If the names Scriabin, Busoni and Shostakovich make your neck pleasantly hot, you will connect deeply with pianist Christopher O’Riley. The star of the Lansing Symphony’s first concert of the new season has played the hell out of all three classical composers, among the toughest and most intense of a tough, intense lot.
But if you take them for a German subcompact, a pasta dish and a painful fungus, O’Riley may love you even more.
“A lot of people think of classical music as an exclusive — and exclusivist — enterprise,” the globe-trotting pianist, American Public Radio personality and die-hard Radiohead fan declared. “If you don’t know the names, dates and places, we don’t want you in the audience.”
O’Riley, 53, will have none of that. He isn’t even sure whether knowing about the music beforehand helps or hurts.
“One must take it on its own terms and react honestly and emotionally,” he said.
So you should stop reading this. No — wait until this next bit. Legend has it that an irate lady walked out on the 1928 premiere of Maurice Ravel’s “Bolero,” that famous vortex of mounting repetition that happens to be Saturday night’s Lansing Symphony closer.
“There was a maddening quality to the music,” O’Riley explained. “Ravel had in mind a militaristic, mindless dance of death. She wouldn’t have it. Ravel said she was the only one who got it.”
The story may not be true, but O’Riley’s fondness for it is telling. He, too, listens from the gut, and only then applies his considerable craft. This approach has taken his career around some odd bends.
His most famous obsession, with English alt-rockers Radiohead, has already produced two full albums of loving piano transcriptions. It’s the kind of project that usually makes rock and classical fans come together just to be sick, but influential critics from both camps have credited him with pulling it off nicely. Even those with little taste for the material can’t argue with his prodigious pianism and genuine love for the band’s music.
To be sure, you can overdo the rebel stuff. It’s not as if O’Riley has fallen in with a knot of glass-eating demon rockers. Though probably not a household name among Lansing Symphony subscribers, Radiohead’s intricacy and passion have made the group a darling of the NPR set. “The weave and counterpoint is what excites me, along with a compelling and sensual harmony,” O’Riley said.
Conductor Timothy Muffitt admires the way O’Riley captures it all, from guitars to vocals to electronic blips, on keyboard. “It’s not just taking these tunes and playing the notes on the piano,” Muffitt said. There’s a comprehensiveness and sincerity in O’Riley’s approach that defies scoffers. “It’s about creating the presentation, with the piano as the voice, that retains the character and qualities of the original, but also perhaps sheds new light on it.”
The result could be called a transcription, an arrangement, or a re-imagining. (O’Riley uses all three terms.) Whatever you call it, O’Riley insisted it’s always “a real reaction to the music.”
The same goes for his albums of music by melancholic singer-songwriters Nick Drake and Elliott Smith. O’Riley even had a go at Nirvana’s “Heart-Shaped Box.”
“Whatever song I can’t get out of my head is what I’ve been working on,” he said. Will the pianist uncork some Radiohead Saturday after his legit bit with the orchestra? He said he’s willing, but will defer to “local custom,” having been burned before.
“I played at the ‘Mostly Mozart’ or ‘Mainly Mozart’ Festival in San Diego and very blithely told the journalist there, ‘I’d be happy to play some Radiohead,’ only to have the conductor sternly say, ‘We don’t do encores here,’” he said.
(Muffitt said he’s game, but no promises have been made.)
On top of his concerts and recordings, O’Riley is widely known as host of National Public Radio’s weekly series “From the Top,” a showcase for young classical musicians.
The gifted kids on “From the Top” gush without shame about the thrills of classical music-making, but O’Riley finds many of them reluctant to ‘fess up about other pleasures.
“If their piano teacher or voice teacher asked them, they’d say they were listening to Handel arias, etc., etc.,” he said. “They wouldn’t say, ‘There’s this Korean hip-hop band I listen to and I collect all their magazines.’”
And that’s unfortunate, he said.
“The excitement all music has to offer should be celebrated,” he declared. “There’s an excitement in the mosh pit that’s very much like playing the Tchaikovsky violin concerto. Why look down your nose at it?”
He knows his rock- and pop-based work is a juicy target for classical snobs. “It smacks of opportunism and commercialism,” he volunteered cheerfully.
