March 25, 2012
Halfway through a piano recital the great American composer and pianist gave on Friday night as part of San Francisco's venerable Old First Concerts series, he mumbled: "After intermission, I'm going to try to play the organ a little bit."
When we all returned to our seats and Riley reappeared on stage, the grand piano had been pushed to the side and the composer all but disappeared behind the wooden partition that housed the church's organ. All the audience could see of Riley was the very top of his colorful skullcap.
Riley had given the audience plenty to look at as well as listen to during the first half of the concert which he delivered at the piano. At one point, the Gandalf-like composer, who isn't given to wearing formal concert attire as you can see from the above picture, sang an Asian-inflected mantra in a gravelly baritone. At another, in the middle of one of his pieces, he dropped the battery pack of his radio mike on the ground. It whacked the wooden floor with a thunk.
But during the the second half of the concert, there were no visual distractions to get in the way of being completely immersed in Riley's miraculous organ music.
The composer turns out to be a latter-day Kapellmeister. During his spiraling, almost-hour-long, untitled spree on the instrument, Riley managed to draw out a multitude of textures and colors. Velvety, sotto voce melodies gave way to great striding baseline ostinati; effervescent scales became portentous cluster chords; night and day and all four seasons and every possible weather pattern were packed into that hour. It was quite an emotional journey.
Riley is known more as a composer and performer of pieces for the piano and electric organ. His name doesn't instantly come to mind when thinking of contemporary composers who write for the church organ. He recently performed on the organ at Disney Hall in LA. I wish I could have been there to experience it.
I would go a long way to see that colorful skull cap poking out from an organ loft again.