Printer-friendly version interview with Christopher O'Riley

Laurie Niles

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Published: September 3, 2009 at 12:34 AM [UTC]

If you've tuned in to National Public Radio at the right time, you may have heard From the Top, the weekly show hosted by pianist Christopher O'Riley, featuring the talents of young musicians from across America. O'Riley not only interviews the musicians, but he also accompanies them. The show is in its 10th season and last week it released a CD called From the Top at the Pops, showcasting the talents of young violinists we know such as Chad Hoopes and Caroline Goulding, as well as young pianists Ji-Yong Kim and Hilda Huang; cellist Matthew Allen; composer Stephen Feigenbaum and tenor saxophonist Corey Dundee. These young musicians had the chance to perform and record with the Cincinnati Pops, and to work with conductor Erich Kunzel, who died earlier this week.

Earlier this summer, I talked to Christopher about "From the Top," about collaborative playing, and about his life as a performing artist.

Christopher O'Riley
Photo courtesy the artist

Laurie: How did you get started with "From the Top"?

Christopher: The founders and the executive producers of the program were associated with New England Conservatory of Music, which was where I went to school, and they knew of me there as an alum. The Conservatory's performing arts hall, Jordan Hall, had just been given landmark status, and it had been given a facelift. So Gerald Slavet and and Jennifer Hurley-Wales, who now are co-founders and executive producers of the show, thought it would be nice to have some kind of radio show housed there, with Jordan Hall as the broadcast home.

A Prairie Home Companion was a major model for the program, but it also, Gerry had helped to tour the preparatory division orchestra at the conservatory. He had seen these kids on the road, and he saw how hard they worked. He thought it would be a great thing to have the kind of outlet for high school musicians that high school athletes often have on local T.V., and do this on a nationwide basis. When he approached me about it, I thought it was a great idea, too. I really felt as if the audience for classical music was dying, and I didn't feel that any of the efforts to revitalize it were anything more than, say, turning the brochure into a Harlequin Romance.

There are great musicians that have made the connection with the audience to a wonderful degree, especially in the cause of new music, like Leonard Slatkin, who has been speaking to audiences from the stage for decades. That kind of speech is great, but it's really the cognizanti of the music world, speaking to an audience who may or may not be familiar with the lexicon or the context. Whereas, if you have a pre-college kid playing for five minutes and talking about what else they do in their life, that kid is making a connection – a true connection – with the audience. The audience gives the music a chance because they like this kid, because feel a commonality with him or her. It's similar to the way that the Tonight Show has always had all kinds of publicity for movie launches. We're fascinated by people who are performers, actors and musicians, because we want to feel that commonality, that empathy with the performer. That's not really something that's been available to classical music, and I'm glad that we are at the forefront of providing exactly that kind of arena for these kids.

Laurie: Not only are you bringing in an audience members who can identify with the kids, but you're bringing in the kids themselves.

Christopher: Sure. We are a well-known entity now. These kids who are working their butts off now in an orchestra or on their own, or doing competitions, are not feeling like the odd kid on the block, who's working away on the Wieniawski. These are kids who get the same respect as the football player, or quarterback, or the tennis star.

Laurie: Did you feel like the odd kid on the block when you were growing up?

Christopher: Of course! I grew up in Evanston, Illinois... I was pretty conscious of what the music scene was. But I was one of maybe two or three kids in an affluent suburb, who played the piano at a level of proficiency. Virtually nobody aside from those people would know the first thing about it. That's how I got into popular music; I thought, well I love music, but I don't love having no friends. So why don't I try this?

Laurie: So are these kids "normal kids"?

Christopher: It's interesting, because a lot of people get the impression that we're going after only the kids who can really play well, and their second career is as a stand-up comedian. The idea is just to be true to their personality. For instance, if somebody doesn't have anything to talk about, aside from the music, then, well, let's talk shop! We talk about what they want to talk about, we don't try to fit them into a mold. Of course, the laughlines are what a lot of people look for in the live show. But the audience is really taken away by the communication skills of these kids, not only musically, but personally, as they should be.

Laurie: It sounds like this was a really good fit for you. You've been doing this for 10 years, you must enjoy it.

Christopher: I do enjoy it, and I get less uncomfortable in situations where the kids have one-word answers The key there is not to fill the space and wise-crack, but to let them have their space. It's not an alienating space of dead air, it's a space of dead air that tells the audience, this kid is completely concentrated. You're going to hear the important stuff from this kid when he or she plays. That comes across, and I'm happier with it now. Again, we're not trying to fit kids into our sort-of ideal, all-pleasing cubbyholes.

Laurie: You're getting to know these kids, and you're seeing them so often...We talk about the kids being the future, it seems to me you probably get to look into a kind of a crystal ball. How do you think the kids are going to change the future of classical music? What kinds of patterns are you seeing?

Christopher: First of all, they have a much wider range of available material. When I was coming up, unless you were a complete geek, haunting the historical recordings counter at Tower Records, you would never know anything, particularly in the violinist community. The Sony flavor-of-the-month violinists were literally the only violinists that the kids of my generation knew about. They hadn't heard Mischa Elman. Now, if a kid is working on the Bartok Rhapsody, they can go to YouTube and find a clip of Szigeti playing. Often times, when I talk to them, they have voracious appetites, they're wanting to soak up the styles, soak up the different ways of doing things. They also have great teachers. They get to a certain point because the training is quite good, and more often than not, I find that teachers are instilling or nurturing this feeling of researching, of searching through the available material.

