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Review by David Richards
Toronto, August 2 2016

This column is focused on reviewing ‘classical music’ concerts, so it was a surprise to look at the program of the Toronto Summer Music Festival and find the music of Radiohead , a British rock band, the centre piece of one of its major piano recitals. Last night at Koerner Hall, American pianist Christopher O’Riley did what few prominent classical artists dare to do: he presented a program of solely contemporary music, half of which he had arranged himself.

From the moment he walked on stage with his I-Pad and page turning foot-pedal in hand, it was clear that he is on the cutting edge of the classical music world. As he said in one of his spoken interludes, his aim is to bring popular music to the classical audience and to introduce classical music to the mainstream. Last night he achieved both.

By beginning the program with the distinguished American composer John Adams’ China Gates, O’Riley instantly showed the audience that new music can be as infectiously engaging as anything from the past. In this short exhilarating piece, the delicately repeated semi-tone sequence grows through time as a spring shower builds into a rain storm.

O’Riley framed the first half of the program in music of John Adams. He concluded it with Adams’ companion piece to China Gates entitled Phrygian Gates. Both are based on the similar ideas, modal themes with an underlying tremolo capable of shimmering with a glistening echo throughout the hall and at times pulsating with a cacophonous anger. The music builds to a feverish pitch and then fades as a gentler energy takes over suggestive of cascading waterfalls. The twenty-minute work took us on a journey that captivated the listener.

Between the two bookends of the first half, O’Riley performed music of the eminent Spanish composer Anton Garcia-Abril and the aforementioned Radiohead. Garcia-Abril’s Cinco piezas brevas  IV captivated the audience with its simple jazz-influenced melody. Later, Diologos con la luna II touched the listeners in a profound way. This eminent composer has become like family to O’Riley who has performed entire concerts of his works and featured him on From the Top, O’Riley’s NPR radio show.

The music of Radiohead has had long-time appeal to O’Riley. The rock group that began in a British boarding school in the 1980’s is not on this reviewer’s playlist; indeed, I suspect it may not be on that of the majority in last night’s audience. Nevertheless, O’Riley opened ears and minds with expressive and virtuosic performances of his piano arrangements of songs such as Subterranean Homesick Alien, and Airbag.  It is music that reaches out with subtlety and a sophisticated elegance mixed with a raw earthiness that reaches the soul.

The second half of the program began with music of the accomplished British composer Thomas Adѐs and continued with music of Garcia-Abril and Radiohead interspersed therein. Each work added more layers to a unique aural tapestry of fascinating music. Those in the audience familiar with Radiohead’s music, cheered for All I Need and True Love Waits. As a result of O’Riley’s incredible performance of Paranoid Android, those not familiar with Radiohead went home with a new appreciation for this unique British rock band. Fans of Radiohead heard a superb piano performance by a true artist.

Clearly, this concert demonstrated that music needn’t be classified into any particular genre. Great music is great music; great music is what we heard last night. The Toronto Summer Music Festival’s Artistic Director Douglas McNabney can be lauded for his strength of conviction to present daring and unique programs throughout this three week musical celebration.

The Toronto Summer Music Festival continues through August 7th with daily concerts, recitals, and masterclasses.

Christopher O’Riley presents a unique aural tapestry of great music!

Christopher O'Riley - August 2nd, 2016;  ​Photo Credit: James M. Ireland