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From the Top Brings Young Talent to Carnegie Hall & TV Series
By Emily Sherwood, Ph.D.

On a crisp fall day in New York, Krista, Madeline and Jimmy—three high school students from Wisconsin—are practicing a Dvorak string quintet in Carnegie Hall with concert violinist Joshua Bell and classical pianist Christopher O’Riley. The lively strains of the “Scherzo” movement spill out into Zankel Hall. Bell, who himself debuted in Carnegie Hall at the age of 18, insists on sitting closer to his adolescent accompanists: “We’re a quintet, right?” he questions Director Don Mischer rhetorically.

These and other young amateur musicians, Bell and O’Riley are all part of an exciting new collaboration between WGBH Boston, widely acclaimed as America’s preeminent public broadcasting producer, and From the Top, a multi-media organization that encourages and celebrates the development of youth through music. Since 2000, From the Top has run a weekly radio program that airs on 250 NPR-affiliated radio stations around the country and showcases America’s top young classical musicians, some of whom are not even out of elementary school. With the entry of WGBH, From the Top: Live from Carnegie Hall will premiere for the PBS television market in early 2007; thirteen half-hour shows are planned for Season One, with guest artists Dawn Upshaw and Bela Fleck joining Bell as guest artists on the shows.

The brainchild of executive producer Gerald Slavet, who became a music connoisseur when his own daughter toured with the New England Conservatory’s highly selective Youth Philharmonic Orchestra (NEC is a co-founder and educational partner of From the Top’s weekly radio program, which broadcasts out of Jordan Hall in Boston), From the Top seeks to help musically talented kids achieve the recognition they deserve. “These young musicians need to be elevated and respected the way we elevate and respect our athletes,” explains Slavet. “We make heroes of our athletes in this country. If you’re a star of your town soccer team at age 12, you’re already a superhero in your community. We should be doing the same thing for our artists.”

Young musicians across the country are encouraged to send audition tapes to From the Top, and those who make the grade go through extensive interviews before ultimately appearing in front of live audiences during their taping for both radio and TV. Christopher O’Riley, host of From the Top since the radio show began in 2000, will host the TV series as well. Dressed in a snappy blue blazer and striped tie, O’Riley joins the students after they perform for a bit of lively banter about the craft of music, effecting a kind of offbeat zaniness as counterpoint to the brilliant musical showmanship of the young performers.
Today, O’Riley teases thirteen-year-old Timothy Callobre from Pasadena, California, who has just played the haunting classical guitar song, “Sevilla” by Isaac Albeniz. “Show the audience your fingernails, Timothy,” O’Riley says ominously, with a look of mock terror on his face. “How are you ever going to get a date with those fingernails?” Timothy, noting that fingernails are very important for classical guitar, tells the audience that he applies fake fingernails to keep his guitar strumming at its peak. With quiet pride, he talks about his quirky hobby of collecting “odd things”—a rock that looks like an eyeball, a flyswatter that looks like a guitar, and bobble head dolls in the likenesses of Bach, Beethoven and even Joshua Bell. The dolls sit on the piano with heads shaking as the ivories are struck. Sums up Slavet: “The basic formula is this: we meet with these kids, we speak with them as kids…and we present material in a way that doesn’t intimidate people…We present these kids as regular kids, and we do it to give kids national attention, so their schools can be proud of them appearing on national radio or TV, much as they would be proud of a kid playing in a national basketball tournament.”

In addition to showcasing the prodigious talents of America’s top young musicians, From the Top—which is a 501c3 nonprofit organization—is committed to helping out those with financial needs. With funding from the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, 25 qualified From the Top performers receive a $10,000 scholarship each year. Of these, five are nominated to be Jack Kent Cooke scholars, ensuring that all of their educational expenses through graduate school are reimbursed.

Back in Zankel Hall, Joshua Bell is discussing summer music camps with O’Riley and his three young accompanists from Wisconsin. Jimmy, the cellist, talks about mandatory five-hour practices at his camp, but adds, “It went by really fast.” Bell tells the young musicians that his mentor and teacher, Josef Gingold, always encouraged him to lead a normal kid’s life. “I was a competitive tennis player at age 10, and I also played basketball,” he reflects. Then he adds, almost with a sense of wonderment, “But then I started touring at the age of 16 or 17, so I guess it wasn’t that normal!”#



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