Classical Stories
4:16 pm
Tue October 2, 2007

"Let's Take it From the Top"

A different sort of reality show is dominating the ratings - the classical radio ratings, that is. It's a weekly show that travels from Honolulu to Tuscaloosa in which participants are routinely teased and their personalities probed.

A different sort of reality show is dominating the ratings - the classical radio ratings, that is. It's a weekly show that travels from Honolulu to Tuscaloosa in which participants ages nine to 18 are routinely teased and their personalities probed. They are expected to perform to the best of their abilities, which they do with good grace and humor, musical civilians and superstars alike. No one is booted or voted off, and musicians and audience are left with a sense of awe at the phenomenal talent and aching sides from all that laughter.

From the Top has the feeling of a show that has been around forever, but it's actually a broadcasting infant, according to co-founder Gerald Slavet. "It came about quite quickly," he says, with understatement, "a little over six years ago." And since then, From the Top has gone on to produce 26 new shows a season: in one recent three-week period, the show taped in West Palm Beach, Fla., Boston, Mass., Abilene, Texas, and Louisville, Ky.

After he had been assisting the New England Conservatory in what he calls "rather grand" concert tours of Latin America, with rapturous audience response, Slavet relished the idea that the students might be recognized in their own country. He had seen how well they played, how articulate they were, and how they reached people so effectively.

"We celebrate our athletes from elementary school up," Slavet says. "An 11-year-old soccer star is greatly elevated, but a pianist or cellist generally isn't."

Slavet did not experience art or classical music growing up and, as he got older, he was intimidated by both art forms until he realized that, when he had an emotional connection, he felt a real connection.

And it's the unique juxtaposition of young voices and astonishing musicianship that gives From the Top its successful voice. "The musicians are presented as they are," says Slavet, "nothing watered down."

The participants, who are selected exclusively on ability, have lives that are interesting and full. And what kids! "Kids from literally in the middle of nowhere appear with phenomenal talent," says Slavet. "When we talk about diversity, we talk about age, gender, instrument, repertoire, nationality, and race."

Slavet says the show's success in just a few seasons is due to a combination of factors: "It's a good show, with strong marketing, and it's about the brilliance of kids' music and hearing their own voices about their own lives."

The presence of musical superstars helps, too. Pablo Zieger, Peter Schickele, Sarah Chang, Yo-Yo Ma, Dawn Upshaw, and Midori have all made appearances, revealing themselves to be just a human as the students. Pianist Chris O'Riley is an engaging and seemingly effortless host, gently poking fun at guests through rehearsed skits that traverse issues like sibling rivalry and being grumpy in the morning. Teenage "roving reporter" Hayley Goldbach provides vignettes of the student's lives, like the time she visited the home of a contestant's grandmother and sampled the Southern food that sustained the young pianist as he was growing up.

But unlike the radio shows of yore, From the Top goes beyond the airwaves. In addition to the live tapings, or "concerts," as Slavet prefers to call them, and the subsequent radio broadcasts, are further points of entry for young musicians into the From the Top world: an interactive website (www.fromthetop.org), a broad outreach and education program, and now a public television show. A recent commercial link with textbook publishers McGraw-Hill have put From the Top alumni and their listening guides in front of an estimated 30 million children in grades K-8. And, because many school districts have eliminated formal music education, From the Top has added a Cultural Leadership Program to its roster of responsibilities, designed to train every show participant to go forward as a cultural leader in their own community. "The premise is that all kids are gifted and that they therefore have a responsibility to give back," says Slavet.

He is convincing when he opines that the "future of our country lies in very good hands."

Caeli Smith, who lives in Philadelphia and performed on From the Top in 2004, enthuses about her experience:

"Every Saturday afternoon, on the way from my house to my chamber orchestra at Settlement Music School's Queen Street branch, I listen to my favorite radio program From the Top, in the car. So it seems fitting that I was in the car, checking messages with the cell phone when I found out I was going to be on From the Top. I was so excited, my mom pulled over. We called my violin teacher to tell him the great news.

Two months later, my whole family was driving to the Shenandoah Conservatory in Virginia, where I would get to perform "Dance of the Blessed Spirits" by Gluck, with the show's host, pianist Christopher O'Riley. I can honestly say I've almost never had as much fun as I did that weekend. They had a pizza party for us at the music rehearsal the night before the show. The writers and production staff were funny and thoughtful, and the other performers were great company.

The show itself was fabulous. I did a skit with Christopher O'Riley and the announcer, Joanne Robinson, and the audience thought it was hilarious. It was a great privilege and musical experience to perform with one of the nation's most accomplished classical pianists!

One of the best things about From the Top is that they work so hard to make the young performers feel at home and relaxed. Performing is just another pleasure and you enjoy yourself the whole time! If you are a young classical musician, I encourage you to apply to perform on From the Top."

Listen to From the Top on WRTI-FM, every Saturday fom 12:30 to 1:30 pm