Friday, December 29, 2006

Classical's next generation gets harder to reach

By MARC FISHER, Washington Post
First published: Thursday, December 28, 2006

WASHINGTON -- As a Chicago second-grader, Christopher O'Riley was listening to the radio one day and happened upon a concerto played by violinist Jascha Heifetz. Drawn to the sound like a moth to the light, the boy dug into his communion money and bought himself an FM radio.
Now O'Riley is 50, a concert pianist who is perhaps better known as the Pied Piper of young American classical performers. As host of "From the Top" -- the weekly radio show that gives promising teenagers the chance to show their musical chops -- O'Riley plays the roles of Art Linkletter, Johnny Carson and Garrison Keillor, all wrapped up in an on-air persona that owes as much to Jim Carrey as to Leonard Bernstein.

But the kind of happenstance that led O'Riley to the love of his life is rapidly becoming nearly impossible for today's young music explorers.

For example, "From the Top," which is produced for public radio, aired in Washington on WETA (90.9 FM) until that station dropped classical music two years ago. The show moved to the city's commercial classical station, WGMS (104.1 FM), but now its format is about to vanish from the airwaves, with the station becoming Redskins owner Dan Snyder's fourth sports-talk outlet in the Washington area. Locally, the show airs at 5 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday on WMHT (89.1)

As school systems cut back on arts classes, music instruction and classical music, O'Riley's eight-year-old show fights against the tide, presenting the classics as a form of achievement as accessible as a great college sports game.

Despite O'Riley's rejection of an elitist tone on the show, he is also adamant that the music not be dumbed-down, as he far too often finds it is in the ever-narrowing spaces for classical music in the mass media.

On "From the Top," you hear young people diving into contemporary compositions, a Japanese work for the marimba, a 20th-century piece for trombone.

The point is that O'Riley and the kids who appear on his show get a blast out of smashing through categories, even as they eagerly try to introduce the classics to an audience that knows far too little about the music that has lasted for centuries. And too often, O'Riley finds that one of the most difficult obstacles to category-busting is the nature of the radio business.

"When we started 'From the Top,' the original idea was to cross genres, to include bluegrass and a jazz quintet from New York," he says. "But when we shipped the pilot shows to classical stations, they said, 'If you have one minute of jazz or bluegrass, you're off, because we're a classical station.' "

Even if radio remains strictly segregated by genre, the pianist has no intention of adopting the business' tunnel vision. O'Riley, who lives in Ohio with his fiancee, has an album of Nick Drake tunes coming out in the spring.

But he worries that young people have few points of entry into classical music. Despite the seemingly infinite array of pop and rock music available to share on the Web, there remains an odd paucity of classical music to download. The kids who appear on "From the Top" have generally gotten into the classics because the music was available in their homes. "Usually it's some 2-year-old who just started to pound on the keys of the piano, or it's someone being brought to an orchestra concert and seeing the flute and saying, 'That's me!' " O'Riley says.

That moment of discovery rarely arrives on the Internet because listeners have to know what they're looking for; rather, he says, it is still radio that provides that introduction that can alter the course of a young life. So O'Riley finds himself angry that so many radio stations have dropped classical music, including his show, to focus exclusively on news and talk. Some stations made a show of telling listeners that they were holding on to the popular "From the Top," only to tuck away the show in a 5 a.m. Sunday time slot.

O'Riley says some public stations across the country remain committed to intelligent and local classical programming. And in a handful of cities that no longer have public stations that play music, it's the commercial classical stations that have adopted "From the Top," partly to help seed the next generation's love for the music.

Several of those commercial stations run the show without ads, O'Riley says. "They're doing it because they want it on their schedule."

In the spring, "From the Top" expands to TV, with a 13-part series on PBS, with guests such as soprano Dawn Upshaw, violinist Joshua Bell and genre-bending banjo player Bela Fleck.

On TV and on the radio, O'Riley is searching for the right blend of fun and serious music-making.

"The music is great because it has always been great, not because someone says your SAT scores are going to go up if you listen," O'Riley says. "It's about the pursuit of excellence, in the same way that Andre Agassi is so good at his craft. Notice no one ever says he's elitist."

From the Top airs on XM Satellite Radio's Channel 133 on Sundays at 11 a.m. and 11 p.m.; and on the show's Web site,

No comments:

Post a Comment

Your comment or question here is very welcome! Or to keep it confidential email me at After you post or send it is very helpful if you then call me at (303)861-1447 to make sure I take a look at your comment here or your email. Thanks!