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Christopher O'Riley reflects on time as first LSU Distinguished Visiting Artist

Sergei Rachminoff. Ludwig van Beethoven. Frédéric Chopin. Kurt Cobain.

Christopher O'Riley
Acclaimed pianist and national media personality Christopher O'Riley will close his three-year appointment as the LSU College of Music & Dramatic Arts' James M. Syler Distinguished Visiting Artist with a farewell concert on Monday, March 18, in the School of Music Recital Hall.
Eddy Perez/LSU University Relations

Kurt Cobain?

Throughout the span of his industrious musical career, that's just a sampling of the wide array of artists that renowned pianist, national media personality and first ever LSU College of Music & Dramatic Arts James M. Syler Distinguished Visiting Artist Christopher O'Riley has covered in his repertoire of recordings.

Known for his unique piano interpretations of both classical musicians including Bach, Mozart, Debussy and Stravinsky and contemporary artists such as Radiohead, Nick Drake, The Smiths and Nirvana, O'Riley has carved out his own niche in the classical music landscape as a "classical crossover" artist, helping to introduce music from both sides of the musical spectrum to new audiences.

O'Riley's three-year appointment at LSU comes to a close this month. His farewell performance is scheduled for Monday, March 18, at 7:30 p.m. in the School of Music Recital Hall, where he will be performing the Goldberg Variations by Johann Sebastian Bach.

Before deciding to focus his concentration solely on classical music at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, O'Riley started dabbling in rock music as a teenager, listening to such popular bands at the time as The Doors and Iron Butterfly.

"When I was 13 years old, I started getting interested in rock music and actually started playing popular music at that time and was pretty serious about it, until I went to conservatory," he recalled.

O'Riley even had the opportunity to see the iconic rock band The Doors play at one of their infamous shows at the Chicago Coliseum back in 1968 as a young teenager with some friends, with enigmatic singer Jim Morrison having incited a riot from the audience that night.

"My mother picked us up after the police had rushed the stage and folks were throwing chairs – the usual Doors things," he said. "And there we were in our little suits and ties and sports jackets coming in from the suburbs."

Thankfully, O'Riley was not hit by a chair at that show, and later evolved his musical interests from rock to jazz-rock fusion before entering college.

"(At that time) I got more serious about jazz, modern jazz, and jazz-rock fusion and, in that regard, you're dealing with keyboard players who are first-rate jazz musicians like Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea – those were my heroes," O'Riley said. "However, I decided once I got into conservatory that I could really only pursue one (concentration of music) adequately and, for me, classical was just a little bit more challenging."

It's this very aspect about the program at LSU's School of Music that O'Riley has strongly admired during his tenure with the College of Music and Dramatic Arts, which began in 2010.

Christopher O'Riley
In November 2010, O’Riley hosted a live taping of "From the Top," his National Public Radio program that highlights young, classically trained musicians, at LSU. The show featured performances by young musicians from throughout Louisiana.
Eddy Perez/LSU University Relations

"I find every place, every institution, has its own psychology," O'Riley said, "and I really feel like LSU's ethos has something very special in terms of being very encouraging, but also very challenging; I enjoy the positive energy, the students' willingness to try things, and the faculty's unturfed-oriented way of dealing with someone else's point of view. I thought everybody was extraordinarily welcoming and supportive, and also interested in what I could bring to the institution. I always felt that I was supported and also very inspired by the positive work ethic of the students in particular."

Sarah Rushing, a Baton Rouge native who is pursuing her Bachelor of Music in piano performance, was a student of O'Riley during his tenure, having taken two master classes and a private lesson from O'Riley.

"I have been continually impressed with his magnificent teaching abilities." Rushing said of O'Riley. "He's got such a knack for attention to detail, and I can always rely on him to bring out another side of the music that I didn't know existed. When he started his residency as Distinguished Artist, I was of course familiar with his wonderful concertizing career, but had no idea what a capable teacher he was."

Laurence Kaptain, dean of the LSU College of Music & Dramatic Arts, agreed with Rushing's opinion of O'Riley's impact on the students.

