Be Yourself: Musical Connections in Washington, DC

Backstage at George Washington University’s Lisner Auditorium, 8-year-old pianist Oscar Paz-Suaznabar has his head bent over a cell phone, launching angry birds at stubborn pigs, and From the Top alum Clifton Williams reaches over to show him a trick. Clifton has recently graduated college and moved to Los Angeles to build a career composing and playing piano, but this weekend he has become a superstar to young Oscar, who watched intently each time Clifton took his seat behind the piano. Around the corner in the dressing rooms, you can hear soft giggles as 15-year-old Kiarra Saito-Beckman and 17-year-old Taiga Ultan, who only met a few short days ago, recount their performances on the stage. Over the stage monitor beats the super cool rhythm of Christopher O’Riley’s break piece, a version of Aphex Twin’s produk 29 [101], which is being performed by Christopher, joined by alum Marcelina Suchocka and her all-girl percussion ensemble “Excelsis.” These From the Top musicians have had an amazing week in Washington, DC, filled with musician-to-musician interactions that are the start of new friendships.

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The recording of From the Top with Host Christopher O’Riley, presented by Washington Performing Arts, was the final event in a week-long residency in Washington, DC, sponsored by The Jack Kent Cooke Foundation. The recording lauded the 15-year anniversary of the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation and celebrated our ten-year partnership – which has resulted in over $2 million in scholarships for amazing young musicians with financial need. All of the performers on this show received From the Top’s Jack Kent Cooke Young Artist Award, a scholarship to be used on instruments, lessons, travel, or other essentials needed to further their musical education.

The whole experience began at a middle school half an hour away from George Washington University’s Lisner Auditorium on Tuesday, October 21. There, the performers met face-to-face for the first time in the auditorium at River Bend Middle School in Loudon County, Virginia. They gathered around From the Top’s education program staff to see videos of how some of From the Top’s alumni are taking their music beyond the concert hall. Inspired, they got down to business, planning and rehearsing an assembly that they would present to the seventh and eighth grade students the next morning. They practiced what they thought they might say to the young audience before turning to the school’s teachers for advice, who smiled and told them “Be yourself.” As they made their way back to Washington, DC, the performers were ready.

FromtheTopDC 76The next morning, the fresh-faced bunch performed their assembly to thunderous applause. The performers made their way into the audience to greet their new fans. High fives were given generously and grins adorned each performer’s face. As the last audience member made their way out the door, the young musicians peeled off into a row of classrooms where eighth grade music students would visit for mini-master classes with From the Top’s mini-masters.

FromtheTopDC 17In the band room, Marcelina selected kids to play the marimba, shakers, and wood blocks, while she laid down a groove on the congas. Next door, Clifton gave the kids a lesson in networking usually reserved for young professionals, “Be kind, be assertive, and be yourself” he told them. Kiarra used Bach to demonstrate how classical music employs repetition, as popular music does. And finally, Taiga and Oscar encouraged students to explore how the experience of listening to classical music changed when they were lying down, or facing the wall, or doing anything but sitting quietly in a normal concert hall.

This day of outreach was a huge learning opportunity for our performers. Asked to speak for a group of donors later on in the week, Kiarra told us that she wouldn’t have known how to tell her story prior to the education experience with From the Top.

But that was only the beginning. They still had to record an episode of the most popular weekly one-hour classical music program on public radio. Now that they had planned and presented such an involved program for such a discerning audience – middle-schoolers! – this team of performers had experience and confidence that would support them in their From the Top radio recording.

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You can hear their show the week of November 17, by listening on your local station, downloading the podcast, or streaming the show at www.fromthetop.org.

What Would Beethoven Do?

