Making classical music cool 

In the five years that National Public Radio’s From The Top has been on the air, the spellbinding weekly program has featured close to 1,000 talented youngsters from across the U.S.

A good-natured variety show in the spirit of broadcasting’s Golden Age, From The Top focuses solely on the best and brightest classical musicians not yet old enough to attend college.

Hosted by the renowned concert pianist Christopher O’Riley, it’s heard regularly by over a half million people on nearly 250 stations coast to coast, most of which are NPR affiliates, but some of which are – surprisingly – commercial outlets.

A truly unique effort, it’s hard to overestimate the impact this quirky, forward-thinking series (the most popular classically-themed show in NPR’s history) has had on the lives of young Americans.

“We want to celebrate excellence,” says executive producer Gerald Slavet.

And that is quite literally what the show does. Unlike most teen and pre-teen classical showcases, there is no element of competition to From The Top (save the inherent selection process required to land an invitation to appear). Additionally, the lucky participants are not only encouraged, but expected to share personal information about their interests and pursuits outside of their chosen instrument, and their hopes and desires for the future.

It’s that pervasive sense of optimism and encouragement that lies at the core of the program’s appeal, says O’Riley.

“To me, the hope that radiates off the show is the feeling you get from listening to the kids on our show talk and play. It just helps you to feel that the next generation of American young people is not going to hell in a handbasket.Yes, it’s about classical music, but it’s a variety show, really.”

And, much like the kids they feature, O’Riley and company are striving for bigger and better things as well. This radio show is merely the tip of the iceberg for their non-profit organization, which has used the show’s crossover success to promote music education.

For example, there’s a state-of-the-art website (www.fromthetop.org) which serves as a central meeting place for young musicians and their families. Additionally, Macmillan/McGraw-Hill, the elementary school publishing house, has partnered with the organization to spotlight over three dozen players, aged 9-18 in its series of textbooks and companion audio CDs.

The fact that this intelligent, respectful, and irreverent program has succeeded wildly at bringing young people to the world of fine art music is astounding. It’s accomplishing a goal most school band and orchestra teachers would tell you was virtually impossible.

It’s making classical music cool.

More than that, it’s giving kids who are drawn to classical music on their own a license to feel good about themselves. Much of the credit for that can be given to the forty-seven-year-old O’Riley, who – as ringmaster, host, straight man and occasional accompanyist – could be seen as a wry cross between Conan O’Brien and Marian McPartland. It is he who embodies the heart and soul of the program.

He’s well-spoken, extremely talented, always quick with a joke or sly comment, and in general, comes off as much more down-to-earth and hip than most of the adults these young performers assumably deal with on a regular basis. After all, it’s not every high school music teacher who can truthfully say he’s made a hit album, or hung with rock stars.

We spoke with the pianist at length about the role his show plays on the future of American music, and his own unexpected breakthrough success as an interpreter of popular music.

Connect Savannah: Earlier in your career, could you have ever foreseen doing something like this?

Christopher O’Riley: A show like ours should have happened a long time ago. It was probably knocking around in the subconscious of every music student who’d slaved away for hours on end without recognition or a sense of community. Based on that, I’d say that it was an idea that was out there for ages, and I’m glad that we were the ones who got a chance to do it.

Connect Savannah: Is the show on track for where you all hoped it would be, or has it grown quicker than you imagined?

Christopher O’Riley: The show has become the tail wagging the dog at this point. It does very well on its own, but we’re very proud of our educational programs that have been spawned from the radio show. Now, they’re larger scale and more directly beneficial than show in itself. Our outreach is amazing. It gets instruments into the hands of kids who can’t afford them.

Connect Savannah: Do you think those who listen to the show are aware of all the services your organization provides?

Christopher O’Riley: We’re much more anxious to have the off-the-street listener enjoy it for pure entertainment value. Not that we’ve ever sold the music short – but I feel a big reason that classical music has suffered so gravely from audience attrition is because a lot of people are put off by it. They’re discomfited, and don’t feel at home in that audience. I think we’ve done a lot to make people feel included. If we’ve entertained them, we certainly haven’t done it by pandering. As far as the show goes, we’re only concerned with presenting the kids in the best light.

Connect Savannah: It’s so refreshing to hear classical music presented without all the rarified air it’s often accompanied by.

Christopher O’Riley: Well, we work at relaxing things. There’s a lot of whooping and hollering at our shows. You won’t hear that at the Cleveland Orchestra...

Connect Savannah: Or if you do, those people are probably asked to leave.

Christopher O’Riley: (laughs) Exactly! I think there’s something to be said for honest reactions being elicited.

Connect Savannah: Are you comfortable in your role as host of the show?

