- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 15, 2006

When a musician is a die-hard fan of a rock band, it’s not uncommon for him to pay tribute to his idol’s tunes — unless, of course, he’s a classically trained pianist whose previous recordings include works by Ravel and Beethoven.

But Christopher O’Riley (who appears Sunday at the Kennedy Center at 8 p.m.) isn’t your typical concert pianist. And his transcriptions of works by his favorite group, Radiohead, have cracked open the realm of classical music for atypical listeners.

His experiment began nearly a decade ago when, after having already established himself as an interpreter of a highly varied repertoire, he stumbled onto some news articles about the latest Radiohead album.

“The things people were writing about ‘OK Computer’ led me to believe it might be something interesting,” Mr. O’Riley recalls. “So, I picked [the disc] up, and it was an epiphany. I got all the Radiohead I could get my hands on from that point on.”

At the time, the artist was hosting a weekly public radio show (and still does) called “From the Top,” which showcases young musical phenoms. Mr. O’Riley would perform solos during the breaks. “Once I ran out of Chopin and Bach pieces,” he explains, “I started doing these Radiohead arrangements I’d done. The station got all kinds of letters saying things like, ‘Who is this Mr. Head and where can I find his recordings?’ ”

After word of mouth (and Radiohead fan sites) ignited the demand for his unique renderings, Mr. O’Riley recorded his first album of Radiohead transcriptions, “True Love Waits,” in 2003, and after its success, soon followed up with “Hold Me To This” in 2005.

Unlike lesser rock adaptations, Mr. O’Riley’s work has effectively translated the band’s lush, orchestral ballads into richly textured flurries of notes that simultaneously explore aural landscapes in a new way and stay true to the original songs — from the ominous “Everything in its Right Place” to the jubilant “Fake Plastic Trees.”

On Sunday, audiences will hear samples of his Radiohead sketches, as well as those from the musician’s most recent undertaking: a study of singer-songwriter Elliot Smith’s compositions, released this spring.

Whether concertgoers are familiar with Radiohead or classical piano — or neither — isn’t important. For the pianist, the key is that they understand the Duke Ellington adage he lives by: “There are two kinds of music. Good music, and the other kind.”

Stolen thunder

While listening to the music of local chanteuse Laura Burhenn (appearing Monday at DC9), one easily discerns many diverse influences, ranging from Nina Simone to PJ Harvey and Tori Amos. For the most part, the singer-songwriter is happy to discuss the many artists who’ve shaped her sound.

Just don’t ask her if Fiona Apple is one of them.

“[Miss Apple] came out around when I was a senior in high school,” says Miss Burhenn, “and I was so upset; She stole my plan.”

Miss Burhenn’s own musical formula combines nimble piano playing, throaty, blues-inflected vocals and pensive lyrics — a jazz-meets-alternative-rock pastiche that Miss Apple publicly claimed ownership of with “Tidal.”

But the wave wasn’t big enough to stop Miss Burhenn. After graduation, she started a label (Laboratory Records) and began producing her own albums, including her 2004 full-length, “Wanderlust.” On it, her velvety delivery shines so brightly that it almost wouldn’t matter what she was singing — although her poetic lines are smart and lovely, whether dissing the “[expletive] on the radio” or reminiscing about a lover.

This year, the songstress undertook a different type of project. She founded Georgie James with John Davis of the now-defunct band Q and Not U and, together, they recorded a collection of mostly upbeat pop ditties. While it’s a thicker, more rock-rooted sound for Miss Burhenn, she doesn’t get lost beneath the numerous sonic layers and vocal harmonies.

Despite the team’s success — they’ve played recent slots at the CMJ Music Marathon and on XM Satellite Radio’s XMU channel — Miss Burhenn says her “Wanderlust” will remain an integral part of her career; “I will definitely keep doing solo work,” she says. “It’s just in my blood; It’s what I do.”

In fact, it’s something she’ll do Monday night, when she’ll leave Georgie at home and reprise her earlier girl-and-piano tunes. As an added bonus, she’ll regale the crowd with stories — which “depending on the night and depending on the whiskey, can be that much more interesting,” she says with a mischievous giggle.

Miss Burhenn appears with Corinna Repp and Norfolk and Western at 9:30 p.m.

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