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The View "From the Top"

The Listener this week visits the show that introduces audiences to a new generation of musicians...

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 not only to show their musical chops, but also to demonstrate that they are funny and even cool -- 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.

"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. Soon the only ways to hear the show locally will probably be via XM Satellite Radio or online.

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 every bit 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.

"No organ music, no choral works, just the same light, easy pieces over and over." That's what O'Riley says he hears on the dwindling number of radio stations -- public or commercial -- that still devote themselves to a classical format. On "From the Top," you hear young people diving into contemporary compositions, a Japanese work for the marimba, a 20th-century piece for trombone.

"On too many radio stations, there's this feeling that you're really listening to the Top 40 all the time," O'Riley says. That's not to say that the pianist eschews the popular in his own performances; to the contrary, he is renowned for his transcriptions of songs by the band Radiohead, which he has recorded in solo piano versions that have captured the fancy even of critics who have a visceral distaste for so-called crossover recordings.

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's tunnel vision. O'Riley, who lives in Ohio with his fiancee (believe it or not, they met on a Radiohead message board), 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 of those stations made a bright 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.

"A lot of it does smack of cutting and running," O'Riley says, but 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 musicmaking. He aims to avoid the sense of desperation that drives concert halls to turn classical performances into singles parties.

"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 Sundays at 9 p.m. on WGMS for as long as the classical station still exists; on XM Satellite Radio's Channel 133 on Sundays at 11 a.m. and 11 p.m.; and on the show's Web site, www.

By Marc Fisher |  December 23, 2006; 11:38 PM ET
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Please email us to report offensive comments.

I knew it was only a matter of time before WGMS went away (ending a classical run of more than 40 or even 50 years, by the way). They started by switching it to a signal that was hardly audible over half the city, and now I am sure they claim listenership has dropped off, as they intended.
When WETA announced it was dropping classical music, I sent both snail mail and e mail imploring them to reconsider, precisely because of instances like you cite with Christopher O'Riley. There are plenty of people who can't afford to go to the Kennedy Center or New York, but could listen to the New York Philharmonic Broadcasts over WETA. Alas, this argument fell on deaf ears. WETA claimed at the time that since WGMS was still on the air they didn't feel they were denying Washingtonians access to classical music. Now that has come to pass: the capital city of the United States will have zero stations playing a classical format, but many duplicative stations carrying all-yack all the time. And I'm waiting to hear an announcement from WETA that they are now bringing back their classical format. I expect I will wait a very long time.

I'm lucky: I can afford to suscribe to XM satellite radio (Channel 110 and 113 are classical and classical pops, respectively, with some of the announcers you used to hear on NPR, like Martin Goldsmith). And the money I used to send to WETA now goes to XM satellite radio, so at least my children can hear the good stuff. WETA has the nerve to continue to beg for money from me, and I tell them: bring back the music and you'll get a check.

If you want any evidence that public radio has lost its way and abandoned its educational mission, it's right here, and WETA is 'exhibit A'.

Posted by: Philip | December 24, 2006 10:17 AM

O'Riley's show is terrific, and another funny, non-elitist, non-dumbed-down, genre-bending show was Peter Schickele's "Schickele Mix," which WETA also used to air, and which I miss terribly.

Posted by: Meridian | December 25, 2006 8:59 PM

PLEASE FAX your complaints to Bonneville HQ, FAX Bonneville
801-575-7534, Dan Snyder FAX 703-726-7086.

Posted by: | December 27, 2006 9:08 AM

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