Meet “young musicians who will knock your socks off” (NBC’s Today) when From the Top, the preeminent showcase for young musicians heard weekly on WCRB 99.5, tapes its NPR radio show at Jordan Hall on Sunday, October 5th. This session of the popular program hosted by pianist Christopher O’Riley will mark the beginning of its 15th season. For tickets and information, click here or call 617-437-0707 x 128. From the Top may be heard locally on WCRB on Sundays at 7 pm; this episode will air nationally the week of November 17th.
Featured on the show will be 12-year-old violinist Maria Lakisova from Vernon Hills Illinois, a student at Midwest Young Artists, and 17-year-old pianist Yun-Chih Hsu from New York, a student at the Juilliard Pre-College Division. Also featured will be the Snitzer String Quartet from the Settlement Music School in Philadelphia, comprising violinist Carolyn Semes, violinist Beatrice Hsieh, violist Joseph Burke, and cellist Zachary Mowitz.
BMInt recent had a pleasant conversation with host O’Riley:
LE: You have been one of the great popularizers of classical music among the young, through your charisma you have added immeasurably to the cool factor of mastering an instrument, and you have introduced us to hundreds of bright-eyed talented kids over the 15-year broadcast history of From the Top. What can you tell us about the demographics of who’s listening to your over 250 outlets? Are you making classical music converts or just playing to the congregation?
CO: Well, I’d like to think we are making new converts, actually we’re not doing it but the kids themselves are doing it. The whole idea of having kids not only playing on the radio but sharing their stories and letting the uninitiated classical music audience know that these kids are not just nose to the grindstone, they have full and fun kid lives, and part of their life stories as presented surely resonate with people who may or may not be familiar with the music. And so they get to know our performers throughout their personalities and their stories and in doing so they think, Oh, I have a lot in common with this kid, I’m going to give this music a chance. So I think we are doing a lot of good work as far as that’s concerned. But also we’re the brass ring, we’ve now had kids who played on the show who really were just dreaming about being on it when they first listened 10 or even 15 years ago. We’ve become sort of an arena unto ourselves as well as being at the vanguard of integrally building audiences of new classical music.
Does Nielsen tell you something about the listeners? Is it mostly the families and friends or is it general audiences? Is there any way of knowing that?
I’m not really familiar with the breakdown of our listenership. I can speak only anecdotally. We’ve had friends in Seattle walk into an auto parts store and a couple of guys with trucker hats behind the counter and our show is on the radio. And they approach the counter and say, Gosh, you guys like classical music? And they said, Oh, that’s not classical music, that’s From the Top. So there is something to be said for the kind of blind dial-shuffling that leads them to enjoy our type of interaction with the kids. I’m a bit more apt to take those stories to heart rather than breakdown of listenership by area or age.
Well, 250 outlets is pretty good. In the old days when there were an NBC and a CBS Symphony Orchestra, there were more people listening, but for this era that’s pretty good. How many of the shows are live?
We tape all of our shows in front of a live audience. But none of them are actually broadcast live. Having the audience makes it a more spontaneous situation.
Is it spontaneous or are your interviews at all scripted?
We spend an enormous amount of time getting to know these kids, so we’re not making generic questions to address all comers. Based on about 40 pages of transcriptions of phone conversations, we just find what the main points are that we’re going to cover and how that should be covered and whether that should be an interview from my end or whether we should let them do an audio postcard following themselves around with a microphone as they go to a competition or a swim meet and talking to their coach or whatever is really most illuminating. We address that and how the interview or the profile is going to be positioned as well as the questions. We take great pains to make sure the kids are very comfortable being interviewed and performing live on radio. We have a full dress rehearsal with performances and interviews because I can’t really recall an interview that I’ve ever done where I didn’t think, Gee, I could’ve asked that question more succinctly. It does get them into a rhythm, but it doesn’t get stultifyingly boring by any means; there are still surprises that come up during the course of the show.
How many of the kids do you keep in touch with? Do you expect all of the kids to have a career in music, and how many actually have them?
We stay in touch with all of our kids to the point where we do at least two special “Where Are They Now?” shows each year. Those are usually sort of fundraising shows, membership drives and things like that. We’ll have their original performances and brand-new interviews. That can be following our tuba player who played Flight of the Bumblebee in a bumblebee costume and finding her as the principal in the Philadelphia Orchestra, to a pianist we weren’t sure would end up playing piano or violin—she played both adeptly and the gagline was asking where her true passions lay and she answered nanobiology. She is now a fully funded researcher at Harvard. There are all kinds of paths we can take. Music will have been a primary part of their life whether they choose to make a career of it or not. Virtually every kid who decides they want to have a career in music makes a career in music. Those who move on to other things do it with the same passion and dedication that they address their music with.
It’s good they can find jobs, because one does hear that when a position opens up at a major orchestra, a thousand applicants may apply, and the problem is not that we’re not turning out enough kids who can play brilliantly in this area but that we’re not creating general audiences to listen to them.
In addition to the show we do a fair amount of artistic leadership brainstorming. All the kids get together after the show and talk about how they can best bring music into their community and how they can use their music to bring consciousness to natural disasters, like doing a benefit concert. Kids are trying to find ways to make music an integral part of their community. Also they realize as musicians and as personalities they can do good work by making their personalities an integral and important part of their musical and social community. So that goes a long way toward not just putting out really great players but putting out musicians who realize that their personality, and how they present themselves and interact with the community, are as important as their ability to play fast octaves. They’re not waiting around for some semipro manager to come and make a career for them. They’re making a career for themselves. They’re making opportunities, and that’s the most important distinction of our From the Top generation of young musicians and how they address the future.
At the start, was it exclusively at Jordan Hall?
It was never exclusively at Jordan Hall. We’ve normally done a few performances a year there, but we normally tape about 18 new shows a year, and most are on the road now. It was actually a good thing that we got out of Jordan Hall or it became not the mainstay of our season, because people would say, Oh, the show’s on again, I should really go; oh well, I’ll go to the next one. With help from people like Hilary Hahn and Yo-Yo Ma, we had more than a few soldout shows over the years, so people are now a little more loyal to the live experience. By and large we do most of our work on the road, and very happily.
What is there to expect at Jordan Hall on October 5th?
We’ve got a nice lineup of kids, a couple of them local. At least one of them will be a recipient of one of our Jack Kent Cooke Young Artist scholarships. We give out 25 $10,000 scholarships each year thanks to that foundation to deserving and talented kids.
And what do you do to keep so young and enthusiastic?
The kids have a great effect on everybody they play for. And I, being the first who gets to play with them often enough, am selfishly happy for the experience of interacting with musicians at such a high level and putting myself at their service. I find myself dancing with five different partners each show, and that helps me in my own work. I know I have my own little idiosyncrasies to fall back on, and so, being open to the experience of playing, I tell them they should play exactly as they want. And then I try and mold my playing to theirs. I gain a lot from it, the sense of rubato and musicianship, it all gets used. I’m still learning and I enjoy that a great deal.
Has this led at all to your playing in clubs and unconventional venues?
Part of what made me an ideal host was that these kids themselves were not cloistered either—they were always listening to other types of music, and so they weren’t going to get any stern judgment on my part about what they listened to in their downtime or if they try and play their own instruments in their downtime or how they end up using those types of music in how they build their own personality and repertoire. So I think it was helpful. I certainly had a more welcoming attitude from the young musicians than I’ve had from general establishment or the classical music industry.
You’re doing great work. Congratulations on your 15th anniversary.