"The students who were coached by him and performed next to him (on LSU's campus and in Dallas) have had their lives transformed and their career trajectories enhanced by this association," he said.

Louisiana love

Looking back at his time with LSU, O'Riley reflected on his most memorable performances during his tenure, which in no way involved flinging chairs.

"I haven't had any police action in any of my shows thus far," he joked, in comparison to his experience at that Doors concert as a teenager.

"I would have to say that the performances that stick out most would be the ones with Carlos Riazuelo (Conductor and LSU Director of Orchestral Studies) and the LSU Symphony Orchestra both times (in Baton Rouge and Mesquite, Texas, in February 2012). Both were really remarkable and quite memorable in terms of not only the performances themselves, but in the rehearsals leading up to the performances. Again, one gets the sense of the support that Carlos gives to the students, the demands that he makes on them, and the appreciation that he lavishes upon them for a work well done. Everyone is held responsible and everyone is really bringing their A game to every event, performance, and rehearsal. I think that was really most memorable."

Kaptain said that O'Riley's two performances with Riazuelo and the LSU Symphony Orchestra "will always be etched in my mind and heart."

Christopher O'Riley
O'Riley has visited LSU on numerous occasions in the past three years, holding master classes as well as private lessons with LSU School of Music students. Pictured during one such master class are, from left: violinist Annie Hsu, cellist Joy Keown, O'Riley and pianist Pei-Hsuan Chung.
Alice Stout

Aside from his performances at LSU, O'Riley also recorded the first Louisiana taping of his hit National Public Radio program, "From the Top," which highlights young, classically trained musicians, in the Claude L. Shaver Theatre on Nov. 2, 2010.

"We've been on the air for what? Like over 10 years? Of course, I've been coming here (to Louisiana) professionally for about 30 years, and in all that time we've been on the air we've never made it to this culturally-rich state, the birthplace of one of the most important strands of American music," O'Riley said during the show's opening. "We've been deprived – that's what it comes down to. It's like we've been cooking gumbo for 10 years without the shrimp or the crawfish; playing "Dixie" without a trumpet; spelling the word ‘go' without an x. Everyone in our live audience knows that here, in Cajun country, ‘go' is spelled g-e-a-u-x, as in…"

The audience shouted back in unison, "Geaux Tigers!"

The broadcast featured students from the cities of New Orleans, Shreveport and Baton Rouge, showcasing the wide range of young talent from all across the state. The repertoire from the Louisiana musicians included "L'Isle Joyeuse" by Claude Debussy, performed by a pianist from New Orleans; "Rhapsodie" (1st movement) from the Suite Hebraique by Ernest Bloch, played by a violist from Shreveport; "Les Filles de Cadix" by Léo Delibes, sung by a soprano from Baton Rouge; and the traditional gospel song "A Closer Walk with Thee," performed by a brass band from New Orleans.

When asked what piece O'Riley would have selected had he been on "From the Top" as a teenager, he answered, "One of my old favorites back in that time was a piece by Franz Liszt – his 6th Hungarian Rhapsody. I think that would have probably been my piece."

"I think the level of art appreciation is quite prevalent throughout the state – that much I can say," O'Riley said, in regard to his interactions with young musicians from Louisiana. "I can also say that like other parts of the country – where there may have been cutbacks in terms of music being an active part of the schools – what we found at "From the Top" is that regardless of whatever shape that's in, there's a dedicated and quite top notch network of private music instructors that offer world-class teaching to every student in every state. So it's really the private teachers, I think, that are to be most highly applauded, particularly in Louisiana."

Between classes and performances in Baton Rouge during a three-year residency, a man needs to eat. What does an internationally-known pianist who grew up in Chicago and now lives in Ohio choose to chow down on when visiting Cajun country? Blackened alligator, of course.

"I used to have the blackened alligator there (at Sammy's Grill) every time," O'Riley said. "I would actually have dinner at the bar, just be by myself. I liked to get there and get my blackened alligator and my Caesar salad. There was a judge, who was a regular there at the bar, and he couldn't figure out why I would drink that Tin Roof Ale – he was strictly a Bud Light man. He was a very interesting old man."

