Meet the Artist: Chelsea Kim

Music is often referred to as the “universal language.” 17-year-old violinist Chelsea Kim knows this is true. Having moved several times throughout her childhood, Chelsea performed in retirement centers, hospitals, and churches in every new community. This gave her a sense of music’s power to connect people, a theme that would become very important to her life’s path.

At an early age, Chelsea’s younger brother Daniel was diagnosed with middle-intensity autism. One of his challenges is that while he feels emotions, he finds it difficult to express them. Daniel would always listen to Chelsea as she practiced, enjoying the sounds that emanated from her instrument. But it wasn’t until he began to hum along with her playing that Chelsea and her family realized that not only had he memorized entire concertos, but that he was communicating his emotions. They have since cherished this unique opportunity to connect as a family.

In 2013, while a high school student at the Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, Chelsea appeared on From the Top with Host Christopher O’Riley Show 267, recorded in Boston’s WGBH Fraser Performance Studio.

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Chelsea Kim performing on Show 267 in WGBH’s Fraser Performance Studio

In addition to appearing on From the Top, Chelsea received the Jack Kent Cooke Young Artist Award, a $10,000 scholarship given to extraordinary young musicians with financial need. Everyone who receives the Award is required to do an extended outreach project that brings their musical gifts out into the community.

Knowing the power of music to communicate with her brother, Chelsea decided to use her arts leadership project to bring music to other children with special needs. Shortly after coming on the show, Chelsea began her undergraduate work at Juilliard and quickly became a member of a string trio.

Her fellow trio members decided to join her in her mission. After researching several possible venues – from special education programs to community centers – Chelsea and her trio decided to reach out to Kidzone TV at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. Kidzone TV produces live programming three times a day for pediatric patents and families on a dedicated channel within the hospital.

In her own words, Chelsea describes the experience of doing a live performance on the station:

We were led through the back door of the hospital. This was the section of the hospital for children who were extremely sick and had such vulnerable immune systems that they were not allowed outside contact.

Before we were recorded, there was an ‘advertisement’ section of the program. The ad featured the fragile young patients waving their hands and counting down for the program to start. Seeing this changed our dubious attitudes. We played our hearts out, just as if the children were right in front of us.

After the performance, the general manager of the Kidzone program had some words of affirmation for the trio.

“Thank you so much,” she said. “You have no idea how much our children love when musicians such as yourselves come and play for them. Even though it may be through the screen, the children’s blood pressure dropped as they heard you. The music you guys play creates miracles for our patients.”

Chelsea describes the impact of the visit:

This experience gave me tremendous insight and more assurance that music is a communication source for all kinds of people. Despite the fact that my trio members had never seen the patients, and vice versa, the music was our connection point.

As we go find a tissue, we also applaud Chelsea’s success in this project, and look forward to how she continues sharing music’s transcendent powers.

Chelsea Kim

From the Top Alum on Good Morning America on Thursday, May 1!

UPDATE! Here’s the clip of Yuki on GMA this morning. We had so much fun and are so proud of Yuki!

Tune in to Good Morning America between 7:30–8:00 AM on Thursday, May 1, to see From the Top alum Yuki Beppu talk about Lady Gaga, classical music, and how she is on a mission to put them together!

Here’s Yuki’s amazing video mash-up of Lady Gaga and her own music:

Taking Over Classical Music, One Competition at a Time

From Austin, Texas, to Detroit, Michigan, From the Top alumni have been excelling in major competitions all over the United States. We’re thrilled to share the good news from concert halls across the country.

Menuhin Competition, Austin, Texas

StephenWaarts

© 2012 Ranjith Jim Box

Several From the Top alumni appeared as part of the esteemed biennial Menuhin International Competition for Young Violinists held recently in February. Violinists 17-year-old Stephen Waarts, pictured left, (Show 207, Stanford, California) of Los Altos, California, and 18-year-old Stephen Kim (Show 193, Mobile, Alabama) of Cupertino, California, both competed in the Senior Final Round. We are thrilled to share the news that Stephen Waarts won first prize and Stephen Kim took fourth prize! Alex Zhou (Show 263, Davis, California) placed fourth in the Junior Finals competition, the highest-ranking American student in that category.  Also on hand was Ariel Horowitz (Show 262, Greensburg, Pennsylvania) who performed in the “Passing of the Bow” ceremony, a Menuhin tradition that communicates the power of music to share with other cultures.

