Young at Heart
From the Top Showcases Young Classical Musicians
"Just get your show picked up by twelve to 15 radio stations." That's what veteran radio producers told Gerald Slavet when he announced plans for From the Top, a radio show that would feature kids playing classical music. "We were met with great skepticism," Slavet said. At a public radio conference, station managers asked him, "Why would I ever put a kid on the radio when I can pull Yo-Yo Ma off the shelf?" A few conceded that the kids he booked were good, but said there weren't enough prodigies in the talent pool to justify more than one season for such a show.
Slavet and his co-producer, Jennifer Hurley-Wales, pressed on. In late summer of 1999, they partnered with the New England Conservatory and WGBH-FM, one of Boston's public radio stations, to begin taping episodes of From the Top at Tanglewood, the Boston Symphony's summer home in western Massachusetts. The production team sent out demo recordings and launched an aggressive marketing campaign. By the time From the Top officially went on the air in January 2000, nearly 100 stations had signed on to broadcast the program. The show's mix of music, interviews, and sketch comedy, all featuring teenage musicians, soon proved a winning combination with listeners. With Boston's Jordan Hall as its base, the show toured the country, taping episodes from coast to coast. Today From the Top is preparing to enter its tenth season. The number of subscribing stations from across the nation has held steady at 220, with airplay in nine of the top ten markets. The show has branched into television, taping a dozen shows each year at Carnegie Hall in New York City.
The NEA began supporting the fledgling project in 2001 with an Arts on Radio and Television grant. The program's continued quality has ensured ongoing Arts Endowment support; in 2008 From the Top received $135,000 toward the radio show and the three-year old television series, some of which is invested in From the Top's education programs.
"There's quite a lot going on, and there's quite a lot more to do," said Christopher O'Riley, the concert pianist who has served as host almost from the beginning. "What's been gratifying is that we have succeeded in creating an arena for young people to connect with their audiences, and use their personal passions as a way to make them emissaries for classical music in the United States."
Ostensibly, From the Top is a program that shows off prodigiously talented musicians -- from violinists to composers to singers -- ages eight to 18. But it's more than that. It's a show about kids who like classical music, and what makes them tick. "It's all [generated] from the kids," O'Riley said. "There's an awful lot of delving into who they are, and the most important, unique things about them."
Thousands of musicians audition for From the Top each year. The best players don't automatically make the stage. Producers evaluate the diversity each student would offer in terms of musical talent, demographics, and personality. Once performers are selected, they respond to questionnaires and speak with staff by phone. Then it's time to brainstorm.When a swim team captain from Texas made the show, a From the Top roving reporter showed up at practice to interview her teammates. More recently, a young pianist from California voiced concerns about competing against guys with bigger, stronger hands in competitions, so the producers compiled a segment on famous female pianists.
"There's a lot of preparation that goes on," O'Riley said. "It's not a bunch of us sitting around, wondering what smart alecky things we can do."
From the Top has gradually poured more resources into tracking alumni and encouraging students to return home as cultural leaders. Every young musician participates in a leadership workshop, and each year several student performers are profiled in McGraw-Hill's Spotlight on Music textbooks.
In 2005, the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, a nonprofit founded by the late Washington Redskins owner, challenged Slavet and the From the Top team to book more low-income students. In return, each of those students would receive a $10,000 scholarship and the chance to compete for additional funding. To date, the program has distributed $1 million in scholarship money. Finding young performers like Joshua Jones, a 16-year-old percussionist from Chicago who took up the marimba because he was "always banging on stuff," takes some persistent searching. It's worth the effort. "Our kids illustrate that anyone who learns discipline, passion, and focus can succeed at almost anything," Slavet said.
Many of the series' featured young performers go on to become professional musicians. As O'Riley travels the country playing concertos with orchestras, he often crosses paths with alumni. At Philadelphia's Kimmel Center, he was reunited with Carol Jantsch, a tuba player who, at age 17, played "Flight of the Bumblebee" on From the Top. Now she's a principal brass player in the renowned Philadelphia Orchestra. In January 2009, O'Riley shared the stage with violinist Jason Moody, a first-season From the Top performer who is now a member of the Spokane Symphony. But he's equally proud of Nicole Ali, a violinist and pianist who has gone on to conduct stem cell research at Harvard. As the show prepares to enter its tenth season, O'Riley knows the list of distinguished alumni will only grow.