The graying of audiences at venerable music institutions has been a worrisome trend for quite some time, and solutions are hard to come by. In a culture that favors ephemeral sensation over works that have met the test of time, classical organizations struggle to attract new, young listeners. Postmodernism has given great impetus to blending popular and traditional elements in the arts, but songs by the rock band Radiohead are still unlikely to grace a New York Philharmonic program anytime soon. They will, however, be performed this Thursday evening by a formidable classical musician at Joe's Pub.
Christopher O'Riley is a world-class pianist who has garnered awards at the Cliburn, Leeds, Busoni, and Montreal competitions, as well as an Avery Fisher Career Grant. He has recorded Scriabin and Stravinsky, and recently toured the United States with the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields Chamber Orchestra playing Bach, Mozart, and Liszt. At the same time, his first album arrangements of Radiohead music, "True Love Waits," on Sony/Odyssey, received four stars from Rolling Stone. His next album of arrangements, "Hold Me To This," was just released on World Village/Harmonia Mundi.
The pianist has always been eclectic. Among his recordings is the premiere of P.D.Q. Bach's "The Short-Tempered Clavier." And his Stravinsky disc includes his own versions of "Apollo" and "Histoire du Soldat." Yet his passion for Radiohead has given his career a whole new dimension, and he has taken this new repertoire on the road in a serious way.
Radiohead, for those who are over 30, was described by Time magazine as "the best, most-identified-with rock band in the world." The band's 1997 CD, "OK Computer," was dubbed the best album of the 20th century by readers of England's Q magazine. "If you were smart, cool and worried about the world, nothing broadcast it quicker than some casually scattered Radiohead discs," reported Q.
Mr. O'Riley's adventure with this music began on his radio show, "From the Top," broadcast on National Public Radio (and on WQXR here in New York), which he hosts with warmth and good humor. The format features brilliant young musicians who perform live and talk about their lives and their connections to music. During breaks halfway through the program, Mr. O'Riley regularly plays short piano works, which range from Rameau to Rachmaninov.
"I began playing some of the Radiohead pieces during this segment," he told me recently. The response was immediate. "We had kids listening to classical music who suddenly heard something they recognized from their 'off hours,' and classical listeners who wrote to ask, 'Who is this Mr. Head, and where can we find more of his beautiful music?'"
Before long, the Radiohead repertoire, which has now grown into a massive volume of arrangements available through Mr. O'Riley's Web site (christopheroriley.com), began to play a major role in his concerts.
"I played the Prokofiev Second Concerto at the University of Southern California," he recalls, "and did a solo encore of a Radiohead song. In Houston, the orchestra included me on their subscription series and then also booked a local club so I could play this music while I was in town."
Such "two-for-one" tour stops have become common for Mr. O'Riley. "It's great because kids see Radiohead on the bill and become interested," he said. "In Minneapolis, I played two concertos in the evening as part of their Summer Fest, and then did an all-Radiohead set in Orchestra Hall at 11 p.m. There were 1,100 people at that concert. So there are audiences out there - it's just a question of getting them in the door."
Still, Radiohead and Mozart are worlds apart, and I wondered how many fans of the former will step in to the concert hall a second time. "I do a half-and-half recital, with classical music on the first half, and Radiohead on the second," he explained. "Or I'll interweave, say, Shostakovich Preludes and Fugues with Radiohead music, alternating between the two. I find that particularly rewarding, because Shostakovich requires a lot of concentration and many audiences aren't willing to go that distance. It's nice to have the leavening of simple, songlike texture before going back to something that's thorny and complex."
Which composer is more likely to win the hearts and minds of audiences? "I can tell you that I end the program with the Shostakovich D minor Prelude and Fugue," said Mr. O'Riley, who notes that Radiohead has used a movement of a late Shostakovich quartet as their pre-entrance music at concerts, "and there's no question about what the showstopper is."
"A lot of the attrition in the classical music audience has to do with a kind of elitism," he said. "The message of 'From the Top' is, 'Here's this kid who is passionate about music. I think you will feel a kinship with this performer, and if you do, you will open up to the music whether you have had previous history with it or not.' The bottom line is that there are only two kinds of music, good and bad, and it's up to the listener to decide. I think that's a good message to get across."
Christopher O'Riley will perform at Joe's Pub April 28 at 9:30 p.m. (425 Lafayette Street, at East 4th Street, 212-239-6200).