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Christopher O'Riley has redefined the possibilities of classical music

It's been a dozen years since pianist Christopher O'Riley last performed with the Santa Rosa Symphony.

In the interim, the multitalented Midwesterner has continued to evolve, using his early experience in jazz and rock as a springboard to new heights as a classical artist.

From his high-profile role as the host of "From the Top" -- a public radio show centered on young musicians -- to his groundbreaking arrangements of songs by the Brit alt-rock band Radiohead, O'Riley, 51, has earned a reputation for innovation coupled with a refreshing lack of pretense.

This weekend, he will tackle Bartok's Concerto No. 1 with the Santa Rosa Symphony. The concerto looks back to the Viennese School and to Brahms, whose Symphony No. 1 will round out the second half of the program conducted by Music Director Bruno Ferrandis.

O'Riley likes to perform pieces he feels passionate about. Under his nimble fingers and carefully crafted arrangements, an eclectic stream of pop music has migrated to the classical music stage over the years.

"It's really sort of a selfish enterprise," he said in a phone interview from northeast Ohio, where he spends most of his time. "It's always been about the song . . . a couple of Cocteau Twin songs, a Stephen Sondheim song. Things just take me over."

At the same time, the virtuoso has championed new music from within the classical world, premiering eclectic works by Richard Danielpour and Aaron Jay Kernis while recording well-known gems by Beethoven, Ravel and Scriabin.

"Basically I play what I like to play, and sometimes that involves the great pieces of the classical repertoire," he said. "Just extending the boundaries is a lost cause . . . you should play what you believe in."

What O'Riley believes in -- and preaches to young musicians -- is really not new. He tells them to work hard, find their own voice and stay connected to the tradition.

"In my day, you were pretty much tied to the top virtuoso of the day," he said "But kids are much more explorative these days. They are watching videos on U-Tube. They know who (violinist) Jascha Heifetz is."


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