Christopher O’Riley: Yeah. I like it. I’m inspired by the kids that I play with. It’s become the biggest part of the collaborative work in my career. And, it’s much more exciting than playing with a lot of chamber musicians my age, who have sort of run out of gas in terms of playing standards. I prefer it, actually. In fact, we did a music festival on Hilton Head last year, and it went so well, they’ve asked us to come back and do it again around the first of May. They asked me who I would invite to play, and I told them most of the people I’m excited to play with these days are eighteen and nineteen. So, they’re all From The Top alums. It’s not affiliated with the show, but it just so happens that I have a large group of colleagues that I’ve wanted to play with again. I also thought the audience would be excited to see these young musicians up close.

Connect Savannah: You seem to maintain a great rapport with these kids. Is it hard to keep up with their interests, or do you follow pop culture?

Christopher O’Riley: I tend to be somewhat of a pop culture maven, but only with things which interest me. A lot of the stuff you just can’t help but be aware of. I don’t live in an ivory tower, but I don’t make it a hobby to keep up with youth trends.

Connect Savannah: What do peers in your age group think of your work ?

Christopher O’Riley: They’re very impressed. God, even those of us in the “A-list classical music world” can’t point a finger at these kids and say we were doing anything nearly as good at that age.

Connect Savannah: Why is that?

Christopher O’Riley: Well, a lot of the kids on the show are very driven, but it’s not like that’s all they do. That’s what makes them so personable, and – in the end – what makes them better musicians. They have broader life experiences to draw on.

Connect Savannah: Can you tell if your show’s success has begun to influence and shape From The Top’s talent pool?

Christopher O’Riley: I think they’re more willing to be open with their personalities, because they know that even if we’re making fun, we’re doing it in a kind way. If they have something they feel passionate or enthusiastic about, they don’t ever have to feel sheepish or embarrassed to tell us about it. Now, kids see this as an outlet. It’s within their sights, and it’s not like going to a competition, it’s going on national radio. It’s really cool.

Connect Savannah: Young classical musicians are often pressured to compartmentalize their music. Your show seems to delight in breaking down that barrier, presenting them as skateboarders or wrestlers, or what have you. That has to be very freeing for some of these kids.

Christopher O’Riley: Absolutely! And a lot of them used to be frightened to even admit to the kind of music they listened to in their off hours. We’ve made it possible to feel good about that. Plus, we’re proving that it’s not necessary to practice classical music at the expense of the rest of your life. It can just be one of many things that you feel you can’t live without.

Connect Savannah: Describe auditions.

Christopher O’Riley: Sometimes kids think that since we’re taping in Savannah and they live in Macon that they’ll try out for that show. Well, that’s not the case. You just try out, and if you make it, then you make it no matter where we are. We’ll fly you wherever you need to go.

Connect Savannah: And rehearsals?

Christopher O’Riley:ýThey’re fairly intense and very quick. The night before the show we have a pizza party and get to know each other. We rehearse a few times and try to get it right. That’s something I sort of insist on. Then the day of the show we do an entire dress rehearsal with the talking as well. We tape a lot of that, just in case we need it for backup. Then we do it again in front of an audience.

Connect Savannah: Tell me about your classical arrangements of Radiohead songs. What inspired you to tackle that?

Christopher O’Riley: I just have been listening them rather obsessively since 1997. I ran out of break pieces on the show and thought it was a nice way to play something I personally believe in – which may not be considered classical music. But, we got this amazing reaction from the home audience. They would write letters saying, “Who is this Mr. Head, and where can I find more of his beautiful music?” (laughs) So, I knew I was on the right track. The new CD comes out April 12.

Connect Savannah: How long did it take you to retool the songs?

Christopher O’Riley: I’m still doing them. I haven’t run out of their songs, and each one I do gives me new ideas, so I may start revising ones I’ve already done. I don’t play them that often, but they’re constantly evolving.

Connect Savannah: And the response?

Christopher O’Riley: Oh, it was big time. It got four stars in Rolling Stone, which is probably the only time that’s ever happened to a classical record.

Connect Savannah: Did you ever find out if Radiohead heard the album?

Christopher O’Riley: I finally met Thom Yorke and Colin Greenwood from the band last October. I introduced myself, and Colin said, “We’re so excited about what you’re doing.” Those were the first words out of his mouth. Thom and I chatted for a very long time about his music. It was really quite amazing.

Connect Savannah: Where was this?

Christopher O’Riley: Backstage at Madison Square Garden. Their opener canceled, and there was talk that I might play. But after a lot of deliberation, they settled on a band they had used before.

Connect Savannah: That’s still very cool.

Christopher O’Riley: It was unbelievable. The greatest night of my life, quite frankly.

As part of the 2005 Savannah Music Festival, From The Top will be taped live at 3 pm, March 26t at The Lucas Theater. Tickets available at the Trustees Theater box office (525-5050) or online at www.savannahmusicfestival.org.

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