'From The Top': 10 Years Of Classical Kids The radio showcase for young musicians hits its 10-year mark and celebrates by checking back with some of its most illustrious alums. They include William Harvey, who played on the pilot edition of From the Top and now heads his own organization, promoting cultural harmony through music.
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'From The Top': 10 Years Of Classical Kids

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'From The Top': 10 Years Of Classical Kids

'From The Top': 10 Years Of Classical Kids

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(Soundbite of music)

(Soundbite of applause)


Nearly a decade ago, a noble experiment was broadcast on Public Radio: "From the Top: A Showcase for Pre-College Classical Musicians."

Unidentified Woman: Live from the Chamber Music Hall at Tanglewood, it's the radio showcase for the best young classical musicians in the country, From the Top. That's our host, Christopher O'Riley at the piano.

HANSEN: Today, the program is heard by some 700,000 listeners on NPR stations. The show's host is acclaimed pianist Christopher O'Riley, who joins us from the studios of WCPN in Cleveland. Chris, congratulations on your 10th anniversary season.

CHRISTOPHER O'RILEY: Thank you, Liane. Nice to be with you.

HANSEN: What do you think accounts for the program's success?

O'RILEY: Well, I think it's the kids. You know, these are kids that we present in their own best light. They do play classical music, but they do all kinds of other things that make an uninitiated audience empathize with them instinctively. And they become the best emissaries I can imagine for classical music.

(Soundbite of clip, From The Top)

O'RILEY: I just heard you returned from a tour of Mexico and Cuba. I've never been to Cuba. I mean, what was the tour like?

Unidentified Man: It was amazing. It was a one-in-a-lifetime experience. We're the first orchestra from America to go there in a long time, especially one of the first youth orchestras.

HANSEN: You have a great rapport with every teenager, pre-college performer. I mean, I think they identify with you 'cause you've been through some of the same things that they're going through now.

O'RILEY: I think so. I try and keep out of it myself. My mom was one of the founders of WQED FM. And, of course, yeah, as you say, there are a lot of stories in my life that would tend to illuminate these new experiences that the kids are having. But, you know, as my mom says, you're the last one we want to hear from.

(Soundbite of laughter)

O'RILEY: So, I'm there as facilitator and I like to think that I give them an open door to talk about whatever they want to talk about.

(Soundbite of clip, From The Top)

Unidentified Man #2: When I was little, I just couldn't stand the piano. Felt like a job.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Unidentified Man #2: Like something I had to do - a burden. Like, my dad wanted me to play becauseā€¦

O'RILEY: We had a young gentleman, Vietnamese pianist, who really thought very seriously about quitting the piano and found that Ravel's "Jeux-d'eau" was a source of solace to him. And he kept playing the piano because this piece was so important to him.

Now, this is not a story that he could tell to his parents, who were paying for the lessons, or his teacher, who is, you know, very much wondering why he isn't practicing as much as he ought to, but this is something that resounded, I'm sure, with tens of thousands of listeners going through the same moment of doubt. So, yeah, we like very much being an open ear for these kids and all the stories and all the experiences that they have.

(Soundbite of music)

(Soundbite of applause)

HANSEN: We want to bring two alumni of the program into the conversation. First, violinist William Harvey. He appeared ten years ago on From The Top's pilot program.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: William Harvey will be a special guest on the first 10th anniversary broadcast. It goes out to NPR stations later this week. He's in our New York bureau. Welcome to the program, William.

Mr. WILLIAM HARVEY (Violinist): Thank you for having me.

HANSEN: What do you remember about that first program?

Mr. HARVEY: Well, it was Halloween of 1998. And I remember it was a lot of firsts for me. It was the first time in a long time flying. So, I got so excited that I actually fell off the moving sidewalk at the airport. And it was, I think, my first time in a subway, and I was enjoying all the costumes everyone was wearing. My first time trying mustard. So, it was very exciting in a lot of ways. Although, I should mention, of course, the most exciting thing was playing with Chris.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: Were you nervous at all?

Mr. HARVEY: Oh yeah. I mean, but I think Chris has a demeanor that I think naturally puts people at ease. And so, you know, when I was actually talking with him, playing - I played a Gershwin prelude in the Heifetz transcription -then I wasn't nervous. But, yeah, I mean, just the anticipation of it. Oh my goodness, am I actually going to be on radio? You know, that kind of can throw you for a loop for a bit.

HANSEN: Yeah. You're 26 years old now?

Mr. HARVEY: Yes.

HANSEN: And I presume you're still playing the violin.

Mr. HARVEY: I hope so.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HANSEN: Bring us up to date then. How have you kept up with music after that appearance 10 years ago?

Mr. HARVEY: Well, I graduated from The Julliard School with a master's in violin in 2006. And since then I've served as concertmaster of the Spokane Symphony, started a nonprofit called Cultures in Harmony that promotes cultural understanding through music. And in a few months I'll be moving to Afghanistan to serve as a violin and viola teacher for the Ministry of Education.


