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Riopy - Old Town School of Folk Music, Chicago, 11/6/2023

  by Lisa Torem

published: 30 / 8 / 2023

Riopy - Old Town School of Folk Music, Chicago, 11/6/2023

‘How powerful is the mind over matter? Close your eyes and I’ll do the rest,’ Riopy stated. Later down the line, he performed ‘I Love You’ (from his debut) on the gleaming, black baby grand. For his first Chicago outing on a seasonably warm Sunday night, the expressive French pianist, born Jean-Philippe Rio-Py,’ gave us more than we bargained for by expressing an unexpected vulnerability throughout his entire set. Riopy is, largely, a self-taught musician. His compositions spell freedom. They are not colored or governed by some theoretician’s rigid rules. He served up an inspirational set of “sequences” -- he balks at the thought of calling a composition a “piece,” proclaiming, ‘A piece of something? Like DNA stuff getting together?’ and emphasized that, to him, the word ‘track’ invariably brings to mind a ‘track suit.’ More to the point, he intrepidly shared his struggle for professional and emotional self-acceptance. Riopy’s rise to fame has, at times, been riddled with trauma. After a severe bout of depression, he magically became his old self again, he explained softly, but with heart. For a lengthy time, he put his music aside. But one day, a friend mentioned that, in his place of residence, there was a room with a piano. Out of the wild blue darkness, he plucked a string and rejuvenated his soul. He has kept playing since. In February 2023, he toured major cities in the UK for the first time to critical acclaim. Last year in January, ‘Tree of Light,’ the follow-up to his 2018 self-titled album reached No. 1 on the US Billboard Classical Album Chart, and held the Top 10 spot for 70 weeks. Riopy refers to the album as “a wakeup call,” a plea to spread kindness among each other in order to “save the planet.” Contemporaries are taking notice. Singer Lana Del Ray borrowed ‘Flow’ from that project for her own 2023 album. Riopy’s album is flush with emotional highs, but to experience his acute sensitive and artistic persona, you must hear him live. For on this 2023 tour, he curated a thriving community; he encouraged us to come together as a group and to intimately interact. In some cases, he achieved that goal by dividing us into groups. Once assigned, we obliged by humming and holding a specific tone as he played. By helping him build up his personal stock of stories, we became a ‘hive mind,’ an integral part of his compositions. He even checked back in with us to be sure we (excuse the pun) knew the score: ‘Did it feel like one big voice?’ In other cases, he presented a curious prompt: “Think of someone you like to take with you.” To that end, Riopy not only entertained us, but gave us significant purpose. “When you create music, you are looking for something,” he acknowledged. Before ‘The Rockefeller Room,’ where he slid fingers up and down and on top of actual piano strings, creating a dampening effect, and a turbulent counterpart on the actual piano keyboard, he talked about what performance has meant to him. ‘You could have heard me for free,” he joked, referring to the leaner times. Then, he leaned toward the inside of the instrument and played the note which dissolved the maddening black dog, and miraculously whirled him into a euphoric state. Riopy entertained us with a spectrum of ideas. He is prone to creating strong melodies and billowy chords. He plays with pride, the occasional fugue. He sounded his left-hand arpeggios with great tenderness, and at times, subbed them out for a booming bassline. His right-hand work throbs with intensity, especially when he keeps up form, but adds a pretty grace note. For ‘The First Waltz,’ he emboldened the poignant melody and created an echo, using the “pedal point” effect. Both right- and left-hand parts were parallel in strength. For ‘Ukiyo,’ he relied on intrepid right-hand octaves, harmonic extensions and an elaborate mid-section. Through glimmering, Latin-style riffs, he illustrates global awareness. And as for architecture, Riopy can switch from a dark recapitulation, a succession of rising, galloping tones, and a sobering call and response to a cheerful carnival of sound within a solitary sequence. For his encore, he played the passionate, improvisational ‘Drive’ from his first album, which he built up in speed as the melody progressed to a furious climax. Hearing Riopy zip his main melodic line up and down the upper-range of the keyboard was a thrill, but he also traveled joyfully through the lower end. It seemed to be a tribute to ‘’l’amour fou’ or crazy love, an audience member noted. For a last-minute, second encore, Riopy performed an early audience shout-out ‘New York.’ This haunting, yet playful lullaby reeled us in through casual leaps and a finely manicured melody. What Riopy shared with us, sonically and empathically, brought us closer to his unique composer mind. ‘I play music out of necessity, not as a passion,’ he divulged. This candid statement reflects a distinctive “show,” not “tell” sensibility that many artists strive for, but rarely achieve.

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Riopy - Old Town School of Folk Music, Chicago, 11/6/2023

Riopy - Old Town School of Folk Music, Chicago, 11/6/2023

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