We would like to think that if Beethoven arrived in the 21st century, hearing magically restored, he would see the performers on From the Top as a sign of the invigorated future for classical music, full of passion, humor, and music that defies labels. He’d see the music schools and programs that we visit around the country as we do, as pockets of concentrated energy surrounding classical music. For example, on our recent trip to the Aspen Music Festival and School, where hundreds of young musicians gather to learn and perform the music that they love so dearly, we imagined Beethoven strolling along past the quaint wooden practice rooms listening to the strains of piano, flute, violin and more filling the fresh mountain air. I have a hard time imagining in that setting that anyone would be concerned for the future of classical music.

Enter Here Comes Treble Productions, a documentary film crew that believes that there are many individuals and organizations out there doing great things to propel classical music forward. Their film, What Would Beethoven Do? shares the stories of people like Benjamin Zander, who is building the next generation of classical musicians in the Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra; Eric Whitacre, who is bringing classical music into the digital age with his Virtual Youth Choir; Bobby McFerrin, who is challenging audiences with performances filled with fun and humor; and many more people who are doing amazing things with classical music.

The film so closely relates to what From the Top is interested in that we had to see what these guys were all about. They followed us around on our taping in Aspen and talked with some of the performers on our show, as well as our host, Christopher O’Riley, who is at the forefront of bringing classical music to new audiences. Here’s hoping we might help make the film that much better!

Check out their trailer below and let us know what you think Beethoven would do in the 21st century!

What Would Beethoven Do? | New Documentary Teaser from What Would Beethoven Do on Vimeo.

Notes from Aspen

Well, there’s no doubt that being in a place as gorgeous as Aspen gets the creative juices flowing. I mean, really, how can you not feel inspired when this is your view?

Mountains, pond, Aspen

Tonight (8/3/14), we’ll record a show of From the Top with host Christopher O’Riley. We’ll feature a host of incredibly talented musicians who are here at the Aspen Music Festival and School. Seriously, these kids will blow you away with their talent, and we’ll tell you more about them later on.

But today, what strikes me the most about this experience is being poised on the edge of something, and I don’t mean all the cliffs around here. We are surrounded by young people, at the top of their musical game, who are experiencing the ultimate training and music-making experience. And we grown ups are smack in the middle of the swirl of energy and potential, pondering how best to help these incredible young people bring their talents and viewpoints to a larger audience.

The folks from the “What Would Beethoven Do?” documentary crew have been following us around, asking us all kinds of questions about why classical music is relevant, how we can bring more people to it..all those questions that those of us in the classical music field tackle on a daily basis. Not surprisingly, we’re finding that the young musicians have some incredible answers.

Just a few moments ago, we heard flute player and From the Top alum Anthony Trionfo talk to the documentary crew about his experiences as a young musician.

Anthony Trionfo interviewed

Anthony, age 19, already a teacher and a young philosopher who believes that “music is about healing”, is full of ideas and thoughts on how classical music can make life better. Here’s my favorite quote of his, when he was asked how musicians can help bring more people to classical music. “We can play in parks, anywhere,” he says. “The world is (our) concert hall.”

Right now, 16-year-old cellist Lucy Ticho is telling us of her love for movie soundtracks, and how, when she’s in an angsty mood, she likes to listen to Shostakovich; it lifts her up. “Imagine if everyone had that,” she says. “Imagine if they could use classical music to change their mood.”

For anyone who has doubts about the intelligence and compassion of young people today, I wish you could be here with us, listening to these kids. They are inspiring, energetic, and thoughtful. Luckily, you can hear them on the week of October 6 on the radio, on our website, or via our podcast.

How Music Heals

The healing power of music.

This is a phrase we hear a lot these days. Throughout history, music has been a source of inspiration, comfort, and support in many circumstances.

We are always amazed at the poise and achievement of our young performers on From the Top. The dedication, hard work, and passion that they share gives us hope for the future. Yet even these high-achieving young people deal with hard times, and many of our musicians share stories about how music has helped them (and others) heal. Sometimes we share those stories on air, and sometimes we choose not to.

In our recent taping recorded at Jordan Hall in Boston and aired the week of March 10 on NPR stations nationwide, the young ladies of Quartet Noce opened up to our host and live audience about the challenges they have faced in their lives so far, and how music has helped them through those challenges. They felt it was important to share this part of their story, and the response to their courage has been remarkable so far.