Christopher O'Riley
Known for his unique "classical crossover" piano interpretations of classical musicians and contemporary artists, O'Riley has dazzled audiences around the world through his live performances, recorded albums and his radio program, “From the Top.”
Matt Dine

As for any other regular spots he'll miss once his tenure ends in Baton Rouge, O'Riley – an avid exerciser – mentions, "The Southside YMCA. It was great, fantastic. Also, my first year that I stayed in Baton Rouge, I stayed at the Belle of Baton Rouge downtown, and there was a beautiful YMCA down there."

Rounding out his list of favorite haunts, O'Riley also noted his love for the Manship Theater – located in the Shaw Center for the Arts downtown – where he played a recital the year before his residency began.

Considering all of the people O'Riley's met along the way collaborating with other national and international artists and musical professionals on his past and current projects, one has to wonder what his overall impression is of the people throughout Louisiana.

"I've been all over the state, and I've always loved the lush countryside and the people," O'Riley said of the state. "It (the culture) is a deeper, more sensitive sort of southern hospitality – a generosity that I find there that I don't find in other places."

The personal benefits that O'Riley garnered during his time at LSU, as well as the professional achievements that came with it, certainly speak volumes of the university's unique nature, Kaptain said.

"The three-year appointment of Christopher O'Riley represents something that most major performing arts schools do – and that is affiliate with major performing artists," he said. "From the outside, it may seem that having an artist and media personality of his stature would bring benefit to our campus. Well, it certainly did – but it also showed Mr. O'Riley the high level of our students, the quality of our faculty, the uniqueness of LSU and the wonderful culture of southern Louisiana. He has become a spokesperson (of sorts) for all, that's good about LSU."

While appreciative of O'Riley's impact on the university, Kaptain added that those contributions would not have been possible without the assistance of a contributor who helped make the very special partnership happen.

"Dr. James M. Syler of Dallas made a major contribution to help match the vision of former Provost Astrid Merget in having an affiliation with a world class touring, recording and radio/television artist," said Kaptain. "We look forward to hosting Dr. Syler at Christopher O'Riley's final recital here at LSU and allow the students to thank him for his generosity and vision in helping to support this affiliation."

A new song

So what's next for O'Riley in the year ahead? Andy Warhol.

O'Riley has been asked to do material by the famous American rock band The Velvet Underground, which became well-known when Warhol became their manager back in 1965.

Christopher O'Riley
O’Riley took the stage to perform with LSU musicians during his appointment, including a pair of performances with the LSU Symphony Orchestra.
Alice Stout

"That's going to be a major project," he said. "However, Nico (the German artist who sang lead vocals on some of the songs on the band's debut album) has to be first and foremost."

Focusing on the late singer's solo material following her stint with The Velvet Underground, O'Riley hopes to bring out an element to her music that hasn't been heard by audiences before. "She has said she was so dissatisfied with her solo records and kept asking the producers for more guitars, more guitars – which is sort of the direction that Velvet Underground was going in at that time – almost like a Sonic Youth thing, but in the ‘60s. But instead, she cried when she got the final product which had strings and flute all over it – she just hated it. So consider that, consider her performances, and what she thought might sound good in her head, and you have the inspiration to try and make something that she might have liked. We're dealing with potential material that might be waiting around to be in its final and best version – you don't know. So that's pretty exciting to me."

While he is moving on in his career, O'Riley said he will think back fondly on his time at LSU.

"First and foremost, I'm going to miss being there," he said. "I've given what I can in every arena that's been presented to me at LSU, and will miss being in a residency in a concentrated music department environment.

"What I'll take away most is that I'll miss LSU."

General admission tickets for O'Riley's March 18 farewell recital are $28, while LSU faculty, staff and senior tickets are $19 and student tickets are $10. For tickets, visit http://music.lsu.edu or call 225-578-6941.