[UPDATE: See Second Thoughts on this post here.]
I saw my first live taping of the From the Top radio show a couple of nights ago - it was a thoroughly entertaining evening, in part because my date (my 8-year old daughter) found it so engaging, and it surely didn't hurt that Hilary Hahn was the special guest artist. I have to admit I've never been that taken with what I've heard of the show on the radio or with the couple of episodes I've seen of the TV version, although it's certainly a well-intentioned enterprise. In some ways, the show encapsulates some of the problems (see Sandow, etc.) that classical music faces in the cultural marketplace. Here we have these extraordinary young performers who can do wonders with their instruments, but in a way and at a level that only a small percentage of the general public can really "get."
The show wants to build a bridge on the human level, by showing us how "normal" and down-to-earth such kids can be and connecting everything with amusing banter - except that the kids really aren't normal, and the banter isn't generally very amusing. The talk always sounds pretty forced and contrived on the radio, so it wasn't a big surprise to see host Christopher O'Riley reading from a script most of the time. As for the normality of the kids, well, sure, some of them may like sports and hip bands and cool fashions, etc. and there's nothing wrong with that, but it remains a pretty countercultural thing to spend the hours necessary to be so skilled as a musician. I'm not saying there's anything wrong with a classical kid being conventional in lots of ways, but let's face it, they're on the show because they're extremely good at something unconventional.
What I feel tends to be curiously underemphasized is the music itself (the stuff they're good at!) - we hear marvelous performances (though no mention was made that a couple of works were shortened significantly), but the performers don't really talk much about the music, and there's virtually no attempt to help the audience know what to listen for. I'd love to hear the young musicians talk about what passages they love, or demonstrate what makes the music difficult or exciting. Instead, they sit and play music that has the power to transport us - and then transport us immediately back to the banal with talk of little personal idiosyncrasies, favorite bands, etc..
There was an astounding young string quartet from the Boston area that played Beethoven's Grosse Fuge (abbreviated) - the playing was thrilling on multiple levels, and while there was some talk afterwards about how this was a particularly audacious undertaking for a new quartet (this was the first piece they played as a group!), there was no talk about why the music is daunting or intimidating, and yet still worth learning. Imagine if the musicians were given a chance to demonstrate favorite passages or tricky ensemble moments. (There's a reason why instant replay of critical moments is so appealing in sports.) I even think the audience would love having a student describe why a particular moment might have gone awry. Talk about getting to the humanity of it all.
Still, such a show is not an easy thing to pull off, and I'm glad they're trying. And anyway, Hilary Hahn was a fantastic guest; I could not have been more impressed with her graciousness and humility - she comes across as remarkably down-to-earth and also fully comfortable with being a music geek. I believe at one point she said something along the lines of "music geeks are cool" - the show is desperately trying to tell us these kids aren't geeks, but Hahn knows better. She's also not a bad violinist. We got to hear her and O'Riley in the kinetically frenetic 2nd movement of Ives' third sonata and playing a movement from a Schubert trio with a young cellist. But, the highlight was the concluding performance of the scherzo from the Dvorak quintet with Hahn, O'Riley, and three members of the amazing young quartet. Everything about the playing of this piece was great, but I especially love that moment in the trio when the hyperactive dance mode quietly mellows into a simple, walking viola melody. The simplicity of that kills me every time. (Here's that passage played by Joyce Hatto and the René Köhler String Quartet.)
But getting back to the basic tension of such a show - they're presenting incredibly sophisticated music and performers, but trying to pretend it's all lighthearted and normal, just like teens hanging out at the mall. And strangely, amidst the blatant pandering (ooh, O'Riley watches South Park!; (not that there's anything wrong with that, but its mention felt like an affectation)), there are many moments of insider talk that would completely confuse the uninitiated. The name Curtis was thrown about as if this music school were as well-known as Harvard; O'Riley pointedly congratulated Hahn for her latest album that proves the Schoenberg haters wrong, yet he seemed to assume everyone in the audience would know that Hahn just released a widely praised recording of the Schoenberg concerto, and he further assumed that the audience would understand the historical tensions at play in audience receptions of Schoenberg.
Still, I feel kind of guilty for being critical - I find the O'Riley hosting act to be forced and mostly unfunny, but I'm not saying I could do better (or as well), and he's a fantastic pianist. Also, seeing him reminded me that he's maybe the best model for piano blogging* that I know of, even though his website isn't maintained as a regular blog. He's been posting free recordings (often from the radio broadcasts) for a long time now, including quite a few Songs Without Singers (my recent obsession)! In his case, he's making the piano solo case for songs of Radiohead, The Bad Plus, etc. He played an abbreviated version of one of his TBP songs at the taping and, though I found it kind of meandering and unappealing at the time, I've since enjoyed hearing his longer version posted here. The man has also posted for free an entire album of his Stravinsky piano recordings.
One last parenthetical bit - I don't really "get" the live radio show thing. Being a radio show, the listening audience is, in theory, the primary target, and yet my sense is that these things are much more fun in person, and designed to be that way. I always get bored listening to "A Prairie Home Companion," but I think being there would be fun - and at least those are more or less broadcast live (I think). From the Top is fun to watch because they make it a fun live show, but whatever spontaneity there is in the hall tends to get lost when edited for later broadcast. Maybe they just need a Leonard Bernstein to lend a hand.
* I've been defining "piano blogging" as: "informally recorded performances that are posted in the same spirit as written blog posts - more about making a point than perfection of execution." (e.g. the piano isn't always tuned; the music isn't necessarily rehearsed, etc.) In other words, a pianist blogging via the 88 keys, not the QWERTY keys.