Pianist O’Riley says goodbye at BRSO concert

Thursday’s Baton Rouge Symphony concert at the River Center Theatre could be said to be a part of guest soloist Christopher O’Riley’s farewell Louisiana tour.

O’Riley, acclaimed pianist and host of the Boston show “From the Top,” a National Public Radio program devoted to showcasing young classical musicians, concludes his three-year appointment as the first LSU College of Music & Dramatic Arts James M. Syler Distinguished Visiting Artist this month.

O’Riley performed a farewell recital featuring J.S. Bach’s “Goldberg Variations” at LSU Monday. He played a recital in Lake Charles the Saturday before and this Saturday he’ll perform another recital in Natchitoches.

Despite the vivid performances conductor Timothy Muffitt and the orchestra performed of Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Spanish Capriccio” and Maurice Ravel’s orchestration of Modest Musorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition,” O’Riley’s appearance as soloist for Serge Rachmaninoff’s finger-twisting Piano Concerto No. 1 in F-sharp minor inevitably topped the evening.

It was fitting that O’Riley, a musician identified with young musicians, performed the Russian pianist-composer’s first piano concerto. Rachmaninoff composed the piece when he was 18 years old and still a conservatory student. The composer later revised the work extensively, but the concerto’s youthful fire and daring remained intact.

As fine a composer in the Romantic tradition as the concerto shows Rachmaninoff was, later in life he was best known as a piano virtuoso. The formidable torrents of notes and ringing chords O’Riley played during his performance of the work’s two outer movements provided all the evidence necessary to know that the concerto’s composer was a great pianist with brilliant technique.

Horns and O’Riley’s descending piano chords announce the concerto in dramatic style. Muffitt and the orchestra took up the beautifully tragic first theme.

Despite Rachmaninoff being both the work’s composer and its obvious choice of soloist, he didn’t slight the orchestra. He gave the ensemble demanding, swoon-inducing parts to play. Meanwhile, O’Riley continuously displayed otherworldly swiftness, perhaps too swift for normal ears to fully grasp.

The concerto’s first movement contains a massive cadenza. Muffitt and the symphony players took a break as O’Riley transformed the piano into a dazzling, loud, one-instrument orchestra. His left hand produced visual as well as musical impact, ranging broadly over the keyboard, for instance, banging out ringing, bell-like chords.

Refuge from the fire and action of the concerto’s opening movement was found in the dreamy second movement, elegant, transporting music played with style and substance by the soloist.

Although there’s room reserved for more dreaminess in the concerto’s finale, the racing locomotive Rachmaninoff set in motion with the work’s opening movement reaches an insanely busy state in the allegro vivace finale. O’Riley, a classical musician also known for his transcriptions of songs by British rock band Radiohead, and the orchestra performed with as much fury and frenzy as any rock band, producing edge-of-your seat entertainment.

All-Russian program though Thursday’s concert was, it also contained Spanish and French accents. The orchestra’s engaging rendition of Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Spanish Capriccio” contained quintessentially Spanish melodies and rhythms. The conductor and musicians also fully exploited Ravel’s brilliant arrangement of Musorgsky’s suite for piano, “Pictures at an Exhibition.” Once again, the piece proved a rich and colorful showcase for the entire ensemble.