Talking music

Talented pianist and radio host Christopher O’ Riley comes to Chico

Photo courtesy of J. Henry Fair

Preview: Christopher O’Riley, Laxson Auditorium, Friday, Sept. 13 at 7:30 p.m., Tickets: $28 performance & reception; $18 premium; $25 adult; $12 seniors; $10 students/child; $8 Butte/CSUC student.

I summer in the Adirondack Mountains of northern New York, two miles away from a campus and group of small cabins known as Meadowmount. Meadowmount is a kind of serious summer music camp founded years ago by one of Juilliard’s most famous string teachers, Ivan Galamian. At least two evenings a week, young violin, viola, cello and piano players from Meadowmount give concerts in a beautiful, screened-in, wooden hall on its mountainside campus, and my wife and I go to these concerts often.

The 12-to-20-year-old young people who perform as soloists or in small groups are phenomenally good and often play not only stunningly, but also with an overall grasp of the music well beyond their years. Most of them are taught privately, and most of them are hoping to enter the killingly competitive world of professional, classically trained musicians, a dog-eat-dog world of frantic networking, niche-seeking and diminishing opportunity (as the arts in American public schools die a slow death).

Many of these (those not yet in college) are the same students who, joined by all sorts of other instrumentalists, appear on NPR’s delightful and engaging From the Top, a program begun, organized and hosted by Christopher O’Riley, who comes to concertize at Chico State’s Laxson Auditorium this Friday evening at 7:30. From the Top, which can be heard Thursday evenings and Saturday mornings, has grown phenomenally over the last two years, to the extent that it is played on more than 250 stations and has become the most listened-to program devoted to classical music in the country.

If you haven’t heard From the Top (and you should), its success depends on its playful format, on O’Riley’s gentle teasing and questioning of his performers (whom he generally accompanies on the piano), on the unusual pieces some of them play, and on extras, such as Hayley Goldbach, a 13-year-old “roving reporter,” who intrudes into each segment with some wacko idea or discovery. O’Riley himself, with a gentle tenor voice, sense of humor and versatility that belie his 46 years, makes a wholly likeable host.

I would like to ask O’Riley what his larger view of From the Top is (he was unavailable for an interview). Certainly, it celebrates and humanizes that considerable army of (mostly) privately trained and excellent young musicians our country is putting forth. And it clearly attracts a large number of listeners. However, I would also like O’Riley’s take on the larger music situation, on the futures in store for most of his performers and on changes he would like to see made in this country’s attitude toward the arts and education. ("If you were to talk only about what the national education system contributes to music, you’d throw up your hands,” he has said.)

I would also like to know how many of O’Riley’s listeners are changed by the program into classical (and other) music devotees who take up attending concerts and buying classical CDs.

Indeed, the question for me remains the following: Yes, we’re developing the talent, albeit in a relatively privatized manner, but are we developing the audience for it as well? And how could we?

As a pianist, O’Riley’s credentials and reviews are fabulous. He has won the Van Cliburn and numerous other awards. And, despite his relaxed on-air demeanor, he clearly works incredibly hard to explore fresh areas of musical possibility with a seemingly omnivorous appetite. He has recently collaborated with choreographer Martha Clarke on tying piano works by Alexander Scriabin to Chekhov short stories (some of which he will play Friday night). He’s also working extensively on recording Shostokovitch (and Stravinsky), not to mention developing and recording transcriptions and compositions derived from the vastly respected British rock band, Radiohead (he will play some of those too), whose album, The Bends, he calls “the most important rock album of the post-Beatles era.” And these activities only scratch the surface.

Finally, O’Riley loves to talk about what he plays: “It’s gotten to the point that, if I didn’t speak, people would think it was pretty weird. There’s always been a gap between the repertoire I like to play and the stuff people always want to hear, so now I find that a bit of the back story helps. It has changed the concert experience.”

It is hard to imagine a more versatile, engaging and mind-expanding musician in America. Don’t miss this one!