Sphinx Competition, Detroit, Michigan

We are proud to announce that 15-year-old violist Mira Williams (Show 277, Bowling Green, Ohio) from Chicago, Illinois, 15-year-old violinist Tristan Flores, who will be appearing on Show 285 in Boston, Massachusetts, and 14-year-old cellist, and recipient of our Jack Kent Cooke Young Artist Award, Sterling Elliott (Show 275, Aspen, Colorado) were 2014 Sphinx Competition Junior Division Semi-Finalists in the recent Sphinx Competition, held in Detroit, Michigan. Sterling Elliott, who will be appearing on our upcoming show in Norfolk, Virginia, won the title of First Place Laureate in the Junior Division Finals. We loved his recent posting on Facebook:

Sterling Facebook

Blount-Slawson Competition, Montgomery, Alabama

In Montgomery, Alabama, our friends at the Montgomery Symphony held the Blount-Slawson Young Artists Competition in late January. This year’s competition was especially poignant, as the leader of the competition and longtime friend of From the Top, Helen Steineker, passed away in December. We know she would have been pleased with the high level of competitors this year. From the Top alum Yaegy Park (Show 185, San Antonio, Texas), a violinist and recipient of our Jack Kent Cooke Young Artist Award from Pasadena, Texas, placed second with her performance of the first movement of the Prokofiev Second Violin concerto. First prize winner 14-year-old pianist Elisabeth Tsai is the younger sister of From the Top alum Eric Tsai (Show 227, Opelika, Alabama), and will be following in her big brother’s footsteps when she appears on the show on a date to be determined.

And more!

We’ve also heard from 15-year-old organist and pianist Michael Jon Bennett (Show 281, Costa Mesa, California) from New York City, who will be making his Carnegie Hall debut after receiving the gold medal in the International Young Gifted Musicians Festival – Passion of Music 2014, sponsored by the American Association of the Development of the Gifted and Talented and first prize in the American Protégé International Piano and Strings Competition 2014.

Are you an alum with a recent competition win to your name? Keep us up to date on your activities by emailing Robin Allen LaPlante, Marketing & Communications Manager, at rlaplante@fromthetop.org.

Alum Devon Naftzger’s Profound Musical Experience in Vietnam

Vietnam was the unlikely location where violist and Princeton Sophomore Devon Naftzger (Show 256) of Lincolnshire, IL had a profound musical experience brought about when she played her viola for a classroom of Vietnamese students. This past summer, Devon participated in a three-week program called Coach For College which brought her to southwestern Vietnam and the rural village of Hoa An located in the Mekong River Delta region.

Devon performs for students in Vietnam, modeling how hard work can pay off in the long run.

Devon performs for students in Vietnam, modeling how hard work can pay off in the long run.

Devon taught everything from English to volleyball at a Vietnamese summer day camp where kids studied academics and sports. At the end of the day she loved teaching what they called a “Life Skills” class.

“I loved incorporating playing my viola into my teaching,” Devon recalled. “The Vietnamese children had never heard any stringed instrument played live and they had never attended a music concert. A lot of children worked in the rice fields with their parents when they weren’t at school, so none of my students had the time or money to pursue hobbies like music. We had a rowdy group of kids who were getting to the fun age where they like to challenge authority, but everything changed the week I brought out my instrument. They were completely silent because they were so intrigued to hear me play, and I gained so much respect after I played for them.”

In her Life Skills class, Devon launched a discussion on the topic of “setting little goals to achieve big dreams.” They discussed the perseverance and dedication it takes to reach those goals, especially when you have setbacks. “ I thought this topics related perfectly to my experience with music, so I did a little demonstration. The older Vietnamese college students, fluent in English, translated.  “You can’t just pick up a violin for the first time and expect to play the toughest concerto right away,” I explained. “Instead you have to start with baby steps and pick up different techniques through easier pieces.”  To demonstrate she played the first piece she performed when she was 5 years old: ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.’

“I explained that I started learning classical music, but had to take it slowly. I played Bach’s Transcribed Cello Suite No. 1 Prelude. They ‘oohed’ and ‘aahed’.  Next I played a movement that was a little faster, telling them that I had to learn all kinds of different bow strokes and finger patterns before I could learn a piece that incorporated many of them: Paganini’s La Campanella.  After playing them a showy passage from Preludium and Allegro (which I performed on From the Top Show 256) I told them that after you’ve put in all the hard work, then you can play things simply because they are fun.  I finished with a fiddle tune, which they danced to excitedly.”

