On Top

Pianist, arranger, radio show host—Christopher O'Riley wears many hats. As the host of America's popular music radio program, From the Top, O'Riley seems to need little introduction. He has worked to inspire and motivate young musicians for more than a decade, and has done much to redefine boundaries between musical genres. His repertoire is unique and ranges from Radiohead to Ravel.

His first Radiohead album True Love Waits is the only classical album to have ever received 4 out of 5 stars from Rolling Stone. O'Riley also holds many awards and acclamations from Leeds, Van Cliburn, and the Avery Fisher Grant. He just recently released O'Riley's Liszt, his first solo classical recording in more than a decade.

O’Riley brings people together through music. He holds a mindset of openness, kindness, and creativity that most of us aspire to, and the wealth of his experiences with so many musicians, artists, and young people reflects how his open-mindedness and perspective have shaped his innovative artistic expression. In this interview, O’Riley shows what drives him in music.

Olivia Lin: Next year will be your 15th year with From the Top. What made you initially want to work with young musicians?
Christopher O’Riley: I thought it was a really good way of giving an arena of exposure to the next generation of musicians, and I thought—the idea initial behind the program was to give the same kind of attention to young musicians as we tend to do with young athletes. And the more we talk about how music effects young people, even those who do not go on to have musical careers, it's pretty similar to the kind of citizenship building that being on a sports team has, and I think there's the same excitement as well. And the idea was also to say well if we share the voices of these performers and we get to know them, then it's like a variety program like the tonight show or something.

The benefit is that we're dealing with music that people are mostly unfamiliar with—classical music being a sort of niche market, and all of a sudden they have a sense of performer as a personality, as a human being, and they say, "I like this person; I'm going to give this music a chance." And I think we're doing a fair amount to not only celebrate young people but to promote classical music in this country.

So over the past decade and a half, how do you feel the show has evolved both in terms of vision and the role that it plays in the music community?
Well I think the thing that has become quite clear is that now it is the brass ring for young musicians in this country. It's a big deal being on the program; they're playing for millions of people so that's changed. We were just a little radio program 15 years ago. And as a matter of fact a lot of people thought, "Well, when you run out of all the talented kids at Juilliard prep and Interlochen, what are you going to do?" And the fact is that the thing that has been true since the beginning of the program, that's been amazing, has been that regardless of school involvement in the arts or in music, or being in a relegated cultural centers of this country, we found out that there are first class, private music instructors everywhere in this country, and that's been true since the very beginning. So that hasn't changed. I think we've just come to be more aware. I think kids are also becoming more self-conscious about auditioning. It's not like a competition, though. I think they eventually get their nerves up, but there's no need. We've had guests on the show who have replied, not gotten in, and they've gotten a letter saying "Please apply again," and they think it's a nice brush off, when in fact, no—our music producers and its staff listen to these kids, and when they hear promise in a musician, they say "Let's hear you again." It's just to say "Not ready for primetime now," but we can be that kind of listening post for these young people. So we've had kids who have come on years later and do quite well. And we've had them back two or three times in chamber music or whatever. So, the thing that's changed over the years is that we've dropped things like quasi-competitive audience choice awards, which was just a way of getting the audience to engage through the hour, and wasn't meant to be a competition. When we found out that people were really much more interesting in the kids themselves, we just dropped it. We had the ability and courage to drop it, so that went away.

We are now evolving in accordance with wishes of our various stations, and it's very important that the kids are happy. We are putting much more music on the show than talk. There's a very specific ratio that's involved, and there is a desired ratio of music to talk, and once you step over that, it goes away. It really needs to be in that ratio. We've also dropped a lot of the sketches; we don't really need to make comedy that's not necessary, that's not intrinsic to the humor of the kids themselves. I think a lot of people were also getting the impression that we were looking for classic teens who were stand up comedians as well, and that's never been the case. If there's a young musician who really never wants to talk about anything but music, then that's who they are. We're always true to the nature and personality of our guests. So that sensitivity has also not changed over 15 years, as we've been a team who's always sensitive to every performer and their family who is on the show, and it's been an enormous emotional and psychological undertaking. So we've just gotten better at that.

