Christopher O’Riley at the Sottile

Monday, November 1, 2010

Christopher O’Riley

THE WELL-KNOWN HOST of NPR’s “From The Top” broadcast will be at the Sottile this Thursday as the second featured pianist in this year’s International Piano Series at the College of Charleston. You often hear Christopher accompanying his radio guests on the piano, but you have probably never heard him play this level of solo pieces. Just in case you don’t have enough time before the lights go down Thursday night, here’s an advance look at the program notes—which might also come in handy if you want to listen to recordings of the works beforehand.

Thursday • November 4
8 PMSottile Theatre, 44 George Street, (843) 953-6575
Tickets $20 at the door · under 18 and CofC students free

Program Notes by Lindsay Koob

The lovely Arabesque, Op. 18, is one of the most endearing of Robert Schumann’s stand-alone piano miniatures. Part of the trick with this elegant and affecting number is to hold one’s emotions back (not always easy with Schumann) early on, leaving interpretive “room to grow” as the piece delves into more passionate territory. It’s an especially good test of a player’s ability to deliver singing tone and color, even in the softest pianissimo passages. Written in the form of a rondo, the main theme persists intermittently through to the end, with three contrasting episodes interrupting its irresistible flow (one of them rather turbulent) before finishing with a calm and tender coda.

Kreisleriana, Op. 16, reflects the fictitious character of Johannes Kreisler: a highly eccentric (even half-mad) conductor who was the literary alter ego of famed German romantic writer E. T. A. Hoffmann. In keeping with its namesake’s wild character (and Schumann’s own bipolar nature), Kreisleriana offers a huge, unpredictable tumble of forms, styles, moods, and emotions. While the eight-piece cycle (written in 1838) was dedicated to Chopin, its main inspiration was in fact his deep love for Clara Wieck—already a famous piano virtuoso—who married Schumann against her father’s wishes two years later.

The first piece, marked ‘Highly animated,’ is a devilishly fast and agitated outpouring in D minor, with a more serene central section in B-flat. The next piece—‘Very inward and not too fast’—is much longer, framing two intermezzo sections (one playful, the other passionate) with a tenderly contemplative motif that turns darkly chromatic before ending as it began. The succeeding number, ‘Very excited,’ opens with a feeling of tense agitation, but lapses into a warmhearted central section before ending with a ramped-up reprise of the starting theme. Following that, we hear ‘Very slowly,’ a quiet, almost somber meditation that seems almost narrative in effect before shifting into a more lyrical episode that floats dreamily on wings of love. We then hear ‘Very lively,’ a gently scurrying piece in triple meter that contains contrasting trio sections: the first mercurially flighty; the other more overtly dramatic. Then we get another number marked ‘Very slowly’: a folk-toned meditation that gives way to a much more impassioned middle section. ‘Very fast’ is full of fierce excitement, moving through a gradually accelerating central fugato section before ending as a much calmer, more serene chorale. The final movement, ‘Fast and playful,’ is a fun but rather furtive item that slinks stealthily across the keyboard into a more confrontation middle section before sneaking back out through the piano’s lower register.

The very great Fantasie in C Major, Op. 17, is perhaps Schumann’s most original and cohesive piano work of larger scale and scope. It comes across almost like a classical sonata, despite the composer’s tendency to avoid development of basic themes in favor of piling wildly varied, unrelated themes on top of each other. But Schumann managed to produce a work of tremendous virtuosity and thematic variety that still hangs together well. Written in three movements, the first is loosely based on a motif from Beethoven’s song-cycle, To the Distant Beloved. It unfolds in a welter of passionate, driving themes that are precariously held together by the Beethoven theme and the way each successive section unfolds and diminishes in similar ways—giving the movement an impression of structural unity.

The second movement is a sort of manic march with contrasting trio. Here, Schumann makes otherwise rather ordinary themes work by means of his brilliant (and fiendishly difficult) pianistic writing and relentless rhythmic energy, relieved by the central trio’s more lyrical appeal. The unconventional final movement—an Adagio of tremendous beauty—offers twin-peak climaxes along its dreamy course. Encompassing tremendous emotional intensity, unfathomable mystery and majestic power, it ends with a brief, but ravishing coda.

See the entire 2010-2011 International Piano Series schedule

The International Piano Series, now in its twenty-first year, is directed by CofC Artist-in-Residence, Enrique Graf.

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One Response to “Christopher O’Riley at the Sottile”

  1. JAI

    Mr. Koob certainly does a lovely review of the program for Christopher O’Riley. I hope I can attend.


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