Quartet NoceWhen we interviewed them before they appeared on the show, the quartet struck us as a tight-knit group, with the girls operating as a group of best friends rather than only musical accomplices. They are very encouraging towards one another, and are comfortable discussing serious topics as well as lapsing into giggles when they remember a funny moment from rehearsal. Each of the girls has used music to help them cope with some tough situations in their young lives, which they shared with us on the radio show.

17-year-old violist Sloane Wesloh is a passionate advocate for people with Type 1 Diabetes, an autoimmune disease that she was diagnosed with at age 12 after playing classical music  for seven years. She says, when she received the diagnosis, that she wanted to quit playing. “I felt like it was pointless to be playing an instrument and focusing on passion and music when I was simply trying to stay alive,” she says, “then I came back to it about a year later when I realized that when I play music I don’t feel the needles or think about diabetes, so it’s really the only time when diabetes isn’t the main focus in my life.”

When 18-year-old cellist Drake Driscoll’s father passed away, she was only 2 years old. While she may have already had some Obsessive-Compulsive tendencies, she explains that when she was in second grade, they noticed symptoms of severe Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. She explains, “I was worried about my mom, and going to check on her at least 10 times a night – I was worried for her safety.” At that point, she entered therapy, but she credits music as one of the things that helped her. She says that music is a way for her to escape what she’s feeling and achieve some control over her OCD.

17-year-old violinist Rose Moerschel and her twin sister have both struggled with anorexia in their young lives. While Rose has been able to get her disease under control, it can be really difficult for her to watch her twin sister, who is still struggling. She says that music has helped; “It lets me escape from that whole lifestyle.”

When 18-year-old violinist Joy Kuo came to Walnut Hill School for the Arts last year, she really missed home. While many of the boarding students at Walnut Hill can contact their parents and family quite easily, Joy’s family is in Taiwan where the time difference makes it difficult to find a good time to connect. While she misses her family very much, she says she uses practice time to help her take her mind off of it. She says, “I just go to practice and I think that if I play well or do great, they are proud of me, that my family can be proud of me.”

We would like to hear from you about this. How has music helped you get through a tough time?

Get to Know Host Christopher O’Riley

ChristopherORiley_MamuyaWhat do you think audiences enjoy the most about From the Top?

The kids on From the Top are inspirational musicians who share wonderful performances and they also share their passions for all kinds of pursuits that make them outstanding human beings. That is very captivating for listeners across the country.

How did you first get involved with From the Top? 

When Co-Founders Gerald Slavet and Jennifer Hurley-Wales were first putting From the Top together as a radio show, they caught a CBS Sunday Morning interview with me in which I was talking about rap group Run-DMC. They realized that we shared a passion for the future of classical music and a connection to New England Conservatory (I am a graduate), and that I was someone who could relate to the young guests on the show.

I jumped at the opportunity to be a part of this project – I had noticed a decline in attendance in classical concerts across the spectrum of American cities and all venues, orchestral and otherwise, and I additionally noted the scattershot way that lots of arts organizations were seeking to revitalize interest in classical music, particularly with young listeners. My expectation of the show at that time was that it could be a vital and potentially transformative force in the music world, and after more than a decade on the air that expectation has been and continues to be soundly fulfilled.

Why do you continue to be part of From the Top after so many years?ChristopherORiley_Ellsworth

There’s an energy and excitement to playing with kids who are this fresh and excited about music. I find the collaborations with each of the young performers on our show to be some of my most rewarding performance opportunities.

In addition, over the last several years, From the Top has evolved to become more than a radio show. At each tour location, the performers on our show take part in an Arts Leadership Orientation Workshop where they explore their leadership pathways. They then put those new skills to the test in outreach events for audiences as varied as elementary school children and senior citizens, in venues from Boys & Girls Clubs to assisted living facilities. It is invigorating to be part of an organization that is always working to bring music to more people.

