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Pianist Christopher O’Riley steps in as second replacement for symphony concerts

Pianist Christopher O’Riley steps in at this weekend’s Symphony concerts. (The Spokesman-Review)
Pianist Christopher O’Riley steps in at this weekend’s Symphony concerts. (The Spokesman-Review)

The Spokane Symphony got two big surprises as it approached its first pair of classical concerts of 2009 – and neither was the kind of surprise that conductors or symphony managers relish.

First, the orchestra’s originally scheduled piano soloist, Gabriela Montero, got an offer she couldn’t refuse: playing a new work by John Williams for President-elect Barack Obama’s inaugural festivities next week.

Pianist Orli Shaham agreed to step in for Montero, playing Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 2 instead of Montero’s choice, Liszt’s Concerto No. 2.

Then word arrived Wednesday that Shaham had come down with the flu and was unable to travel.

The good news is that the weekend’s concerts will go on as scheduled Saturday and Sunday at the Martin Woldson Theater at The Fox.

Music Director Eckart Preu will conduct Bartók’s “Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta” and Dvorák’s Symphony No. 8.

The second piece of good news is that pianist Christopher O’Riley, host of National Public Radio’s “From the Top,” will return to Spokane to perform Beethoven’s Concerto No. 2.

“It’s things like this that keeps us on our toes,” Preu said. “Having a new concerto and a new soloist makes our work more exciting.

“I thought Beethoven’s Second would be a very good thing to follow Bartók’s ‘Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta,’ ” he said. “After all the color and complexity of Bartók, Beethoven brings you back to normal.

“It is a very underrated concerto, like his Second Symphony. But it was, after all, the concerto Beethoven wrote to introduce himself to Vienna. Then he revised it two years later before he published it. He certainly wanted to put his best foot forward.

“And there is a connection with the Hungarian music you hear in Bartók, too,” Preu added, “because Beethoven included some Hungarian-sounding passages in the finale.”

O’Riley is known in Spokane from his performance of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 1 with the symphony in 1998. He’s nationally known as the host of NPR’s “From the Top” series, which introduces young classical musicians from around the country.

Sandpoint violinist Jason Moody, a member of the Spokane Symphony’s first violin section, appeared on O’Riley’s show when he was a student.

O’Riley grew up in Chicago and developed an early interest in jazz. He switched to classical piano and entered Boston’s New England Conservatory, where he studied with Russell Sherman.

He began establishing an international career by winning prizes at international piano competitions such as the Van Cliburn and the Busoni, as well as awards at the Leeds and Montreal competitions.

In addition to his work as a broadcaster and performer, O’Riley is a “self-confessed obsessive” for experimental rock performers such as Radiohead, Elliott Smith and Nick Drake. He has recorded two albums of his own transcriptions of Radiohead songs as well new classical music by composers like Michael Daugherty and Aaron Jay Kernis.

Preu and O’Riley will discuss the music on the weekend’s program in pre-concert talks beginning one hour before curtain time at The Fox as part of the Gladys Brooks Pre-Concert Lecture series.