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.

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.

Christopher O’Riley’s Liszt

O'Riley's LisztFrom the Top host Christopher O’Riley has released a new recording, O’Riley’s Liszt which delves into the transcriptions of the master interpreter. The  2-CD set and HD audio/video Blu-ray features Christopher’s own touches on the works of Mozart, Wagner, Berlioz, Schubert, and Schumann. Christopher is also making live appearances in conjunction with the May 7 release, performing at clubs and other alternative venues in New York, Boston, Chicago, Washington, D.C., and San Francisco. Check out the schedule below.

Christopher O’Riley on tour with O’Riley’s Liszt

May 12 – Highline Ballroom New York, NY
May 13 – Merit School of Music Chicago, IL
May 15 – Regattabar Cambridge, MA
May 27 – Iota Club and Cafe Arlington, VA
May 29 – Yoshi’s San Francisco, CA

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