Pianist and arranger Christopher O'Riley grew up in Evanston, Illinois. Beginning with a background in jazz, he switched to classical piano and studied with Russell Sherman at the New England Conservatory of Music, receiving an Artists Diploma in 1981. He has received awards at the Leeds, Van Cliburn, Busoni and Montreal competitions, as well as an Avery Fisher Career Grant and the Andrew Wolf Memorial Chamber Music Prize.
O'Riley's singularly broad repertoire ranges from music of the English Renaissance and French Baroque periods to the new works of today's leading composers to such non-classical forms as the tango. He also plays many of his own arrangements and transcriptions. His performing schedule regularly takes him to major cities throughout American and has been highlighted by frequent engagements at both Lincoln Center and the Kennedy Center. Internationally, he has appeared in cultural capitals worldwide from London, Paris and Vienna to Hong Kong and Melbourne, Australia.
O'Riley's recordings also reflect the originality of his programming, and he has made many recordings of classical music. His debut album, a collection of the works of Ferruccio Busoni, including the seldom performed Fantasia Contrappuntistica, was released in 1983. Among his highly acclaimed solo releases are a Scriabin disc for Image Recordings and an all–Igor Stravinsky disc on Elektra Nonesuch, featuring Three Movements from Petrouchka and O'Riley's own transcriptions of Apollo and Histoire du Soldat. He is also heard on a recent RCA Victor Red Seal release of French repertoire for flute and piano with James Galway. His discography is further highlighted by a disc of Maurice Ravel's solo works, a recording of L.v. Beethoven Piano Sonatas, a collaboration with cellist Carter Brey titled Le Grand Tango and the premiere recording of The Short-Tempered Clavier by the fabled composer P.D.Q. Bach. He has also recorded works of Maurice Ravel, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Jean-Philippe Rameau, John Adams, and Alexander Scriabin, as well as a recording of Rhapsody in Blue with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.
An enthusiastic advocate of new music, Christopher O'Riley has twice participated in the annual "Absolut Concerto" concerts at Avery Fisher Hall, premiering works of Richard Danielpour and Michael Torke. In 1999-2000 he performed Michael Daugherty's Le Tombeau de Liberace with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and with the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, both in St. Paul and on tour. He has also recently given premieres of works by Aaron Jay Kernis, including his piano quartet, Still Movement with Hymn, (also recorded for Decca's Argo label) and the Superstar Etude No. 1, inspired by the pianism of Jerry Lee Lewis. O'Riley's other recordings include an Albany release of pieces by John Adams, Robert Helps, Todd Brief and Roger Sessions, and a disc of solo and chamber works by Danielpour for Koch International.
Christopher O'Riley is the host of the weekly National Public Radio (NPR) program From the Top, on which young musicians are heard and interviewed. According to its website, it is the most popular classical music show on the air today. O'Riley first began performing Radiohead songs as a time-filler during a break in the program, to supplement preludes and miniatures by composers such as Debussy and S. Rachmaninov. Many of those short classical pieces are found on his CD release At the Break. True Love Waits: Christopher O'Riley Plays Radiohead, his recording of his own piano arrangements of songs by the experimental rock band, was released in 2003. O'Riley's second Radiohead-derived album, Hold Me To This, followed two years later and contains a different selection of songs. Both albums had moderate success on the classical crossover charts. In 2006, he released a piano tribute to Elliott Smith, Home to Oblivion, again featuring his own arrangements.
Christopher O'Riley claims his renditions have introduced the music of Radiohead to an ignorant classical audience as well as introducing classical music to a wider or younger audience, as he sometimes performs both standard concert repertoire, such as Dmitri Shostakovich or Mozart, and Radiohead, Elliott Smith or Nick Drake interpretations at the same concert. O'Riley describes himself as an obsessed Radiohead fan in interviews, and says he was attracted to the multilayered nature of the band's music, leading him to listen and transcribe lesser known album tracks, live bootleg recordings of performances, b-sides, and even songs never officially released, as well as some of their hit singles. In his liner notes for Home to Oblivion, he calls Elliott Smith "the most important songwriter since Cole Porter," although admitting he was unaware of Smith's music until his apparent suicide in 2003. When asked to explain his unusual choice of material for a classical pianist, O'Riley has often quoted Duke Ellington's statement that "there are two kinds of music. Good music, and the other kind."