TV Preview: O'Riley takes 'From the Top' to TV while releasing album

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When Christopher O'Riley's "From the Top" makes the leap from a long-running NPR program to a weekly television series Sunday night on PBS, the Allderdice grad will be following in the footsteps of Leonard Bernstein.

Wendy Lynch
Christopher O'Riley, wearing body art by Justin Drew.
Click photo for larger image.

'From the Top: Live From Carnegie Hall'

When: 7 p.m. Sunday on WQED-TV.
Host: Christopher O'Riley

Two days later, the pianist's latest album, "Second Grace: The Music of Nick Drake," is set for national release. It's a stunning collection, radically reworking some of Drake's most haunting pieces for solo piano, in much the same way his earlier records have taken the music of Radiohead and Elliott Smith in unexpected new directions.

The PBS show, "From the Top: Live From Carnegie Hall," is, as the title would suggest, an outgrowth of O'Riley's NPR program, a popular showcase for some of the nation's top young classical musicians. In that sense, it echoes Bernstein's televised concerts for young people in the 1960s.

The concept of reworking pop recordings for solo piano also had its origins in "From the Top."

It was after George Harrison died and O'Riley, a pop fan in classical clothing, was looking to do some sort of tribute on his show, which would lead to the world premiere of his first pop song arrangement -- a mash-up, as hipsters would call it -- of the Beatles' "Within You, Without You" and "Blue Jay Way."

"I had my iPod stuffed with all the Harrison Beatles tunes," he says. "And then I started gravitating away from 'Savoy Truffle,' an amazing song, and straying to the modal, trance-like stuff. And with that, it was a very easy leap into doing this Bill Evans sort of spaced-out version of 'Within You, Without You,' which naturally segued into 'Blue Jay Way.'"

In 2003, O'Riley earned a four-star rave in Rolling Stone for "True Love Waits," a full album of Radiohead transcriptions he'd been playing on his show. A second album of Radiohead transcriptions, "Hold Me to This," followed in 2005, by which point he'd been working up transcriptions for his next two projects, Smith and Drake. His label tried to talk him into doing Drake first, but The New York Times had other plans.

"I think it was maybe a year after Elliott Smith had died," he recalls. "So there was a biography and re-releases in the works, and we're finally getting 'From a Basement on the Hill' [Smith's posthumous release]. And then, the Times throws in: 'O'Riley, fresh from gussying up Radiohead, is working on an Elliott Smith record.' So all of the sudden the label called and said, 'As it turns out, you're doing an Elliott Smith record.'"

Asked if he sees a connection between the artists he's devoted full-length albums to interpreting, O'Riley says, "It's the same thing that draws me to Dmitri Shostakovich, a sense of dichotomy, a sense of irony, a sense of surface versus substance. For instance, with Radiohead, you have a song like 'No Surprises,' where a very pretty texture and harmony are propping up rather desperate if not suicidal lyrics. So the dichotomy between the surface beauty and the undersurface turbulence and despair -- those qualities are rife, I think, throughout the works of all three artists."

As excited as O'Riley is to be hitting the streets next week with his dramatic reinterpretations of the Drake oeuvre, he's just as thrilled to talk about the new TV show, even though there won't be nearly so much turbulence beneath the surface.

He says he's been wanting to do a television version of the show for quite some time now "because if you hear the performances, if you're just flipping through the stations on the radio, you're aware of some high-level playing, but actually seeing this 12-year-old or 14-year-old skateboarder playing the violin is pretty compelling stuff."

He credits producer/director Don Mischer, who directed Prince's Super Bowl halftime show, with making "From the Top" as "attractive as classical music is gonna look on TV."

Which may be true. But in the end, the show's appeal has more to do with watching kids approach this music with a youthful sense of urgency and in some cases showmanship without dumbing it down to "American Idol" standards and then finding out what makes them tick.

And O'Riley's rapport with the kids doesn't hurt.

As the host sees his mission, "If we can find kids for whom classical music is an integral part of their lives but not the only thing in their lives, then that's the thing that's going to get classical music out there to a wider audience, and therein, yes, there will be a face-lift of sorts for classical music."

Ed Masley, formerly the Post-Gazette's pop music critic, is a freelance writer who now resides in Phoenix, Ariz.


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