Exploring Arts Leadership with the National Youth Orchestra of the USA

On July 16, we recorded a show with the National Youth Orchestra of the USA (NYOUSA). Our friends at Carnegie Hall bring this orchestra of amazing young musicians together each summer, and the result is pretty incredible. (You can listen to the show here, if you’d like. We highly recommend it!) The next day, From the Top staff took the entire orchestra through our Arts Leadership Workshop, led by Director of Education & Community Partnerships, Linda Gerstle. We asked Linda to share some of her favorite moments.

PS: It’s worth noting that normally, a From the Top Arts Leadership Workshop has less than 20 young musicians involved. This time, there were a few more.

NYOUSA Arts Leadership Workshop July 2014
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REQUIEM! Classical Music is Dying in America!

120 members of the National Youth Orchestra of the USA debated this with conviction – from strongly agree to strongly disagree with shades of gray in between. A chorus of voices engaged with the big issues at play in their world – what it means to take it beyond the concert hall as 21st century musicians, how an orchestra can be a resource to a community – an apt illustration of the overall tone of the arts leadership workshop for Carnegie Hall’s NYOUSA.

Orchestra member (and From the Top alum) Audrey Chen summed it up best:

It was amazing seeing everyone speak out and voice their opinions. The whole orientation really went so far to show that all of us can not only play great music but can also communicate our ideas really well!

Exploring the ways music can transform lives – as individuals, small and large ensembles – was viewed from many perspectives, using an array of From the Top alumni examples. Whether raising dollars to benefit a rare blood disease like alum Stephanie Block, or mobilizing an entire community to address the gap in musical opportunities across a district’s schools like alum Thomas West, it was inspiring to watch pre-collegiate musicians tell their stories to empower others. Michael Dahlberg, an alum of the radio show and now a member of From the Top’s education team, narrated his personal journey, helping the audience to define their own version of success for themselves, envisioning the possibilities in their lives.

NYOUSA Arts Leaders at work

This workshop was just the beginning; with outreach opportunities built into the five week NYOUSA tour schedule, each participant was asked to take a question or thought from the orientation that they wanted to explore throughout the course of the tour. One of From the Top’s primary goals for the arts leadership workshop was to leave orchestra members feeling as excited and curious about the opportunities outside the concert hall as those that lie within. Many expressed an eagerness to take a next step – and we look forward to showcasing their leadership moments that we know will inspire current and future audiences.

In the meantime, check out the incredible array of thoughtful responses to a simple question:

“Music has the power to…?”

 

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PS: Editor’s Note – It’s pretty clear that classical music is alive and well thanks to these young people.

Meet the Artist: Mira Williams

NAME: Mira Williams
AGE: 16
HOMETOWN: Chicago, Illinois
INSTRUMENT: Viola
PERFORMED ON: Shows 277 and 287

Mira Williams is a dedicated and passionate young musician with strong beliefs and a firm commitment to improving her music. In April, she stepped up to the microphone at the New World Center in Miami Beach, Florida, and stunned audience members with a powerful performance of Fantasie by Johann Nepomuk Hummel. Her interview was peppered with humor as she discussed her “viola rights” efforts – “It’s honestly one of the most beautiful instruments ever and it’s so underrated,” she told us – and she spoke eloquently about increasing diversity in classical music.

Yet Mira really lights up when talking about improving her playing and sharing her music with others. She studies at the Music Institute of Chicago, where she plays in the string orchestra and in a chamber group called Quartet Vox. She comes from a musical family; “I honestly can’t name one person in my immediate family that doesn’t play or sing or something,” she says.

After recording their show at New World Center, Mira and her fellow performers spent two intense days visiting local schools as part of From the Top’s arts outreach efforts. She was particularly inspired by her visit to Miami Northwestern Senior High School, where she and the other performers met with an after school band group. She was impressed with the band musically, as well as their dedication to music, and says she learned “to make sure the outreach experience is beneficial to all parties involved. I can bring my music to others, but they also have lessons to share with me.”

After returning to Chicago, Mira was invited by the Rembrandt Chamber Players to visit the Young Women’s Leadership Charter School, an all-girls public school in Chicago dedicated to empowering young women to transform their lives through education. Mira spent the afternoon with a flute player from the Rembrandt Chamber Orchestra in a visual art classroom. As Mira played, the students drew what the music represented to them. While nervous at first, Mira became more excited as she heard from the students. She tells us: “It was nice to hear people who aren’t classically trained talk about what they heard and cool to see how my music looked visually in their artwork.”

