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NEA Takes it “From the Top” on Friendship Night

Delegates enjoy a night of classical music with live taping of NPR’s popular radio show.

By Cindy Long

Jennifer Flores, a K-5 librarian from Tucson, Arizona, had never heard NPR’s  From the Top before seeing the live taping at Friendship Night at the Arie Crown Theater in McCormick Place, but now she plans to be a regular listener to the popular radio broadcast that showcases America’s best young musicians.

“They were incredible,” said Flores. “They not only had impressive musical talent, they were all so poised and self-assured. That kind of confidence comes from arts and music education. It provides opportunities for kids to excel in school beyond traditional academics and sports.”

Broadcast on over 200 stations nationwide to an audience of more than 700,000 listeners each week, From the Top is one of the most popular classical music programs on radio.

Hosted by acclaimed pianist Christopher O’Riley, each one-hour broadcast presents five performances along with interviews and sketches, revealing the heart and soul behind extraordinary young musicians. Now in its twelfth year on air, From the Top is taped before live audiences in concert halls from Boston to Honolulu.

“Today I stand before a very important and very energetic and rather massive crowd of America’s educators,” host Christopher O’Riley said after the theater darkened and the red “ON AIR” light went on. “For a show that celebrates the power of music education every week, how cool is that?”

He said the show was honored to be the guests of the National Education Association.

“What is the NEA?” he asked his radio listeners. “It’s public school teachers, administrators, and the people behind the scenes, like bus drivers, cafeteria workers, and secretaries. It’s retired teachers and students studying to be teachers. It’s people passionately dedicated to improving the lives of our children. And we salute you!”

Photo: From the Top.

He said that all of the kids performing on the night’s program were public school students, like 17-year-old Stephanie Block, a violinist who attends Barrington High School, just outside of Chicago. Before performing Fritz Kreisler’s Praeludium and Allegro, Block said that she wanted to thank her sixth grade English teacher.

“He was the first person who knew I wanted to pursue music,” she said. “I was only 11, but he supported that and encouraged me.”  (See Ms. Bloock's performance here.)

Geoffrey Hahn, 18, a baritone from Carpinteria, California, attends Santa Barbara High School where he’s a member of the Madrigal and A Cappella choirs. He said he’s been taking singing lessons since he was just four years old, and he performed what O’Riley called a “gorgeous” rendition of Ralph Vaughan Williams “Whither I Must Wander.”

Hahn thanked his high school choir director and music teacher, who took him under his wing when Hahn was in eighth grade and has been a mentor and a friend ever since.  “He makes music fun,” said Hahn.


Photo: From the Top

A 19-year-old cellist named Nikita Annenkov first won over the audience with his disarming personality, and then with his spectacular performance of “Impromptu” by Alexander Arutiunian.

Annenkov, who moved to America from Uzbekistan with his mother five years ago, is from Columbus, Ohio and is a senior at Dublin Scioto High School.

“My high school English teacher was a great motivator for me,” said Annenkov. “He said that as much as I loved music, I wouldn’t get very far without good grades. It was a good push for me.”


Photo: From the Top

A chamber music ensemble from Chicago’s Merit School of Music followed Annenkov with a performance of Igor Stravinsky’s The Soldier’s Tale, and the show ended with Avner Dorman’s Presto by Kate Liu, a 17-year-old pianist from Winnetka, Illinois, whose stirring performance got the entire theater on their feet in a standing ovation.

When the creators of From the Top proposed a radio series that would celebrate the performances and personal stories of the nation’s top student classical musicians, a lot of people were skeptical of its appeal. But when the program debuted in 2000, it became the fastest growing weekly classical music show in public radio history. And after Friendship Night, it’s likely to grow even more.

“I’ll be tuning in every week,” said Flores.



NPR's From the Top, taped live from the Friendship Night performances at the Aire Crown Theater in Chicago.   

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