Saturday, January 14, 2012

Evanston native Christopher O'Riley finds connection between classical, rock music on latest CD


Evanston native and concert pianist Christopher O'Riley continues to break down the boundaries between classical and popular music. 
On his latest release, "Shuffle.Play.Listen," he teams up with cellist Matt Haimovitz for a musical adventure that marries Stravinsky's "Suite Italienne" with songs by modern artists like Arcade Fire and Radiohead. 

I had the chance to talk to O'Riley,, about the new album and his other activities, which include hosting the popular NPR and PBS weekly program, "From the Top."

Q - How long have you known Matt Haimovitz? Do you think the two of you share the same musical vision?
Matt and I have had parallel though somewhat contrasting tracks to our careers for quite a while: he’s been taking classical repertoire  into unlikely settings like rock clubs and pizza parlors, while I’ve been taking pop music and incorporating it into concerts in standard classical venues. 

We have had the same manager, Marc Baylin, for the last five years or so. It was essentially Marc’s idea that we collaborate and forge an alliance that would highlight our mutual interests in a variety of genres. We'd known of each other over many years, but only met face-to-face for the first time when we were in Billings, MT., preparing our first recital together. 

We had three days to get a whole program together, and I remember the 8-10 hour rehearsal days flying by, mostly because we were both keenly in tune with and trusting of each other, and the work we did was always a matter of pushing the level higher. 

I think we share not only our wide-ranging musical interests, but a deep respect of the genres and composers we love.

Q - What were your goals in sitting down and making the album?

In deciding what material to include on the record, we had, of course, the idea of representing a wide variety of genres. We tousled with the thought of doing one classical record, one non-classical, and releasing them separately. 

But that seemed to undercut our desire to invite the listening audience into our more capacious sound world. We also had the idea of juxtaposing the pieces, really making the case for their commonalities as well as their contrasts. 

In the end, when we’d arrived at a list of must-play music, we found we had a double-CD set on our hands (and even then, we weren’t sure it would all fit). 

In addition to all the standard repertoire pieces we'd decided on and prepared for the bulk of our initial Billings show, I’d been celebrating the centenary of Bernard Herrmann’s birth by arranging for piano movements of his music for Alfred Hitchcock’s Psyco. 

With Matt’s boundless virtuosity, I thought it would be worth trying to create the lush romanticism of Herrmann’s Vertigo music. As that piece has a certain Wagnerian sense of motivic identification and development, some of the themes appearing in various movements, Matt had the bright idea of scattering the Vertigo movements throughout the classical CD, acting as curtain-raisers and through-line for the other selections. 

Thus, "Shuffle.Play.Listen" is to a certain extent pre-shuffled. The album’s title has to do with the way we listen to music in these times, in particular, the lateral way in which we find new musical discoveries; the album is sort of an homage to the iPod. 
We wanted to draw listeners from either side of the genre divide and show them there are riches to be had and valuable experience gained in the brave traversal of the unfamiliar.
Q - What do you think he brought to the album?
Foremost, Matt’s involvement dictated  the choice of material in the most inspiring way: I’ve always made solo piano arrangements, acknowledging that the piano can never replace the sound of the human voice, though emulating that sound has been a goal of pianists and composers all along (Chopin, in particular).
The cello is the instrument closest to the human voice, in my opinion. But Matt’s instrument was only the beginning: he not only brought a sense of singing line to all the selections, but sought to make each vocal style integral: the near-spoken intimacy of Radiohead and Blonde Redhead, the sinuous Levantine style of James Maynard Keenan of A Perfect Circle, the operatic coloratura of Elizabeth Fraser of Cocteau Twins, etc. 
Matt was also extremely patient and willing to experiment when my lack of knowledge of the cello’s capabilities (though not a lack of presumption) led us to make adjustments to the arrangements. Most importantly, Matt’s contribution in that revisional realm was usually not mere expedience, but often led him to take on more than one could have imagined, making much of the album's material a sort of new setting of the bar for cello technique.
Q - What draws you to interpret a band’s music?
 Mostly, it’s a matter of texture and harmony; a chord that makes your spine tingle, the setting of several motives in motion that creates by default a potential pianistic or musical texture or weave. I’m more interested in the conversational, horizontal interaction of voices than the vertical onslaught of much pop music. Radiohead’s music in particular is always a culmination of musical contributions to each song by every member of the band.
Q - Do you think you have introduced classical music lovers to Radiohead and vice versa?
Radiohead’s music appeals to the left-brain classical music lovers, and some strains of modern classical music have been fonts for inspiration of Radiohead, most notably, Messiaen, Steve Reich, Penderecki. I think it was an inevitable commonality between enthusiasts of music at its best.
Q - Do you think you have helped change the landscape of classical music, or made people think differently about classical music?
I’ve been true to my tastes and passions, and in the interim, if I’ve brought pleasure, insight and new experience to listeners on both sides of the genre divide, then I count myself lucky.
Q - Chicago is known for its diverse music scene. Do you credit your upbringing in the Chicago area for giving you the tools to become a professional musician?
There are many great civic music programs in the city of Chicago. We’ve had many supremely talented musicians come out of those programs and from Chicagoland in general. 
It helps to have such a great and supportive arts station like WFMT. Access, via the radio, was the most significant and unique aspect of Chicago musical life for me, as is the plethora of diverse music venues and programs throughout the area. It’s a hotbed, and one can’t help but get caught up in the positivism that pervades the Chicago scene, as opposed to the competitive streak that runs through for instance, New York.

Q - What do you attribute to the success of "From the Top?" Does the talent of the young musicians ever surprise you?
The talent of these kids continues to astonish me. They keep getting better all the time. 
I think the success of the program is largely in the ability of the audience to get to know the performers as people, find common interests with them, and thereby allowing one’s self to be open to the musical experience the kids bring to playing their favorite 5 minutes of music in the world. 
This does wonders for making classical music a personal and universal experience.