Later, Mira returned to the school with her ensemble, Quartet Vox. Many of the students remembered her from her first visit to the school and cheered for her. She said, “Having the whole quartet there allowed me to show how my viola sounded in relation to the other instruments. The students really seemed to enjoy the music; several said they wanted to learn how to play, so we referred them to music schools.”

Mira has received From the Top’s Jack Kent Cooke Young artist award and plans to use the $10,000 scholarship to purchase a new viola and continue her studies at the Academy of the Music Institute of Chicago.


Mira performed on Show 277 in Bowling Green, Ohio as part of the Quartet Lumiére and most recently on Show 287 at New World Symphony in Miami Beach, Florida.

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:

In Brighton, MA, Teen Leaders Make Chamber Music Personal

For the past three years, From the Top has enjoyed a partnership with Conservatory Lab Charter School in Brighton, Massachusetts. Conservatory Lab is the only music-infused public elementary school in the state and provides all students free vocal and instrumental instruction. However, the students at Conservatory Lab don’t have access to playing in small ensembles, so for the past two years, young musicians from our Center for the Development of Arts Leaders (CDAL) have conducted chamber music residencies at Conservatory Lab. CDAL is From the Top’s arts leadership program in Boston, with trains young musicians to be active leaders in their communities.

The most recent week-long residency paired a CDAL arts leader with a Conservatory Lab student, with whom they worked exclusively. Aside from learning an entire piece — The Art of Fugue, BWV 1080, Contrapunctus I, by J. S. Bach — the CDAL arts leaders and Conservatory Lab students explored the unique lessons that chamber music can teach: leadership, teamwork, and focus. Gabriel, a young clarinetist, explains: “I learned that you don’t have to rely on a conductor, but that you have to listen to every one else when you are playing chamber music.”

While the lessons on dynamics and cueing were valuable, Kat Jara, the Conservatory Lab students’ teacher, says the one-on-one attention — having one mentor dedicated to each Conservatory Lab student, checking in on their bow holds and being a “musical friend” — makes all the difference. The effect on the Conservatory Lab students isn’t truly realized until a few weeks after the residency, she says, when their confidence grows and their self-esteem skyrockets.

 

 

The weeklong residency culminated in a side-by-side performance of their chamber work for their friends. After all their hard work, the students were all very nervous to perform, but they prevailed. Nora, a young cellist, said it best: “It was kind of scary, but in the end, when everybody clapped, it felt good!”

Congratulations to the performers from Conservatory Lab: 

Mira Mehta, violin — 6th grade

Gabriel Joachin, clarinet  — 4th grade

Nora Feeney, cello  — 6th grade

Tess Lepeska-True, cello — 4th grade

Antwanai Miller, viola — 6th grade

Angelo Beauvois, cello — 4th grade

And to their teachers from the CDAL Boston program: 

Lilia Chang, violin

Nicholas Gallitano, viola

Changyoung (Calvin) Kim, clarinet

Leland Ko, cello

Ju Hyun Lee, cello

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.

Arts Leadership Plans from the Performers from Show 280, Wingate, North Carolina

Each of the performers on Show 280 attended an Arts Leadership Orientation Workshop, where they explored their own personal leadership pathways. Learn how they are taking their music beyond the concert hall in their own communities:

Hannah Wang is reigniting an idea that she tabled in the fall. She plans to bring together local musicians for a jam session and instrument petting zoo at a local park or school in the spring or summer.

Clara Gerdes wrote us an email about her plans to visit a local assisted living facility:

“For an arts outreach activity, I would like to organize some friends and acquaintances with whom I often sing and play instruments to do a few informal concerts at a nursing home early next month.  We would present a variety of different styles of music, from classical to folk, and include some familiar songs the residents could sing along to–this is something I’ve noticed elderly people often really respond to and enjoy.  Also, I would like to go in the weeks after Christmas and New Year’s; many places seem to get a lot of attention before but not right after the holidays. “

Qing Yu Chen will be organizing a visit to a retirement home in New York City in the springand she hopes to involve other From the Top Alumni. Currently in the initialn planning stages, she is thinking over the goals and gameplan for her project as well as brainstorming the resources she would need to make it happen.