You've worked with so many musicians over the years; could you share some of the most beautifully surprising things you've heard from young musicians, either on or off the air?
Well, I think what's important to me in interacting with these musicians is really to try to get into their musical head, and that's a selfish pleasure for me as a pianist because I'm dancing with all these different partners. I'm putting myself completely at their service, so I'm kind of soaking up a bit of their musical sensibilities, and that helps me in my own work. There were some pretty crazy occurrences. When we had 13 year old Bella Hristova, a violinist who eventually went to Curtis and has gone on to do great things, she showed up playing one of these ridiculously difficult Paul Schoenfield pieces for violin and piano. Of course I was struggling to get through it and she's got it from memory. And when I say "Okay, let's take it from rehearsal number blah blah blah," she knew exactly what I was talking about; she had memorized the rehearsal numbers, and I just found it amazing. So things like that happen all the time. These kids are coming and playing five of their favorite minutes of music in the world, so it's always something they know like the back of their hand. And it really has all of their personality and talent, and it's always a pleasure with each one of them.

What changes would you like to see in today's classical music culture in regards to creating nourishing spaces for young musicians?
Well I think our kids are at the forefront of making that happen. For instance T\they're doing a lot with schools. I mean all of our tapings involve many school visits, and more importantly they involve our kids getting together the day after the show and talking about how they can bring music into their own communities. They've gone into their own communities again and made musical events that have benefitted hurricane victims and all kinds of fantastic charities. But they just come up with it on their own. And I think that's part of making music an engaging force in your own community. I mean it's very grand to make national plans, but initially basically getting audiences in the seats is a local enterprise. And the more that you can do that generated from the community itself, the better you are. So here we are shining a spotlight of national prominence to a kid from Tennessee, and all the sudden he has local recognition. And now he's gone on and made a program of bringing instruments to musicians in high schools locally, and all kinds of fun stuff. But it's basically local, and it has a regenerative power, I think. It's very important to be very keenly aware of one's own community and the artists of one's own community.

You yourself were once a very young musician. What do you think initially drew you to music?
I know it was very specific. It was an ultimatum. My mother had taught me how to read at a very early age, prior to my getting into kindergarten. I was going to Saint Athanasius School in Evanston, Illinois, where I grew up. And the nuns found out I could read and said "He's going to get bored and get into trouble, and we don't want any troublemakers. So you can have French lessons or Piano lessons for 15 bucks a week." And my mother, thinking that I had perfect pitch when it was just really that I could just read the record jacket "Tchaikovsky Concerto in B-flat minor," thought that the piano would be a good idea. So that's where we started, and I remember really clicking from a very early age, knowing that this was something that I wanted to do.

Looking back now, how would you describe yourself as a young musician?
Gosh, not nearly so prepared and practiced as the young kids on my program. I was watching way too much TV. I didn't get really serious about practicing until I was trying to get into conservatories and things. I was also doing a lot of jazz-rock at the time, so I was really not as focused as these kids are. That's not to say that they're all cloistered; they have great passion for music, and they have passion for other things as well—other parts of their schooling, other things outside of music, athletics, etcetera. So, yeah, I think I was much less motivated than this generation of kids.

Well, you're now motivating other people. In your latest album, O'Riley's Liszt, you incorporate many musical audio and visual elements, which is very different; not all classical artists make music videos for their entire records. I really thought that the artistic shots that accompanied the music really built and enhanced the atmosphere of the piece. When working on these pieces, how did you approach each element? Tell me about how the work as a whole came together in your mind.

Well the video was more of an afterthought, so I can't say that there was any grand plan going in ahead of time. What happened was that we had a whole but of Go Pros, and we could set them up at various parts of the piano where we were doing an actual recording. So it was really more to get an archival sense of the recording session itself. And then when we found out we had that much material, we realized that we were also taping in a beautiful home in a beautiful valley of the Vale Valley in Colorado. So we thought to get some images there. And of course my friends also have places in Montana, so we taped some footage up there. Then we actually went back and taped some concert footage, playing footage. So that all got spliced together sort of after the fact, but it was all sort of available material. So it was all kind of gritty, I think, as far as that is concerned. I liked the idea of incorporating some of the images—there are some great reflective images that the cinematographer got, but also some images from the Basil Twist puppet show of Symphonie Fantastique, which I accompanied live several times. So getting some video taped images from that production—I think Symphonie Fantastique is a hallucinogenic work, and I think the more sensual stimulus you have of one sort or another with that piece is good. So the visual is good.

