that wouldn’t mean that someone who does this in classical music right now might not be more important for our moment in history.

    Finally, are you saying that your friends in New Orleans wouldn’t be surprised to see lines stretching out to the street for a concert that’s half Shostakovich? I’d imagine that would be a surprise there as well as in NY. But I don’t know New Orleans as well as you do, so maybe I’m wrong.

  4. says

    Chris, not to commandeer Greg’s blog — but no, segues between Shostakovich and Radiohead pieces were the exception rather than the rule, so I did not mention them; had they been prevalent, I would have.

  5. says

    Thanks. And I don’t mean to knock Christopher O’Reily. I’m really looking forward to the Drake vs Debussy program. And I imagine O’Reily is well aware of a great artist like Booker.

    It just hit me when I posted earlier how easy it is to lose a fluid perception of music and its history. I could just hear myself describing an O’Reily performance to one particular friend of mine in New Orleans and him snarling “Yeah? So? You ever hear James Booker play Bach, the Beatles, and Bartok all at once AND make it funky?”

    That said, I expect the O’Reily concert to be a lovely and musical experience.

  6. says

    Suddenly something twigged when I read your report on Chris O Reily’s concert and the name that came into mind was,Franz Liszt. Liszt’s concerts were just such an event.People waited for his improvistations, his almost unnatural segues (as per preluding)and his incredible showmanship. It seems that what has gone around, has come around and more power to the musician who can tap into this resource.

  7. Jon Russell says

    I am inclined to agree with you about it being a good thing to mix genres together like this, but I have to say that when I saw O’Riley do a similar concert in San Francisco a couple years ago, i had a very different reaction, I didn’t think it worked very well at all. Though I don’t know if it was the same program, that concert too was more or less alternating between Radiohead songs and Shostakovich Preludes and Fugues. I am a big Radiohead fan myself, but hearing it juxtaposed with Shostakovich like that really did not put the Radiohead in a good light for me. It sounded like there was a very clear difference between them, with Shostakovich sounding far more subtle, nuanced, and with much greater emotional depth. It made the angst and darkness in the Radiohead songs suddenly seem very shallow, phony, and juvenile to me. Part of the problem was the arrangements themselves which i did not think were very good, most of them seemed to devolve into a soup of virtuosic arpeggios and runs that obscured all the best features of the songs. I was definitely pre-disposed to think this sort of thing is a good idea, and was expecting to love the concert, so I don’t think this is attributable to a bias on my part. Ultimately, the effect of the concert on me was to make me think “Hmm, maybe classical music really IS superior to popular music after all” which again, is the opposite of what I am pre-disposed to think. Anyway, it’s interesting to hear your report on it, I’m glad it worked for you. Curious what you thought of how he arranged the songs though, did you find them overly (and generically) virtuosic at all? Obviously it’s a different medium and you have to make some major changes to go from rock band to solo piano, and I’m no purist at all when it comes to transcriptions; but chanelling Liszt and 19th century virtuoso piano music really didn’t seem like the right approach to me. Incidentally, the first time I heard O’Riley play a radiohead transcription was as an encore after a performance of Brahms second piano concerto with the Marin Symphony. In that context, I thought it was fantastic…

    I do think the arrangements could be less traditionally pianistic. In spite of this, the concert worked very well for me, and I didn’t have the reaction you did. Yes, the Shostakovich pieces came off as more subtle, but I wasn’t bothered, and didn’t think less of the Radiohead music. I respect your reaction, in any case. Sorry you didn’t care for the concert. I know you’re not speaking from ideological bias. These are often our truest reactions, I think — the ones that actually go against our expectations.

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