That's one thing, the other is that they're much more in touch with each other. They're much more in touch with making the best of the time that they have in school, in music camp, with their colleagues in the orchestra, with their colleagues in the string quartet. It's not time-serving, it's real passion behind what these kids are doing. That has improved, not just because the kids are great, but because the teaching and the sense of community and the sense of enthusiasm for all the various large-scale musical events that they take part in – the bar has been raised. It's really a good time.

Laurie: Sometimes parents really push their kids, and yet in other cases, the passion is coming straight from the young musician. Do you see any of this?

Christopher: I can say that we see a lot of stage moms and dads on the show. You can tell when the performance is a product of pressures and expectations, and when it's the result of joy and passion and mutual support. It's quite clear, what's going on, when the music starts.

Laurie: On this "From the Top at the Pops" CD, you play the Mendelssohn Concerto for Violin, Piano and Strings in D minor with Caroline Goulding, and you also collaborated with her on her debut CD. How did that come about?

Christopher: We've played together on the show a lot. She had this idea of our doing the Mendelssohn , so we did it a couple of times this past season, once down in Florida and once in Louisville, then of course with the Cincinnati Pops. It was fun, it was great working with her. A lot of the time we were working on that concerto in conjunction with the music for (her debut recording). That kind of high-level playing really tells, I think. It helps the recording process along quite nicely.

Laurie: Not everyone is always gracious when they collaborate with a pianist, especially us hot-shot violinists. Maybe you have some advise for us?

Christopher: I find that I'm happiest carrying the ball, carrying all the responsibility on my own shoulders. I studied chamber music with Benjamin Zander, who also had a studio of cellists at the music conservatory. He never pulled any punches in saying: Look, you're playing with a lyrical instrument, an instrument capable of sustenuto. The piano is a percussion instrument. You have it within your capability to either kill any chance of line, by giving in to the natural instincts of how the piano works as a machine, or to take the edges off and make more of a sustenuto instrument out of the piano. That makes it possible for the violinist or cellist to do their best. You can absolutely kill a performance by not paying attention to difference between the sustained instruments and the percussion.

So if they don't sound good, it's my fault. It's all about generosity. It's not about ceding center stage, it's about making sure that your partner is playing their best. It's a very subtle thing, but it also works as a continual source of amazement to me, as a pianist who works by myself constantly, to be exposed to these different senses of rubato and different phrasings that all of our guests have. Often they have a feeling like they should be a little bit clearer because some pianists hasn't been able to figure out where they were...If I'm not with you, it's my fault. I want you to play exactly the way you want to play.

Laurie: You've probably played many works with violinists; I wonder what your favorites are. What has the funnest piano part?

Christopher: Strauss Sonata is great, the Ravel Sonata has always been a big favorite of mine, the Enescu – Bobby McDuffie introduced me to the Enescu Sonata.

Laurie: I understand that you are an avid reader. What is your favorite book of late?

Christopher: Probably... it depends. I read a lot of noir, I read a lot of crime novels, so Megan Abbott is a favorite of late, she's somebody I've just recently discovered; Stephen Graham Jones just wrote an autobiographical novel, but that's not even published so you can't even say the title; and of course the late Roberto Bolaño has written some very important books; I think my favorite recently is The Savage Detectives.

I made a policy a while ago to read everything that I buy before I put it on the shelf. So that morphed from one pile of books on my piano to five huge stacks underneath my piano. But they've all been sort of arranged so that there's a crime novel between Naomi Klein's Shock Doctrine...I've got a lot of books to read. A few of them don't take more than a day. I read on the stair machine, and I read on airplanes, so that's already a lot of reading time. And summertime is sort of lazy.

Laurie: Do you have anything else coming up that you would like to tell people about?

Christopher: Yes, I have a White Tie record (that was just released) August 8th, called Out of My Hands. It features my own arrangements of lots of different bands, not just one band: Pink Floyd, Nirvana, Tori Amos, REM and a few others.

Laurie: It's neat that you're crossing over like this.

Christopher: I just kind of play what I like, and luckily, I like Schumann, and I like Elliott Smith, I like Ravel, and I like Radiohead, so I'm having a good time.

Laurie: It seems like, more and more, that's better accepted.

Christopher: Oh absolutely. I think that I'm well-suited for "From the Top." If you're a 16-year-old soprano doing Handel on the show and then in a social moment you disclose that you're an avid fan of a Korean hip-hop band and you collect all their magazines and their videos, etc., I'm kind of living proof that that's all right. They couldn't tell their teacher that, probably, but it's okay to tell me that. And it's public radio, no one will know anyway, right?


Actually, Chris, a lot of us are listening, and liking what we hear:

Pianist Christopher O'Riley, Violinist Charles Yang, and cellist Tessa Seymour play Dvorak's "Dumky" Trio on "From the Top" on PBS at Carnegie Hall.

From Peter Kent
Posted on September 6, 2009 at 1:15 PM

O'Riley's comments on the piano as a percussion instrument should be required reading for all keyboard folks that accompany sustaining lyric instruments.  Even those instances where the piano is dominant, such as Beethoven Sonatas, there are considerations of difference that must be realized. And, the concept that a performance therein is a collaborative endeavor rather than a competition, must prevail for a successful presentation.

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