Devon also described how many hours a day she spends practicing, and how many years she’s played without giving up. She told them about competitions she lost which crushed her. “I turned those losses into a positive motivator that made me want to practice harder,” Devon shared. “That resulted in winning some competitions, achieving my dream of performing at Carnegie Hall, and getting into Juilliard. And it was all because I started slowly all the way back at ‘Twinkle Twinkle’!”

Back at Princeton this fall, Devon plays in the Princeton University Orchestra and last year she participated in a string quartet as well.

Alumni in Action: From Competition Wins to CD Releases

Our alumni are making waves all over the world! Here’s our latest round of alumni updates, keep them coming! You can submit your update to: alumni@fromthetop.org.

Alexi Kenney

Alexi Kenney (Show 200) was named a 2013 Concert Artist Guild winner in New York last week. The Concert Artists Guild provides management support “to a roster of talented artists during a critical and formative time: between completion of formal studies and the achievement of an established career.” Past From the Top alumni winners include Sebastian Baverstam and Steven Lin.

Soprano Nadine Sierra (Show 95, Show 213) won the XIII International Montserrat Caballé Singing Competition in Zaragoza, Spain, and the Neue Stimmen 2013 International Singing Competition in Gütersloh, Germany. Among other appearances, she will be singing Rigoletto in March with Boston Lyric Opera.

Violinist Anna Lee (Show 152, Show 204, TV Season 2) won the Bernhard and Mania Hahnloser Violin Prize this summer at the Verbier Festival in Switzerland. She attended the Verbier Festival Academy, which is comprised of a select group of young artists (piano, violin, viola, cello, ensemble, voice). “The Verbier Festival Academy enables the best young soloists in the world to work under the watchful eye of great artists, following a rigorous selection process.  For three weeks, the stars of tomorrow benefit from a number of masterclasses, which are open to all, and have many occasions to demonstrate their talents.”

The U.S. representatives in each instrumental category were almost exclusively From the Top alumni. Piano: Alice Burla (Show 174, Show 224, TV Season 2); Violin: Chad Hoopes (Show 171, Show 189, TV Season 2), Sirena Huang (Show 188), Anna Lee (Show 152, Show 204, TV Season 2); Viola: Vicki Powell, Arianna Smith (Show 197, Show 228); Cello: Sarina Zhang (Show 112, Show 163, Show 236); Ensemble: The Calidore String Quartet, 2011 Fischoff Grand Prize winners and recently signed Opus 3 artists, featuring From the Top alumni Jeffrey Meyers and Ryan Meehan (Show 164)

Ibanda Ruhumbika is a member of Jon Batiste and Stay Human

Tubist Ibanda Ruhumbika (Show 155, Show 169, TV Season 2) released his first CD as a member of “Jon Batiste and Stay Human,” a modern jazz ensemble noted for their world-class music, high energy, and uplifting spirit. They performed at the From the Top Gala in May 2013 and are touring now in support of their “Social Music” album release.

Teddy Abrams (Show 69) has been named the new music director of the Louisville Orchestra.

Alum and Jack Kent Cooke Young Artist Umi Garrett (Show 211, Show 217) just performed eight community concerts in 17 days throughout North Carolina, South Carolina, Pennsylvania, Georgia, and Virginia. She also performed Chopin’s Fantasy Impromptu for the soundtrack of the Steve Jobs biopic “Jobs.” Read about Umi in the Huffington Post.

Michael Thurber (Show 125), one of the creative forces behind the popular YouTube channel CDZA and an accomplished composer in his own right, was in London this fall working on music for “Antony and Cleopatra,” a new production of the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Public Theater. The show debuts in Stratford-upon-Avon, England in November, before coming to Miami in January and New York City in February and March.  Michael is also part of the creative team behind “Goddess,” a new musical that was workshopped at the Eugene O’Neill Musical Theater Conference. Wearing his other hat, Michael will join his CDZA colleagues to perform at the first-ever YouTube Music Awards on November 3.

Charles Yang (Show 74, Show 160, Show 230, TV Season 1), a frequent collaborator of Michael Thurber’s and CDZA will also perform at the upcoming YouTube Music Awards. But don’t think he’s left the classical music world behind! Charles just performed Tchaikovsky and a premiere with the Peoria Symphony and will accompany American Ballet Theatre’s performance of Twyla Tharp’s “Bach Partita”  in New York (as featured in The Wall Street Journal).

