Radiohead a la O'Riley: Transcribed & Transformed

By Jens F. Laurson
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Rock music and classical musicians rarely converge in the concert hall, and when they do the results are often dispiriting. String-quartet tributes to Metallica, or the Berlin Philharmonic tackling ballads by the Scorpions, tend to arrive at the lowest common denominator of both styles -- which is very low indeed. But there are exceptions, and Christopher O'Riley's piano transcriptions of Radiohead songs are among them. In his Sunday recital at the Terrace Theater, presented by the Washington Performing Arts Society, O'Riley played them to an enthusiastic crowd.

Radiohead has an unusually wide spectrum of listeners. I know an opera singer who happily proclaimed the group's album "Kid A" to be "Wagner for our generation."

O'Riley, an established pianist and the host of NPR's "From the Top," has transcribed many of the British quintet's complex songs for piano. There is so much going on in "Motion Picture Soundtrack" and "Like Spinning Plates" that a transcription is necessarily a reduction and reinvention. The ambiguous chromaticism of Radiohead seems to have the most appeal to O'Riley as he meanders from chord to chord. If "Airbag" (with a touch of Liszt!) and "No Surprises" stood out as particularly successful, much of the rest became a mellow melange of subtly jazzy improvisations and miniatures, all enjoyable in their own right. "Knives Out" morphed into a Windham Hill song. Thom Yorke's "Cymbal Rush" worked its way to a very satisfying climax.

The first half of the recital featured O'Riley's latest project -- works by the late Elliott Smith. At its best, the dense, wild ramble of "Coast to Coast" put one in mind of the later work of McCoy Tyner. "Stupidity Tries" and "Cupid's Trick" were of similar intensity. The 11 other songs were more tranquil and became correspondingly more pleasant, even if they took on a lulling, casual sameness in their piano guises. At their best, they shed new light on familiar work; at their worst they sounded like soporific Keith Jarrett.

The audience, quieter than at most purely classical recitals, listened intently and applauded politely between selections, before going wild after the last Radiohead transcription. If part of WPAS's goal was to make a new, younger crowd more familiar with its concerts at the Kennedy Center, the evening should be counted a success.

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