Christopher O'Riley: Transcribing the Pop World

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O'Riley on Television

See O'Riley in action as host of the kid's classical show "From the Top."

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Chris O'Riley

hide captionChristopher O'Riley has a gift for reworking pop tunes into piano solos.

Chris O'Riley and I go back quite a few years, so every time we get into a studio together, it's like hanging out with an old friend. He's a radio host himself, so he knows all the ins and outs of being on both sides of the interviewer's microphone. In other words, he makes my job easy.

In many ways, O'Riley is a throwback to classical musicians of the past who have blurred the line between classical and pop music. Bach and Beethoven were not above throwing folk-pop melodies into their works. Franz Liszt turned anything and everything into virtuoso piano music — his source material ranged from full symphonies to popular ditties. Jascha Heifetz wrote a minor hit for Bing Crosby, and played on Crosby's recording.

O'Riley has handpicked some of the most compelling popular songs of our day and, like Liszt, he creates solo piano versions of them. He's made two CDs of piano arrangements of songs by the British rock band Radiohead, and one each of songs by Nick Drake and Elliott Smith.

When I asked O'Riley why he makes transcriptions of other people's pop songs, he told me, "I play the music I love." And I think it's clear, from listening to the Nick Drake arrangements he played in this studio session, that he clearly loves what he does.

Fred Child is the host of APM's 'Performance Today.'

More About Christopher O'Riley

Many classical musicians enjoy popular music, but Christopher O'Riley actually does something about it: He composes his own solo piano versions of his favorite pop tunes. In turn, his renditions have become favorites of many who have bought his CDs of music by Radiohead, Nick Drake and Elliott Smith.

As a youngster growing up in Illinois, O'Riley enjoyed playing rock and jazz, but eventually found that classical music consistently provided him with the greatest challenges. He maintains a busy recital schedule and routinely performs with many of the world's great orchestras.

O'Riley has at least three careers. He's an acclaimed concert pianist, specializing in repertoire from Rameau to Rachmaninoff. He's a successful recording artist. And he is the host of a popular public radio program featuring kids and classical music called From the Top, which doubles as a PBS television show.

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