Christopher O'Riley partners with Franz Liszt

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Entertainment,Music,Emily Cary

Virtuoso pianist Christopher O'Riley has just released "O'Riley's Liszt," his latest recording inspired by Franz Liszt, the 19th-century keyboard genius with whom he has been compared both technically and personality-wise. On Monday, the Iota Club and Cafe in Arlington will host O'Riley performing his distinctive interpretations of Liszt's transcriptions of works by Mozart, Schumann, Wagner, Schubert and Berlioz.

"It was a labor of love, my first classical CD in 10 years," he said. "I'd played the Berlioz 'Symphonie Fantastique' many years but never in circumstances like those at the University of Maryland last year, when I accompanied puppeteer Basil Twist's underwater ballet.

"Five puppeteers in wet suits performed an abstract ballet in a special 1,000-gallon water tank featuring images based on the five movements. The piano was situated right under the aquarium. Basil was thrilled by the response to his interpretation of the story of one man's passions and ecstasies that Berlioz subtitled 'Episode in the Life of an Artist.' "

Onstage
Christopher O'Riley
» Where: Iota Club and Cafe, 2832 Wilson Blvd., Arlington
» When: 7 p.m. Monday
» Info: $15 at door; 703-522-8340; iotaclubandcafe.com

The composer originally scored his work for more than 90 instruments. It recounts his obsession with actress Harriet Smithson through the mind of one who regarded her as an ideal woman. The first three sections address his daydreams, a ball and a scene in the country. The story then moves from the world of reality to a psychotic state in which he believes he is marching to the gallows, and ends with a dream of a witches' sabbath.

"Liszt played Berlioz's fourth movement, 'March to the Gallows,' from the viewpoint of a young man terribly in love, almost to insanity," said O'Riley. "At the start of the movement, the artist takes an overdose of opium, giving him two points of vision in which he sees his own execution. The final movement is his dream of a witches' sabbath. The technical problems with Liszt's transcription made it challenging to incorporate all the material because a lot of the passages were skeletal and the countervoices in 'A Ball' were not included. He had not transcribed the final lines and didn't have any concrete suggestions, but I found a way to shoehorn mine in as needed."

Although O'Riley's recording opens with Mozart's technically demanding 'Don Juan Fantasy,' he explained that the placement was dictated by Amazon.com policy of featuring the most difficult numbers first. In a live concert, he always saves that work until the close, then follows it with something by Radiohead.

A favorite of NPR fans, O'Riley hosts "From the Top," the most popular classical radio show today, where talented young musicians ages 8 to 18 from around the world perform to his accompaniment.

His interviews with these serious young artists showcase their backgrounds, personalities and hobbies. Each year, 25 are presented with scholarships to further their dreams. Many are now members of major orchestras, while others utilize their talents in a variety of fields.

One of the perks of hosting the show is having his own turn at the piano. Several years ago, O'Riley discovered the British rock band Radiohead. After sharing songs from their recordings on the air, he was so astounded by the enthusiastic response that he soon became the herald for the group in this country. His transcription of their "True Love Waits" became an instant hit, followed by "Hold Me to This: Christopher O'Riley Plays Radiohead." His subsequent recordings were homages to two deceased composers: "Home to Oblivion," inspired by Elliott Smith, and "Second Grace: The music of Nick Drake."

"Elliott was the best American songwriter since George Gershwin," O'Riley said. "There is still a short body of his work I'd like to get to. Nick had a textural and harmonic thing, an idiosyncratic way of tuning. I put my hand in his glove."

O'Riley's collaborations with cellist Matt Haimovitz, of McGill University in Montreal, led to "Shuffle.Play.Listen," a recording featuring O'Riley's arrangements of music by Arcade Fire, Blonde Redhead, A Perfect Circle, John McLaughlin and Bernard Herrmann. The two continue to tour between NPR dates.

"We're always changing, moving the goal posts and adding more classical works to our repertoire," he said. "My next project will feature sonatas by three favorite Russian composers. For now, however, I'm heading to El Paso, Texas, for the next taping of 'From the Top' on Saturday."

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Emily Cary

Special to The Washington Examiner
The Washington Examiner