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*Review: Christopher O'Riley (sans Radiohead) at Cerritos Center

April 30, 2009 |  3:03 pm

ORiley Like any ambitious artist with a new single, Christopher O’Riley is playing gigs this week in the L.A. area and New York.  His hard-thumping arrangement of Nirvana’s “Heart-Shaped Box” was released Tuesday on iTunes and will hit the rest of the download universe next week.
O’Riley is the model of the hip 21st century pianist. At Miller Theatre in New York, his versions of the music of singer and songwriter Elliott Smith will be on the bill and he will employ a videographer to accompany his playing.  Last week, in an appearance with the Baltimore Symphony, his encore was a number by Radiohead.

At the Cerritos Center Wednesday night, O’Riley attached a laptop computer to a Steinway grand piano.  The screen displayed his “printed” music, and he turned pages with a foot pedal.  He wore an updated version of concert dress, with the kind of long coat actors choose for the Academy Award ceremonies. 
But unlike an ordinary artist with a new pop single out the day before, O'Riley presented a promotion-free concert.  There was no mention of iTunes. He played neither Nirvana nor anything else vaguely pop, even though his biography in the program emphasized his interpretations of rock songs.   

Computer and Oscar duds be damned, his was a traditional recital concentrating on Beethoven and Debussy.  And the result was the portrait of an uncomfortable pianist, neither here, historically, nor there.

The program consisted of pairing Book 1 of Debussy’s “Images” with Beethoven’s last piano sonata, Opus 111, and pairing Book II of “Images” with the “Waldstein” Sonata.  There are interesting connections to be made, although it was up to the listener to figure them out.  O’Riley is an engaging host of public radio’s “From the Top,” but he said nothing from the stage, and Cerritos supplied annoyingly sophomoric program notes.

The obvious connection, it would seem, is sound.  Beethoven, especially in his Opus 111, opened up a whole new world of percussive sonorities on the piano.  And Debussy, in his “Images,” which come from the first decade of the 20th century, are bell-besotted.  The French composer had just discovered the Indonesian gamelan.  In fact, in 1901, the year Debussy began thinking about the “Images,” he wrote, as his alter ego Monsieur Croche, that Beethoven’s piano sonatas were badly written for the piano, being more like orchestral transcriptions.
Still, context can mean a lot.  The extraordinary Hungarian pianist András Schiff recently concluded a Walt Disney Concert Hall two-year Beethoven cycle with an Olympian account of Opus 111, and it felt like music from another shimmering planet, one superior to our own.  Sunday night in Disney, the extraordinary Polish pianist Krystian Zimerman played the same sonata as a kind of idealistid contrast to the real world.  He followed with Polish music and his newsmaking onstage comments objecting to the United States' military might overseas.

Two weeks ago in New York, O’Riley found a different context than Wednesday’s for Debussy's “Images” by pairing them with his arrangements of songs by Nick Drake.  I suspect that would have been a more interesting choice than Opus 111.

O’Riley’s Debussy is most notable for his bright, ringing tone.  He avoids any hint of cheap perfume, but his dynamics are not fully nuanced.  His Beethoven has a strong touch.  Opus 111 was down-to-earth.  The trills connected to Debussy gongs.  A syncopated variation in the second movement was treated like proto-funk.

O’Riley was most effective in Beethoven’s middle-period “Waldstein” Sonata, which ended the program.  The hard-rocking opening, I thought, would have been a perfect companion for “Heart-Shaped Box.”  O'Riley didn’t overdo it, although he might have and gotten away with a little more here than in Opus 111.  Where he was surprising was in the last movement.  Beethoven’s buoyant melody rose from a clattery (gamelan-ish) accompaniment in proper Debussyan style.  I had never heard it sound that way before.

The one flashy encore was Debussy’s “Fireworks” from the second book of Preludes. 

O’Riley is a perfectly acceptable Beethoven and Debussy interpreter but not a consistently inspired one.  He has, however, discovered his own interesting new niche as a crossing-over artist.  I hope next time he returns more as himself.

-- Mark Swed

*FOR THE RECORD: An earlier version of this story said that two weeks ago O'Riley performed songs by Nick Cave. In fact, he had performed songs by Nick Drake.

Photo: Christopher O'Riley in recital at Cerritos Center Wednesday.  Credit: Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times