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Cornucopia of Artistic Expression

Interview with Christopher O’Riley, an accomplished pianist and host of the top-rated National Public Radio show, From the Top, which introduces young talented music students to the broader audience

By Bożena U. Zaremba

At the time this interview was conducted, Christopher O’Riley was finishing his new recording O’Riley’s Liszt, which was released in May 2013 by Oxingale Records as a two-CD set, a Blu-ray video with surround sound, and in several high-end download formats. We started our conversation from the material included in this recording.

Bożena U. Zaremba: The music on this recording are piano transcriptions of some symphonic pieces by Berlioz, Wagner, and Mozart—not a usual part of a pianist’s repertoire.

Christopher O’Riley: It’s true. Liszt’s version of the Symphonie Fantastique has been recorded two or three times before but is not often performed publicly. These pieces carry a lot of weight in terms of music history. In the case of Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique, for example, the whole idea of the symphony for the piano and the idea of the motivically-derived piano sonata, like Liszt’s Sonata in B minor, which came after that, I am sure was greatly influenced by Berlioz. Liszt was so admiring of Berlioz’s Symphonie that his own transcription was printed and available before Berlioz’s own orchestral score. I know that Wagner was influenced by Berlioz in terms of his motivic way of writing, and his idée fixe was a really new idea, which had a great resonance not only for the piano literature but also for other genres.
Do you feel that by listening to these transcriptions one can better understand the symphonic structure of a particular piece?

Some things can be better represented by one person at the piano than 90 people in an orchestra, which can seem hysterical by comparison [laughs]. The Symphonie is, after all, subtitled Episodes in an Artist’s Life, so one protagonist, I feel, is more effective than 90. I understand that the orchestration works really well on larger stages, but the format choices and the musical choices that Berlioz makes come more directly out of Beethoven. And while playing it on the piano, one gets more of a sense of what a wonderful and revolutionary work it is in terms of its format or certain improvisatory aspects of the piece.

It’s been four years since I interviewed you for your first CSA recital. What has changed in your professional life since then?

I am probably busier. I am doing other things. I have composed music for eBooks, and I have set off on a sort of multicultural project, but the most important change probably is this record. It’s the first classical record I have made in about a dozen years.

You are very active on Facebook, and during the From the Top program, you use an iPad a lot. You seem to be an avid promoter of technology.

I read music from my iPad with the program called forScore. It can basically take PDFs of anything, so I use it both for scripts of my From the Top programs and for music. You can create not only libraries but also set-lists, so you can have, for instance, pages 1 to 4 from a From the Top script followed by some music score, followed by more script pages. And things can be updated at a whim. For page turning, I have an AirTurn Bluetooth pedal.

Does it mean that we no longer need page-turners, the job that you yourself often assumed on the From the Top shows?

When From the Top went to TV, we decided that having a page-turner would be unnecessarily visually cluttering the stage. At that time, I was using a laptop and a USB-corded pedal. Since May 2012, I have been using an iPad, which has a much better display and a better program, and AirTurn is wonderful. I have been really enjoying the system.

There seems to be a new trend of playing the piano from the score rather than from memory. Do you think that technology has something to do with this trend?

No, I think it’s more a matter of the pianist’s personal choice. I happen to have many, many pieces committed to my memory but am responsible for many, many pieces at one time: concertos, multiple recital programs with brand new arrangements I have made, and the music for the kids on From the Top, so that it has become easier technologically to play from the score is a good thing. Sometimes, however, the problem may be the size of the score on the iPad, and when you realize it’s a lot of sight-reading, this is not exactly something you would want to do entirely for the first time. Another wonderful thing is that, because I have a PDF capability, I can actually play from the PDF of a hand-written score. Playing the Goldberg Variations from Bach’s manuscript—that’s definitely a technological advantage.

The Internet has transformed musical education. It’s easier to study a composer’s life, and on YouTube, one can see any musical piece and any performer, plus instructional material. Do you think it has influenced our perspective of classical music?