Olivia Staton has jumped into her own arts leadership projects since the taping. Through the music honor society at her school, she began assisting with an after-school music program in a local elementary school. The program, called Bridges, provides group music lessons and ensemble rehearsals. Recently, she demonstrated flute and assisted with one of their band rehearsals, and she envisions extending the program to other area elementary schools.

She said of the experience: “Until From the Top I had not really realized the significance of promoting classical music, and I had not really thought about what I could do to help, but now I am so excited to be doing more arts leadership activities.  Especially since there are opportunities for me to do so in my neighborhood!”

Olivia also performed in a student recital at a retirement home and took the lead in initiating an engaging conversation after the performance when everyone was afraid to speak. Following the performance, she said, “the audience seemed very engaged and happy to speak with all of the musicians and then they asked if we would be able to come back to give another recital!”

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.”

Tatum Roberston Introduces Kids to Opera

“…being an arts leader means teaching some of what you have learned as an arts student, so that the passion for learning about the arts is ignited and to show that education in the arts has a reason to continue.”

After appearing on our now-famous Boston blizzard taping this past February, soprano and Jack Kent Cooke Young Artist Tatum Robertson, 17, shared her passion for opera with kids in her hometown of New Orleans, LA. Read about her experience below:

Why did you choose this project?

For my outreach project I decided to teach solfege, and to show how the lyrics to opera are very similar to the lyrics of many popular songs. I presented my outreach project to the kids of Camp Impact, which is my church’s summer camp…because I wanted to introduce opera and aspects of classical music to children who never had the opportunity to learn about this.

What did you include in your presentation?

I presented my project in two 10-minute segments. The first segment, I introduced myself as Slide5a classical vocalist, and that I would be teaching them solfege. I taught them that solfege is used to help musicians sight read and that sight-reading helps musicians to be able to pick up any piece of music and play it rather quickly. Next, I went through the solfege syllables with them as they repeated after me. Then I showed them the hand signs that corresponded with the solfege syllables. To finish off the first segment we sung a  “D “major scale together.

Kids

For the second segment of the presentation, I talked to the older children of the group. I began that segment of my presentation by asking them what type of music they listened to, and what the music they listened to was about. They gave responses like gospel, R & B, Hip-Hop, and Pop.

I explained to them that I would be showing them a favorite Italian opera song called “Libiamo” from an opera called La Traviata. After showing them a video of Anna Netreko singing “Libiamo” I showed them the English translation to “Libiamo”. I then explained to the children that classical music talks about all the same things as the music they listen to – that opera has love songs and party songs.  And since some of them mentioned they liked Rihanna I told them that “Libiamo” is a party song like the party songs Rihanna makes. Lastly, I told them that now they can enjoy opera the way they enjoy their favorite music, and that all they have to do is look up the translation of the opera song they want to listen to

as they watch or listen to the song. To close the presentation, I asked if any of them had questions, and they asked to see a video of me singing. I showed them a video, but they wanted more and asked me to sing “in person”. Before I sang, “Give me Jesus,” I told them that there are songs about Jesus in classical music as well.

What impact do you think this had on the students? Tatum

After I finished my presentation the kids all returned to their classes separated by age. I was happy to hear the children excitedly departing trying to sing opera. As the parents started to come in to pick up the children many of the children kept pointing at me saying “Mommy she taught us opera today!” Also, the next day one of the teachers at the camp was teaching the children a gospel song, and the kids asked her if she could teach them opera. I was very pleased with the children’s responses and reception to my presentation as I got them excited to learn more about classical music -opera in particular.

What did you learn from this experience?

Through my presentation, I learned that children are extremely impressionable and that when you enthusiastically present something to them, they respond with enthusiasm. I also learned that if you relate something children enjoy to the information you are teaching, the children are more likely to pay attention and be captivated.

What does being an arts leader mean to you?

The children’s response to my presentation really showed me what it means to be an arts leader. They showed me that being an arts leader means sharing what you do with others in the community, and displaying what has inspired you to do what you do because the community cares and is excited by exposure and opportunities. Lastly, they showed me that being an arts leader means teaching some of what you have learned as an arts student, so that the passion for learning about the arts is ignited and to show that education in the arts has a reason to continue.

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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