“I am not a rock star” follows eight years of alum Marika Bournaki’s life.

A film following eight years of the life of alum Marika Bournaki (Show 181) entitled “I am not a rock star” is making the rounds at various film festivals. Her From the Top appearance in 2008 was filmed during the documentary project.

Violist Daniel Orsen (Show 246), from Pittsburgh and currently a sophomore at Oberlin Conservatory of Music, was one of only three finalists in the junior division for viola at the 2013 American String Teachers Association (ASTA) National Solo Competition in April at the Kaufman Center’s Merkin Hall in New York City. This past August, Daniel completed his fourth summer with the Perlman Music Program Summer Music School in East Hampton, New York on Shelter Island.

Chase Dobson

Composer Chase Dobson (Show 265) was named Composer in Residence at the Avante Chamber Ballet in his hometown of Dallas and was commissioned to write his first short ballet, “Faces of the Sun” for horn, violin, and piano. Chase spent his summer at Boston University Tanglewood Instiute and is currently a senior at Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts in Dallas. To learn more about Chase Dobson, visit his website:  www.chasedobsonmusic.com.

Four From the Top alumni – Aaron Bigeleisen (Show 254), Peter Eom (Show 269), Hilda Huang (Show 180, TV Season 2), and Annika Jenkins (Show 234) – were among 20 high school seniors to receive the U.S. Presidential Scholars in the Arts in Washington, D.C. in June.

Aaron Bigeleisen also won first place in Classical Singer Magazine’s High School Vocal Competition and participated in Ottimavoce, a program in New York City run by Dr. Karen Parks of the Tisch School at New York University this summer. Aaron is a freshman at Eastman School of Music and the University of Rochester in their double degree program for Vocal Performance and German.

After graduating from Vanderbilt University in 2007 with a double degree in Classical Guitar and English Literature, Jennifer McNeil (Show 50) became a managing editor at Thomas Nelson Publishing Company in Nashville, Tennessee. She decided she missed music and completed her Master’s in Music at New England Conservatory with teacher Eliot Fisk this past May.  Jenni is currently studying classical guitar performance under Antigoni Goni at the Royal Conservatory of Brussels.

“Armed” with the Flexibility of an Octopus, even Camouflage!

By Jingxuan Zhang

On Show 132 in Boston, Neara Russell wowed the From the Top audience with her amazing versatility. During the taping, she accompanied at the piano a piece she composed for voice, “Lemonade Pie.” At 17, Neara was already showing mastery over not only the infinite possibilities associated with the keyboard, but also the ethereal qualities of the human voice. Thus, it did not come as a shock when Christopher O’Riley interviewed her and found out that she also plays bass clarinet, xylophone, and sings… and that she has a penchant for popular music. From the Top cemented Neara’s conversion from classical to popular by setting her up to study with famous composer John Corigliano, who encouraged her to combine her classical and contemporary styles.

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Neara Russell

Now 25 and a rising pop artist in Los Angeles, Neara divulged to me her secret: “Having a diverse set of skills has made my success as a musician.” After I pondered upon the full implications of that statement, I realized that it’s not only her diverse set of skills that became the foundation of success, but the flexibility and adaptability that inevitably develops with it. Being a musician is hard, especially in LA, where everyone is competing tooth and nail for a piece of the market, the proverbial pie. And Neara has her foot in the door, drawing upon her eclectic background to improve her own music.

She started out as a session musician as a member of the Backliners. If you don’t know what session musicians do, they are the often-ignored musicians at the back of the stage, supporting the star at the front, except for recording sessions. The under-appreciated always reminds me of an insight by the acclaimed physicist Richard Feynman:

I have a friend who’s an artist. He’ll hold up a flower and say, ‘I can see how beautiful this is, and you as a scientist take it all apart, and it becomes a dull thing.’ Although I’m not quite as aesthetically refined as he is, I can appreciate the beauty of a flower. At the same time, I see much more about the flower than he sees. I could imagine the cells in there, the complicated actions, which also has a beauty. It’s not just beauty at one dimension; there’s also beauty at a smaller dimension…. Science and knowledge only adds to the excitement, mystery, and awe of a flower – it only adds! I don’t understand how it subtracts.

Humble yet neglected, Neara nevertheless internalized all the ensemble spontaneity required of session musicians. They need to be flexible to the demands of the main artist and attentive to the sound they produce, in order to blend or “camouflage” themselves to the unique style of the artist. This is a classic example of the product being greater than the sum of its parts. Many think that melody is king; however, Neara quickly learned that “No one is ahead or subservient to the other. The flower is truly breathtaking, even more so because of its cells and processes.”