But classical music’s dirty secret is that it’s been dipping into the muddy well of folk and pop for half a millennium.
Whenever things get too wispy, abstract or complicated, the up-front emotions, tight melodies and rhythmic pop of pop surge into the mix like a bracing Niagara — or Viagra.
As far back as the 16th century, a mischievous composer might use a bawdy folk song as the cantus firmus (melodic basis) of a mass. “That’s a rather insidious and subversive use of popular music within the classical pantheon,” O’Riley said admiringly. “In church music, for God’s sake!”
Mozart wowed the ladies by riffing on popular arias of the day. Beethoven used a drinking song to crown his epic Ninth Symphony. Chopin was better known as an improviser than as a composer. Franz Liszt, foreshadowing O’Riley’s Radiohead adventures, reworked Hungarian folk tunes into piano masterworks. Even the cerebral grand masters of the 20th century, Bartok and Stravinsky, built some of their most serious work on folk tunes.
“I’m not putting myself in their category,” O’Riley cautioned, “but this sort of porousness between genres has been going on for a very long time.”
“Chris is taking a centuries-old tradition of working popular music into the classical setting and making that work here in the 21st century,” Muffitt agreed. “And he’s getting a lot of much-deserved attention for it.”
Besides, in Muffitt’s view, O’Riley has earned the right to rampage wherever he likes. “He’s been established for quite some time in the classical world,” Muffitt said. “Nobody can take that away from him, nor would they want to when they hear him.”
What locals will hear from O’Riley Saturday falls, believe it or not, in line with the atmospherics of his Radiohead work: a lush score by Spanish composer Manuel de Falla, “Nights in the Gardens of Spain.”
In his four years as Lansing Symphony maestro, Muffitt has excelled at mindmelding with guest soloists. O’Riley talks like he’s on Muffitt’s wavelength, especially when it comes to music as atmospheric as “Nights.”
“Performing it is really a collaboration with the conductor,” O’Riley said. “It’s not, ‘You guys gotta follow me.’ It’s all of us in it together, and I like that.”
The tides of classical and pop began tugging at O’Riley early in life. As a youngster, he fell in love with his dad’s classical records. (Toscanini’s Beethoven and Van Cliburn’s Tchaikovsky were favorites.) But in grade school, O’Riley found himself forming a rock band. “I realized that the girls weren’t that interested in Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsodies,” he said.
Despite the bid for street cred, O’Riley may have tipped his hand by naming his group the Three-Part Invention, after a famous set of Bach keyboard music. A series of musical phases lay between the boy rocker and his classical career, but true love waits.
“Unfortunately, that was a pretty bad time for keyboards in pop music,” he recalled. Pretentious art rock was in the ascendant. “I’m embarrassed to say who were my heroes then — Emerson, Lake and Palmer; Rick Wakeman. None of that music has traveled terribly well, I’m afraid.”
As O’Riley’s tastes matured, he went into a jazz-rock period, forming another band devoted to Miles Davis, Mahavishnu Orchestra and John McLaughlin, gods of electric-acoustic fusion at the time.
From there, O’Riley worked his way to masters of acoustic piano jazz, such as McCoy Tyner, Bill Evans and Keith Jarrett. By the time O’Riley finished high school, he was playing jazz professionally at a club in Pittsburgh.
Some people pass through musical phases like they switch lovers, with barely a look back, but O’Riley still carries a torch for all his crushes, from Top 40 to art rock to fusion to jazz.
Only when he arrived at the New England Conservatory of Music did he realize that a professional had to stick to one thing to do it well.
“That’s where I really became solely a classical musician, although I never stopped listening to all that other great stuff,” he said.
As a revenge of sorts, his classical piano has become a hungry amoeba, engulfing any digestible, attractive bit of music, regardless of genre.
“Yeah, it has been a selfish pursuit,” he allowed. “I just love playing what I love.”
MasterWorks 1: Espana
Symphony Orchestra with Christopher O’Riley, soloist 8 p.m. Saturday,
Sept. 12 Wharton Center’s Cobb Great Hall $12-$45 (517) 487-5001