Mr. HARVEY: The single experience that probably led me to start Cultures in Harmony was actually just five days after 9/11 at the 69th Regiment Armory, when I performed for soldiers as they were coming back from a long day of rescue and cleanup work at Ground Zero.

And seeing the impact that the music had on them at that particular time, when it seemed like they needed it so much, I realized that I would no longer be content to just remain in the ivory tower of classical music, and that I needed to go out and explore music's capacity to transform society.

HANSEN: We have another From The Top alum waiting in the wings, violinist Maya Shankar was barely a teenager when she played "La Campanella" by Paganini, accompanied by Christopher O'Riley at the piano.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: Maya Shankar is now 23 and she joins us from the studios of member station WNKU in Highland Heights, Kentucky. Hello, Maya.

Ms. MAYA SHANKAR (Violinist): Hello. Thanks for having me.

HANSEN: Oh, it's a pleasure to speak with you. So, what was it like for you as a 13-year-old to play for a national radio show?

Ms. SHANKAR: Well, I actually played even before that on the first pilot episode.


Ms. SHANKAR: I think I was around 11. And I basically had no idea what to expect from a radio show. I guess I somehow imagined playing in an isolated recording booth. So, I think what I was most taken by was the energy of the live audience, and I think that really influenced the amount of energy that I was able to bring to my performance.

(Soundbite of music)

(Soundbite of applause)

O'RILEY: The Chrysler arrangement of Paganini's "La Campanella."

HANSEN: After you appeared on the show, you actually gave up music for a while because of a medical condition. What happened?

Ms. SHANKAR: I had bad tendonitis for a while due to an injury that I had while I was studying at the Perlman Music Camp. It's a camp run by Itzhak and Toby Perlman. I had to stop playing for about six or seven years. And I just recently took it back up.

HANSEN: You not only started playing again, but you performed with Joshua Bell.

Ms. SHANKAR: Oh, that was amazing. So, yeah, after the seven-year hiatus, I started playing because I got a phone call and there was an invitation for me to perform the Bach violin concerto for two violins with Joshua Bell in Capetown this past summer. And talk about a comeback performance.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SHANKAR: That's more like the ultimate goal performance. So, it's very exhilarating.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: You're now a Rhodes Scholar and you're working toward a doctorate in experimental psychology at Oxford. Have you discovered any connections between that field of study and you're music?

Ms. SHANKAR: I think there are definitely some connections. I actually work in a multi-sensory perception lab. So, I look at how sensory signals, you know, coming from the visual system and the auditory system, et cetera, all interact in the mind and communicate with each other. I think music can be a very multi-sensory experience for both the player and for the listener. And so I definitely see some similarities between my field of research and what I have experienced as a musician.

HANSEN: Christopher O'Riley, let's bring you back into the conversation because we've heard what some of your alumni have been doing and how music is still very much a part of their lives. But what about others? Has music transformed From The Top alumni in other ways?

O'RILEY: We have lots of kids who go on and pursue music, but we have also lots of kids for whom classical music is a part of their lives that they could not do without.

I think both in Maya and William's case, music is a very concentrated effort and passion, but that the energy and the discipline that is inherent in music training allows them to pursue whatever else they would like to pursue.

Music builds brains. I mean, really, that's kind of the bottom line of this things. And a lot of folks in the uninitiated world, people who are not conversant with classical music see it as an elitist pursuit sometimes. And I think in the tennis world, we have exactly the same experience. We would never call Roger Federer an elitist, but we do celebrate and appreciate and gain inspiration from his pursuit of excellence within his field.

And I think these kids are perfect examples of not only finding the passion within their fields, but in both William and Maya's case, finding a place in the world where that music and where that energy can do some good.

HANSEN: You sound like a proud dad.

O'RILEY: I am, you know, I got to say. I really am amazed by these kids. And, you know, of course it doesn't take too much for me to be amazed by these kids, 'cause when I was their age I was watching way too much TV. You know, so, but I'm extraordinarily proud of all the kids who have been on the show.

HANSEN: Christopher O'Riley is a pianist and host of NPR's From The Top, celebrating 10 years on the air. He joined us from the studios of WCPN in Cleveland. Chris, thanks a lot.

O'RILEY: Pleasure, Liane.

HANSEN: And thanks to violinist and From The Top alumni William Harvey. He joined us from New York. Thank you, William.

Mr. HARVEY: Thank you.

HANSEN: And Maya Shankar from the studios of WNKU in Highland Heights, Kentucky. Thank you, Maya.

Ms. SHANKAR: Thanks a lot.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: You can hear William and Maya's From The Top performances and watch a video of William Harvey's work with Cultures and Harmony on our Web site NPRMusic.org. Special thanks to the American Academy of Achievement for the recording of Maya Shankar and Joshua Bell.

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

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