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Christopher O'Riley at Wolf Trap

We welcome this review from guest contributor Anne Marie McMahon.

Christopher O'RileyThe Barns at Wolf Trap, with a stage set against bare wooden beams, was an appropriate venue for a piano recital by Christopher O'Riley, on Saturday night, that mixed classical tradition with repertoire rooted in the vernacular. Reflections of that unusual melange were visible even in the dressy attire paired with blue jeans, of the audience and O'Riley alike. The majority of O'Riley's program showcased his own works -- "re-imaginings" of Radiohead, Elliot Smith, Portishead, Nirvana, Tears for Fears, Pink Floyd, and Tori Amos. Lasting approximately two hours, including three encores, his program interspersed classical works, including Scriabin's Vers la Flamme and the first movement of Ravel's Gaspard de la Nuit, with the popular music arrangements.

The oldest song to find its way onto the program was titled Darknesse Visible, a virtuosic adaptation by Thomas Adès of a John Dowland song. Noting the melancholic nature of the original song, O'Riley humorously dubbed Dowland "the Robert Smith of the 1610s." More than once O'Riley proceeded straight from a classical work to a transcription, or vice-versa, without taking a break for applause, creating a pairing effect that left mysterious and undefined the relationships between the two works. O'Riley sometimes engaged the audience between pieces, providing both insight about the repertoire and anecdotes to provide comic relief. A "Steinway person," he praised warmly the Yamaha piano on which he performed. The piano certainly returned the compliment, despite the damp turn of weather, accommodating his pool of musical tone colors, of which there were hundreds. On one hand, the gossamer trill fluttering throughout Darknesse Visible tested the extreme sensitivity of the instrument, while the "jangly" chords in the abyssal registers of Nirvana's Heart Shaped Box (see video embedded below) were shocking in their explosive force.

Other Reviews:

Robert Battey, O'Riley offers questionable crossover at Wolf Trap (Washington Post, October 19)
Some have found that O'Riley's transcriptions played seriatim give an unattractive sense of sameness, but that complaint rings false in this reviewer's experience. Each work opened up a new world, and whether or not I recognized the original song, I was drawn into each work with a sense of discovery. Most pieces contained complex textures and strenuous passagework for both hands. Remarkably, O'Riley played all of the pieces with focused, often driving energy, which was impressive given the enormity of the program.

The next pianist scheduled to play at Wolf Trap is Haochen Zhang (November 13, 8 pm), gold medalist at this year's Van Cliburn Competition.

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