It definitely creates more informed listeners. When I was at school and you were a violinist, for example, you were at the whim of whoever Columbia or Sony was putting out there. People had a very small frame of reference in terms of artistic expression. And the kids could only know who Heifetz was or any of the old masters, whereas kids now immediately go to the source. If they want to hear the Bartok rhapsodies played by the composer and Joseph Szigeti, they can see them, and they can realize the wealth and depth of traditional performance and everything that has come in between. This is really a pinnacle, the cornucopia of expressive possibilities. The more informed we are, the more creatively inclined we get. We have advanced technologically to the point where all that is accessible and gives one a wider and deeper scope of reference.

Can you think of any instances in modern days when technology has hindered the development of classical music?

No, I think technology has tried to advance it. The problem is that many orchestras do not have access to technology—in other words, to a wider audience—due to constraints and financial concerns. I think that top-notch orchestras have embraced this and have reached a worldwide arena by streaming their concerts, for example. I don’t think that too many of our top musicians have proved themselves capable of addressing that. And that’s a shame because, again, what we want to be dealing with is the widest possible audience, and to cut yourself from that kind of access is just an antiquated template of thinking.

Are there still any technology advancements out there that have not been explored yet?

One we have not spoken about is teaching master classes through Skype and satellite 1. I think it would make it possible for everybody to study with whomever they want and wherever they live, and that would be an enormous advantage.

Actually, my son takes guitar lessons via Skype.

For guitars, it’s very advantageous. We deal not only with the matters of high fidelity but with visuals, and that’s what a lot of guitar playing is all about. It’s pretty easy to figure out musical subtleties when you are looking at somebody’s fingers and seeing what they ask you to do. Actually, it’s an excellent tool.

Another thing that has revolutionized the music industry in the last few decades is digital recording. A great pianist, Krystian Zimmerman, for example, was for a very long time reluctant to record CDs because he thought that a lot of sound nuance was lost in digital recording. Then we have the phenomenon of iTunes. What is your stance on all of this?

It’s interesting that you bring all this up because my record will be released as two CDs and as a Blu-ray made for the home theater system. We had cameras all over the studio and in all the great outdoors when we went to Colorado and the Beartooth Mountains in Wyoming and Montana, so basically, we have a video of the entire record. As for iTunes, one has to remember that iTunes has a very low resolution. We have addressed that, and with the full, four-channel surround sound we have created the sound that has never been experienced before. Number two, the hammers we used were the brand-new New York Steinway hammers, which are now—as of the last couple of years—the best make in the world, so they are also the stars of this recording. So the old piano technology is now better than ever as well. Of course, you will be able to get this record on iTunes, but it will not be the same sound quality as on the Blu-ray disc.

Also, downloading has changed the way we think of music. We no longer think in terms of an album but in terms of individual songs. When you were recording your new album, did you have a vision of your CD as a whole?

The major pieces are themed around love, obsession, and death. We have the fate motif of Don Giovanni, evolved through various Dies Irae, the idée fixe of Symphonie Fantastique and, finally, the Tristan fate motif of the Prelude. So, again love, obsession, and death are the threads that run through the whole record.

We have been talking a lot about changes. What has remained the same? Has your attitude remained the same?

Yes, I get up every day and work very hard and look forward to continuing exactly that way.

Are you still into the music by Drake and Radiohead or do you have any new fascinations?

There is a large project that I am working on now that has to do with the Andy Warhol collection of films, and that will have a lot of music by Velvet Underground and Niko.

You are exploring a lot of different areas—music literature and now visual arts. Do you consider yourself a Renaissance man?

[Laughs] I am not as much of a Renaissance man as a thirteen-year-old pianist on our program From the Top, but I consider myself a very fortunate man to pursue every avenue that I pursue February 28, 2013

The concert took place on March 3, 2013, at the Roswell Cultural Arts Center in Roswell, Georgia. Read the 2009 interview with Christopher O’Riley  here. To learn more about the artist, visit

1 At the time of this publication, master classes are offered online by numerous outlets.

Photo: Wendy Lynch