Classical musicians have on occasion used rock as a musical facelift, turning to pop songs to spiff up the canon’s dowdy images. Rockers have repaid the compliment on the assumption that strings and horns made them seem smarter. The results often have strained seriousness — the innumerable Beatles-with-strings records, 1975’s leaden orchestral version of the Who’s “Tommy,” Emerson, Lake & Palmer’s “Works, Vol. 1” and just about any rock band recorded with the London Symphony Orchestra.
Pianist Christopher O’Riley has bucked the trend with his critically and commercially acclaimed albums of Radiohead songs, 2003’s “True Love Waits” (Sony Classical) and this year’s “Hold Me to This” (World Village/Harmonia Mundi). They’ve been so successful, he’s branched out, writing piano arrangements of songs by the late singer-songwriter Elliott Smith, which received their West Coast premiere at Royce Hall Thursday night.
For O’Riley, the Smith project is a labor of love. Introducing the songs, he speaks with great feeling about the first time he saw Smith perform, and he chooses the program with a fan’s eye, unearthing obscure B-sides and “Not Half Right,” a song by Smith’s early band, Heatmiser.
But O’Riley is apparently still shocked by Smith’s 2003 suicide: Too many of the songs are played as elegies, turning the Smith set monochromatic. The Beatlesesque melodies of “Between the Bars,” “Cupid’s Trick” and “Independence Day” are buried under his left hand’s repeated arpeggios; an overused sustain pedal adds a squishy bathos.
The biggest problem may just be Smith’s limitations as a writer and recording artist. While his songs are suffused with an uneasy, if beautiful melancholy, his arrangements are relatively straightforward. O’Riley’s versions of “Stupidity Tries” and “Everything Means Nothing to Me” keep things simple and are the set’s highlights; on “I Didn’t Understand,” he plays big chords and octaves to mimic Smith’s multitracked vocals, but instead of achieving Smith’s sad delicacy, they turn bombastic.
The Radiohead songs played after the intermission more easily lend themselves to classical reinterpretation. The band’s Jonny Greenwood knows his 20th-century composers, and Radiohead’s architectural arrangements comfortably transfer to the piano.
“Sail to the Moon” leans toward Satie and Messiaen, so it’s not such a leap to O’Riley’s pensive version, while on the stomping “2+2=5” he attacks the piano with the fury of “Blue” Gene Tyranny and LaMonte Young. They work because they don’t simply substitute a piano or string section for electric guitars or conversely graft rock dynamics onto high-art seriousness, but genuinely find common ground between two musical worlds.