From the Top
Alvin Zhu's grandfather was a famous pianist and the head of the piano department at the Beijing Conservatory of Music.
This week, From the Top comes from the Chandler Music Hall in Randolph, Vermont, and features a teenage violinist from Woodstock performing the music of Fritz Kreisler, a French horn player performing Strauss, and a 16-year-old pianist from Pittsburgh who is carrying out his grandfather's musical legacy.
One could say Alvin Zhu was born to play piano. "My grandfather, Zhu Gongyi, was a famous pianist in China and the head of the piano department at the Beijing Conservatory of Music," says Zhu. "However, due to the Cultural Revolution, he was forced to lock up his piano, and none of his four children were able to learn to play. When my parents came to America, they wanted to let my generation continue the legacy of my grandfather."
Zhu's parents, while they couldn't study piano, became string players and teachers in America. "They have been incredibly supportive of me," Zhu says. He also appreciates the advice he received from one of his idols, the superstar pianist Lang Lang. Zhu had the good fortune of being able to take two private master classes with Lang Lang.
"The best tip he gave me was to show the audience how much I enjoy playing the music," says Zhu, who did just that with his energetic performance of Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody.
Seventeen-year-old Katie Jordan's musical life began at the age of five with piano lessons, but when she wanted to join the school band in the fourth grade, she realized she'd have to take up an additional instrument. She decided to try the horn because no one in band was playing one and she liked how shiny it was.
"I actually progressed faster on French horn than I did on piano." she says. "I'm glad I started with piano, though, because by the time I joined the band program I was already familiar with the fundamentals of music." Jordan plays music from Richard Strauss's first Horn Concerto.
Like Jordan, Christopher Pell, 16, already played the piano when he encountered what is now his primary instrument. Chris found success with the clarinet from the very first moment he picked it up in fourth grade.
"I noticed this instrument that was black and silver and pretty cool-looking," Pell says. With aspirations of coolness motivating him, Chris tested it out by playing an open note and, rather than squeaks, a beautiful sound came out. "The teacher had all the kids stop what they were doing and listen to me play that one note," he recalls. "Then she had everyone clap for me! From that point on, I wasn't allowed to try any other instruments. The teachers wouldn't let me." Pell plays a rondo by Carl Maria von Weber.
Dorothea Talento, 18, was inspired to play violin by her uncle, Pop Wagner, a professional musician who plays fiddle and guitar.
"When I was little, he'd dress me up like a cowboy with a big hat and boots, like he wears," she recalls. "When I was about five he gave me a tiny violin and taught me my first tune." These days Dorothea (who goes by "Thea") spends most of her time playing classical violin, but she also enjoys playing fiddle music and going to folk music concerts. She performs Tempo di Menuetto by Fritz Kreisler, accompanied by Christopher O'Riley.
Hailing from the Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestra's chamber music program, the Cerberus Trio is comprised of siblings Kevin Hu, violin, and Ophelia Hu, piano, with cellist Mira Luxion. When the group was looking for a name, Mira wanted to call the trio "Fluffy," after the three-headed dog from the Harry Potter series, but her sister suggested "Cerberus," the ancient Greek equivalent of the same character.
"We decided to go with that rather than 'Fluffy' because it was a lot classier," she says. The group plays the finale from Smetana's Trio in G minor without the aid of sheet music. "We made a decision to play this piece from memory because we really wanted to communicate with each other," says Mira. "When you're not staring at a music stand, you're able to look at each other and listen better."