The idea of doing it on piano—I mean this was a piece that Liszt himself was extraordinary very passionate about. The first available publication of the score of Symphonie Fantastique was not the orchestra version but the piano version that Liszt made. And it just speaks to his passion of doing the piece and what an effect it had on him and all his further work, actually, as a composer himself. Also the idea of the subtitle of the Symphonie Fantastique itself, episode of a young artist—to have that music come out of two hands instead of two hundred hands is more in the spirit of the piece. A confessional of a sort of legend or story. I think it's best told by one musician rather than a hundred. So I liked that. I also liked the fact that Liszt was not specific in many parts of his score. I mean, this was going on in this part of the orchestra, and I have my own way of doing it but I can't really make up my mind here, sort of leaves it open to you. And being an arranger much of the time myself, I found that a great inspiration and invitation to make things as I wished. So there was that, and likewise, I was dissatisfied with Liszt’s own version of the "Liebestod" from Tristan un Isolde. And I found the Moszkowski version and found that to be quite interested, so making a mash-up was something that was lots of fun to do. On top of that, there were lots of things that they left out. So the idea that all these piece were arrangements, that I'm an arranger part of the time, I thought made it a very sympathetic project.

Did it feel very different recording a solo classical album, since this is the first classical album you've released in over a decade. Did it feel different since you've been delving in so many other genres?
Well actually the other fellow that I had as producers way back, I think 10 years ago, when I did my At the Break CD, which was a bunch of pieces that I played at midway point at From the Top in broadcasts—and there were a lot of different composers, and I was just having fun with the way those pieces were being recorded in live performance, so I had the Emerson Quartets' producer Da-Hong Seetoo, was my producer for that recording. And that was the beginning of our working together. He had done some recording of my playing at previous festivals where he was producing radio recordings. But this was the first project we did together, and he was definitely part of my dream team as far as making True Love Waits. From there on, he did that one, he did my second Radiohead record, Hold Me to This. He did the Elliot Smith record, he did the Nick Drake record. So he did all of those arrangement records and the At the Break CD. And going back to the At the Break CD, he was really my ideal producer. He had a great, great ear. And I think every person that I've worked with since then has had the advantage or disadvantage, depending on your point of view, of my being very confident in what I came up with Da-Hong for the arrangement CDs as an ideal for classical recording and how I felt that should sound. So it's an interesting question that you raise. It's actually steeped a lot in my work in the arrangements realm and yet begins with my first work with Da-Hong.

You've worked on so many collaborative multimedia projects in the past, including theater, dance, and literature. In your perspective, how would you describe the art of music in relation to the other arts?
That's an interesting question. I like to think that in the best circumstances, that music can say the unsayable or condense it in a way that makes it specific and universal. I'm thinking specifically of a moment where—one has been presented in Parsifal, Wagner's last opera. It's been presented in his usual way with a veritable roadmap of motives assigned to each character or each characteristic of the cast. And there was a moment when two main characters were on stage and they weren't singing. Yet because there was such eloquence in the composition, you really have the feeling that you are listening to their thoughts. And that's an extraordinary feeling. That sort of depth of intuition is something that I don't think the specificity of literature, the visual aspect of either sculpture or painting, can get anywhere near. I think music is really the tool or arena for that exact kind of depth of intuition.

So far, what has been your favorite combination of media to work with creatively?
I do think film is great, and I do think literature is great; I read an enormous amount, so I've done a couple of projects, and I've got a couple of good projects coming up. A Mark Danielewski eBook of Only Revolutions, which will involve about 90 minutes of music from me, so that's going to be out at the end of the year. I've done his eBook of The Fifty Year Sword. I was asked by the novelist Kris Saknussemm to write some music coincident with the release of his book Reverend America, and now his play The Humble Assessment is now shooting, and he wanted me to write theme music for that. And now that's my first film job, and it went very, very well. So I love, in my improvisatory compositional sort of way, I like having something to bounce off of. I really don't think I have the confidence to just go with a musical idea, but it really is nice to be prodded in a particular direction by, you know, something stylistic that Kris says or some embedding of musical notes in the text as Mark does in Only Revolutions that set me off on to a Tristan un Isolde kind of thing. So it's nice to have that kind of inspiration and emphasis.