How do these talented young musicians inspire you?

It’s inspiring to be around the next generation of great musicians. From the young violinist living on a ranch in South Dakota, to the teenage soprano from upstate New York, there’s an extraordinary level of musicianship and musical training in every corner of this country. It’s exciting to see what the cohort of performers on each new show has to offer.

I’m also impressed by the performers’ dedication to promote classical music in their own communities. After they appear on the show and take part in the workshop, many of them are inspired to create their own way of using music to help others. Performers have created summer music programs, fundraised for tsunami victims, and played for retirement communities and senior centers.

What is the most surprising moment you have experienced while taping a From the Top performance?

That would have to be in preparing for a performance of a very difficult work by Paul Schoenfield with 13-year-old violinist, Bella Hristova, and noting that not only had she mastered and memorized the piece, but she could start at any measure number I could name. That’s scary (powerful) stuff.

How would you compare your own experience of being a young musician with the performers featured on From the Top?

I look back on my childhood and think, man, I wish From the Top was around when I was growing up! I didn’t have these kinds of performance opportunities, or the contact with my peer musicians. I was playing classical piano, and although music was something that I wanted to do all the time, I had to shift a little bit, so in sixth grade I started a rock band – I thought maybe the girls would like me better. It didn’t help.

Music can be a solitary pursuit – you toil away in practice rooms and go to lessons and rehearsals. Many kids feel that they can’t talk to their friends about what they are doing. From the Top creates a needed community for these kids. They get to share their thoughts about putting this music together, why they think it’s great, why they think that other kids should enjoy this kind of music, and why it’s made such a difference in their lives.

How do you spend your time when you are not on the road with From the Top?

ORiley_TermineI spend a great deal of time on the road. Earlier this year, I performed at Yoshi’s in San Francisco in support of my latest release on Oxingale Records, O’Riley’s Liszt. The concert promoter brought in several From the Top alumni who surprised me with a performance. It was very touching!

I really enjoy the collaborative process and spend much of my time working with musicians around the country whom I respect. Cellist Matt Haimovitz and I collaborated to record Shuffle. Play. Listen. and toured extensively in support of that album. I’m looking forward to working with him again when we will return to the National Music Museum in Vermillion (where we taped From the Top in September) to record the Beethoven Cello Sonatas on some of their period instruments.

When I do have some downtime at home, I love spending time with my fiancé and our many cats. Each of my cats has a very distinct personality, and I find my time with them both relaxing and energizing.

If you could describe your experience with From the Top’s young artists in three words, what would they be?

Thanks for everything.

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.

Jon Corin: My From the Top Experience

By Jon Corin, 18-year-old saxophone player from Sarasota, Florida

Jon Corin performs on From the Top

Jon Corin performs on From the Top

When I first heard From the Top on the radio, I was in awe of the musicians who were just around my age. My favorite part of the show is how real it makes its performers, bringing them down to earth for the listener and giving an insight into the lives of these young musicians beyond the practice room. When I learned that I would have the opportunity to perform on the show, I was excited that I would be able to share both my music and who I am with the From the Top community.

It’s hard to pick just one moment that I’ll remember most when I think back to my From the Top experience. Many of my memories come from moments that were not even part of taping the show. I will always remember discovering the Gamelan with such an amazing group of musicians (who were equally confused by the instrument at first as I was). I’ll also never forget the dynamic of the green room before the show. Although we all experienced some normal pre-performance jitters, I was struck by the poise and comfort of the group.

From the start of the weekend, the From the Top staff amazed me; making the organizational machine run so incredibly smoothly, constantly maintaining a smile, and meeting every one of the performers’ needs. For me, one of the most profound aspects of the show is the sense of community and love for the arts that is so clear amongst the group. I know that I will take that feeling with me for the rest of my life, and I will try to bring it to all of the environments, musical and otherwise, of which I am a part.

Listen to Jon on this week’s episode of From the Top, taped at the National Music Museum in Vermillion, South Dakota .

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