Listeners of National Public Radio can hear Christopher O'Riley's informed commentaries on classical music and his classical compositions of Radiohead, Pink Floyd and Elliott Smith on his weekly radio show "From the Top." But on Saturday night, audience members in the Rhode Island School of Design Auditorium could hear both the radio personality and his music in person, when O'Riley performed "Out of My Hands: Classical Piano Meets Alternative Rock."
O'Riley, who has played in venues as diverse as the South by Southwest Music Festival, Carnegie Hall and a beach in Saint-Malo, France, tries to achieve a balance between alternative and classical pieces. "I know there are some folks who are here because they're Radiohead fans, and some who know me from the radio program," he told The Herald. So, he said, he tries to show "a commensurate devotion to works by (classical composer) Ravel" and more modern pieces.
O'Riley started the night's program with four Radiohead songs in quick succession. These were not the band's standard experimental rock — as he told The Herald, even his alternative rock pieces are "informed by the idiosyncracies" of classical music and may have "a Debussyan feel."
Nevertheless, after a few songs, he offered a disclaimer. "Those of you who don't know Radiohead from a hole in the head can be assured of an all-Ravel set in the second half," he said.
He continued the first half with songs by Nick Drake, a lesser-known British songwriter from the '70s, as well a two-song arrangement based on songs by Elliott Smith, whom he described as "the most important songwriter this country has produced since Cole Porter." Though O'Riley described these songs as dark, they were downright cheery compared with the final song of the first half. Playing Nirvana's "Heart-Shaped Box," O'Riley used the full range of the 88 keys and exhibited a much heavier, darker tone.
He opened the second half with the Cocteau Twins' "Caroline's Fingers," the most upbeat song on the program, and continued with a sprawling transposition of Pink Floyd's "Us and Them."
Contemporary merged seamlessly with classical as he moved into the promised Ravel suite. He played "Ghosts of the Night," a set of pieces he said he chose "in honor of Halloween and the release of ‘Paranormal Activity II.' " With their abrupt tonal shifts, sudden pauses and minor key, the pieces were fittingly frightening.
He closed the program with two more Radiohead numbers: his favorite, "Letdown," and the crowd-pleasing "Paranoid Android." After a round of applause, he returned to the stage for a brief encore, Elliott Smith's appropriately titled "Bye."
Sean Devare, a student at RISD, compared the concert to a performance two years ago by alternative violinist Daniel Bernard Roumain. "I'm really into anything that revitalizes the genre of classical music or brings that technical skill and classical style and makes it more accessible," he said.
O'Riley came to RISD as a part of the school's FirstWorks Festival, a series of performances that display "firsts in the arts," according to Katherine Pletcher, executive artistic director of FirstWorks.
These firsts can be anything from a world premiere to a performer's first time in Rhode Island to kids' first exposure to the arts, she said. O'Riley's performance was an opportunity to showcase his groundbreaking solo piano transcriptions for the first time at RISD.
"This concert also marks the two-week countdown to our finale," Pletcher said. The final FirstWorks performance of the season, by the Grammy-winning a capella group Sweet Honey in the Rock, will be held Nov. 13 at the Veterans Memorial Auditorium.