Do you have any inventive mixed media collaborations or even solo projects in mind? Either as potential future endeavors or just something you've always thought would be exciting?
Well, I did a very nice sort of live video improv set of three concerts at Columbia University a few years back with Steve Byron and Jonathan Rosen. And I liked that quite a lot. I think there are probably some people who thought that didn't think it was as well integrated as it might have been, or they would have made different choices as a visual artist. So I think that's a danger when you get into multimedia—is that you have to make sure that things are really in sync. I have to say that my work with Martha Clark was really idea, and I was really there for every step of the creative process. Likewise with Basil Twist, the Symphonie Fantasique was an extraordinary event in my life. And I'll probably come up with a place, and we'll probably play that again; that was really kind of a cool thing. I think it's really important to have all of the players on the same page for something like that to really go well.

Finally, what do you believe is the more important affirmation for young musicians to hear? Especially those who would maybe like to dedicate their lives to music, but might be giving more weight to "safer" or "less risky" professions?
I think that the idea is to follow your heart. I think Leonard Bernstein said it best, "If you're asking yourself whether I should become a musician, the fact that you need to ask is the answer to the question." But I think that's a little bit all or nothing. I think that kids are conscious and responsible about their lives. But I do think that it is important that if this is something that you cannot not do, if this is something that you cannot do without in your life, then I think you need to follow your heart there and make it happen. And it will happen. I mean it will happen by virtue of—and it happens now more by the diversity of our musical personalities. And this is something that's not taught in schools. It's more of a matter of—as I said before, if you make a connection with your local community—you have to make a connection with the community as a specific musical personality. And that may be strictly as a classical pianist; that may be as a member of a band or a string quartet, or a composer, or a teacher at a community music school. So there are all kinds of different ways of making that personality come out. We've had kids—we've had one of the guys on our program as a sax player who then showed up on the Today show when we played there. And he was playing cello for that. And he's now the beat boxing bottom of the a cappella group the Pentatonix.

We have a violist on our program who was now co-band leader of The Rentals, and a songwriter, and also runs outreach for a children's school in LA, and plays on American Idol in the orchestra. So the diversity of your personality is going to make you who you are. It's no longer a question of, "Well I have the 12th fastest octaves in the country." It's not going to be one thing or another. It really has to be the composite of your personality, and the more diverse it is, the more there is for people to hang there hat on, and the more reason for them to say, "Well I realized they played music, but I didn't realize they did this... let me give this a listen." Kids get that on my website. They would say, "Oh I love your Radiohead stuff. I see you're playing in San Diego a Mozart concerto; I've always wanted to check him out." So because they trust me on the Radiohead, they're going to go check Mozart out. I think that's really good.

by Olivia Lin

Editor’s note: This interview was taped over the summer.

Correction note: We have corrected the Tchaikovsky Concerto in E-flat minor to Tchaikovsky Concerto in B-flat minor.

Correction notes: And I think we're doing a fair amount to not only celebrate young people but to promote classical music
in this country.

The correct quote is: I think a lot of people were also getting the impression that we were looking for
classic teens who were stand up comedians as well…

The correct quote is: I also liked
the fact that Liszt was not specific in many parts of his score.

The correct quote is: I mean this was a piece that Liszt himself was
extraordinary very passionate about…

The correct quote is: O'Riley's Liszt, you incorporate many musical audio and visual elements, which is very different; not all classical artists make music videos for their
entire records.

The correct quote:
And I think every person that I've worked with since then has had the advantage or disadvantage, depending on your point of view…

The correct quote: And I liked that
quite a lot.

The underlined words have been added to show the correct quotes from Mr. O’Riley during his interview with Jupiter Index Web Magazine.