Symphony’s guest pianist moves to the distillery for Radiohead performance

Pianist Christopher O’Riley will perform the music of Radiohead Tuesday at Distillery 244 Old Town.
Pianist Christopher O’Riley will perform the music of Radiohead Tuesday at Distillery 244 Old Town. Courtesy photo

As host and key performer of the National Public Radio show “From the Top,” pianist Christopher O’Riley gets to choose the music that’s played.

After developing an affinity for the British rock band Radiohead in 1997, he slipped an arrangement of one of the band’s songs into his playlist.

“I knew we were on the right track after our announcer would be on and say, ‘That was our host Christopher O’Riley with a piece by Radiohead’ and we’d get email after the program saying, ‘Who is this Mr. Head, and where can I find his music?’,” the 61-year-old said with a laugh from his home in Los Angeles.

The Chicago native has devoted two entire albums to classical piano arrangements of Radiohead songs, as well as several others scattered onto his other albums.

O’Riley will perform Tuesday night at Distillery 244 Old Town in Wichita. The show is sponsored by the Wichita Symphony Orchestra.

He also will perform next weekend in the symphony’s Mozart Winterfest.

The program, O’Riley said, is one of the rare times he’s devoting an entire night to Radiohead songs (with a few other alt-rock bands included), which will include unrecorded arrangements from the band’s newest album, “A Moon Shaped Pool.”

A self-described “snobby classical music aficionado,” O’Riley said he became hooked on Radiohead after the band’s 1997 album, “OK Computer.”

“From my own tastes, Radiohead seemed to be much more on the high end of the pop scale in terms of consistency and excellence,” said O’Riley, who immediately dug into the band’s B-sides and unreleased tracks. “I just found them a very compelling band.”

As someone trained in classical music, O’Riley said he was intrigued by the band’s “wonderful harmonic language,” its sense of counterpoint and texture and “the sort of chord change that makes your hair stand on end.”

Although he has heard that only a few members of the five-man band even read music, he was impressed by the collaboration that he heard.

“Every song that they do, every band member really contributes something particular and singular to each song,” he said. “That creates a weave, a counterpoint much like a Bach fugue.”

He slipped several Radiohead songs into “From the Top” without anyone noticing, but he got onto rock fans’ radar after an appearance on another NPR program, “Performance Today,” which went viral to more than 140 rock and Radiohead fan pages.

Soon after, his record label asked if he would be interested in releasing an all-Radiohead album and touring to back it.

O’Riley said he appreciates the “musical irony” of Radiohead, which he compared to Shostakovich. The song “No Surprises” from “OK Computer,” for instance, has music that he compares to “fairies and light,” with lyrics about suicide.

“You have that wonderful juxtaposition of beauty and turmoil, and that sort of straddling the emotional and literary and musical gamut,” he said. “It’s not something you get from a lot of other bands.”

O’Riley has met band members several times through the years, and they had heard of him before their meeting, he said. He’s been in lengthy conversations with lead singer Thom Yorke, “just talking with a good friend about whose music we were both enthusiastic.”

Neither he nor Radiohead have brought up the possibility of collaboration, O’Riley said.

In person, O’Riley said to find Yorke very self-deprecating toward his own music.

O’Riley said that, while many of Radiohead’s catalog lent itself to piano arrangements, its’ most commercially successful song, “Creep,” didn’t.

“For me, it doesn’t have the materials,” he said. “The piano would be a pale approximation of the song.”

The Music of Radiohead and More with Christopher O’Riley

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 16

Where: Distillery 244 Old Town, 244 N. Mosely St.

Tickets: $40 for general seating, $90 for VIP seating, including a keyboard-side seat, prerecital cocktail hour, open bar and meet-and-greet with O’Riley; tickets are available through wichitsymphony.org, by phone at 316-267-7658 or at the symphony box office