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Innovative pianist Christopher O'Riley to appear at BGSU's Festival Series

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Classically trained pianist Christopher O’Riley has worked with rock bands such as Radiohead, R.E.M., and Nirvana.

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BOWLING GREEN -- Whether he's foraging in the land of Radiohead, spelunking with the Cocteau Twins, or indulging in a little purified Bach-mania, eclectic pianist Christopher O'Riley seeks the true center of each piece of music he performs.

O'Riley has performed with conductors Michael Tilson Thomas, Semyon Bychkov, JoAnn Falletta, Kurt Mazur, Leonard Bernstein, and Christopher Hogwood.

And he has arranged for solo piano mega-hits by Pink Floyd, R.E.M., Portishead, Nirvana, the Bad Plus, the Smiths, and Tears for Fears, among others.

Nothing is beyond his reach, if he's drawn to a song. His take is usually more romantic and complex, revealing the beauty camouflaged by sullen punk, angry rock, or screaming metal band facades.

His concerts are as diverse as his musical interests.

"I can do that," he tells an enthusiastic crowd at an international music festival in Istanbul, when asked to perform his solo piano version of "Karma Police" by Radiohead, the British band that first caught his classically trained ear in the late 1990s.

When he makes his Bowling Green State University debut on its Festival Series at 8 p.m. Saturday, O'Riley no doubt will encounter a passel of devoted fans drawn by his work in widely diverse musical styles.

Late last year the pianist collaborated with Grammy Award-winning cellist Matt Heimovitz on a double album, "Shuffle.Play.Listen." that features O'Riley's arrangements of 20th century music by composers from Arcade Fire to John McLaughlin, to Piazzolla and Stravinsky.

In an interview with author Dan Levitin (This is Your Brain on Music) that is included in the album, O'Riley says "I was drawn to bands that have really interesting and idiosyncratic vocal technique -- the two main characteristics that I really go for when I'm making an arrangement are texture and harmony."

Not only is there an impressive array of recordings and benchmark classical performances on major stages to O'Riley's credit, he also has enjoyed a long run as musical host of From the Top, National Public Radio's long-running show introducing the best and brightest of young classical musicians.

O'Riley, 56, a Chicago native who started piano lessons while in preschool, absorbed the standard classical piano repertoire early on and began looking for inspiration in the wealth of other musical styles available to anyone.

By the time he hit his teens, his classical chops were well-tuned and he also was a seasoned rock and fusion musician. When his family moved to Pittsburgh at that time, he began exploring jazz.

O'Riley stuck with classical training at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, but never let go the reins of his other driving musical interests.

And since 1997, when he was invited to join From the Top, the National Public Radio-Public Broadcasting System's hit program which gives young and gifted classical performers a first national hearing, O'Riley's fame has grown exponentially.

He's something of a rock star for the conservatory and youth orchestra set.

From the Top, broadcast locally on WGTE-FM 91.3 on Sunday afternoons, was the 1995 brainchild of Jennifer Hurley-Wales and Gerald Slavet in Boston, a way to show off the recently renovated Jordan Hall at the New England Conservatory. Since he joined the regular cast, O'Riley has interviewed hundreds of young and aspiring classical musicians, often serving as their gracious accompanist.

During his stay at BGSU, O'Riley will lead a master class for piano students and will serve as judge for the final round of the David D. Dubois Piano Competition for high school students.

Tickets for Saturday's performance are $12-$30 at the College of Musical Arts box office at 419-372-8171 or email musictickets@bgsu.edu.

Contact Sally Vallongo at svallongo@theblade.com.

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