Armed with diversity, Neara experimented with the holistic recording process by producing, engineering, composing, playing, and singing – by herself – an original album called Noise and Silence. One can hear a seamless amalgamation of different compositional techniques, from her strong background in piano to electronic elements. As her first album, one can definitely see that her style is not at full maturity; however, her potential and talent shine through tracks like “Look for Something” and the eponymous “Noise and Silence.”

Check out the tracks I mentioned on iTunes: https://itunes.apple.com/us/album/noise-and-silence/id432545894. Look forward to a second album, in the planning, with this teaser song, “Get Happy.”

Infusing New Vibrancy into the Oldies: Introducing Conrad Tao

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Conrad Tao
Photo by Lauren Farmer

by Jingxuan Zhang

Jack of all trades, yet master of all, 19-year-old From the Top alumnus Conrad Tao – pianist, violinist, and composer – can be pithily summed up as a thinker. “Thinker” is not the most titillating of words; however, it fits Conrad perfectly because he uses his artistry in the humblest way to do the biggest things. On the contrary, “intellectual” is too pompous for someone so plainspoken, and “visionary” too grandiose.  One can get a quick taste of what Conrad ruminates about by visiting the website for the UNPLAY Festival, a three-night event he organized using his Avery Fisher Career Grant and Gilmore Young Artist Award. In the WHY page, readers are assaulted by the question “What space does the musician occupy today?” Yeah, that is what he “thinks” about, dire problems faced by classical music.

It takes some real guts to ask that question, since it is such a sore spot in the classical music community. Attendance to classical concerts is becoming increasingly scarce, while Justin Bieber fills up sports stadiums to the brim with prepubescent youngsters without breaking a sweat. Conrad is fighting against the decline of classical music through his unique and thought-provoking concert programming. He said, “A concert is something more than just having a good time. I want to engage the audience and challenge them to change their thinking.” That statement underlies Conrad’s vision of a more passionately involved audience who reacts to the social commentary music can provide.

His goals were brilliantly articulated on the final night of his festival, themed Hi/r/stories. In his own words, Hi/r/stories “questions how history allows classical music to exert its power. Why is there currently a narrow conception of what classical music is for, among not only audiences, but also musicians and presenters?” His question is right on point. Classical music thrived in the 18th century, with giants like Bach, Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven all patronized by emperors and dukes. These powerful men had nothing to do other than wage war, walk in elegant gardens, and be dedicatees for historic compositions. But look at the modern industrialized society: On any Friday evening, in addition to that concert at Lincoln Center, one can go clubbing, see a Yankees game, watch Game of Thrones, or do homework (God forbid). Maybe the poor guy is too tired after eight hours of work to care!

Conrad is rethinking music’s role as a passive form of entertainment. Music has to evolve with society by being attuned to the fickle tastes of the modern audience, and he’s had those ideas since he was 10, on his appearance on From the Top’s 107th show in Tuscaloosa, Alabama: “I remember saying, ‘It’s 2004. We have cellphones and computers already, so we need some new music to go with that.’ I played my own composition on that show, and the support I got from the audience, in addition to From the Top doing such effective outreach, really inspired me to forge my own path and reach a wider audience.” He has come a long way since then. For UNPLAY, he compiled a very compelling narrative which heavily features the works of living composers, with guest artists who specialize in electronic and experimental music. In the program one can easily see the socially relevant compositions just by titles such as “Private Time,” “Violence,” “Endurance Test,” and “… like kites with no strings.

The first day of UNPLAY also ushered in Conrad’s debut album Voyages with EMI, which features works by Monk, Rachmaninoff, Ravel, and Tao himself. This album is a microcosm of his journey as a musician, and he hopes listeners can derive their own journeys by listening. The inspiration for this album conforms to his unique perspective as an artist: “The process of travel is oftentimes seen as linear, from A to B. For me, it is not about the beginning and the end, but the space in between; the process itself is meaningful.” At only 19, Conrad has only started his “voyage,” but it has already been riddled with milestones. With a bar so high, it is time for him to “think” about what he can possibly accomplish next.

To check out selections from his festival and debut CD, visit http://www.youtube.com/conradtao. For more information on Voyages, visit http://www.smarturl.it/ConradTaoVoyages.

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