CultureMap Interview

NPR's From the Top to tape in Houston: Step into Christopher O'Riley's world of rising stars

NPR's From the Top to tape in Houston: Step into Christopher O'Riley's world of rising stars

Christopher O'Riley
For the last 12 years, versatile pianist Christopher O'Riley has been hosting NPR's radio program and the Emmy Award-winning PBS television series From the Top. He'll be in houston to tape an episode on Saturday. Photo by Wendy Lynch

Not to get all Whitney Houston here, but there's undeniable truth to her lyrics, "teach them well and let them lead the way." 

For the last 12 years, versatile pianist Christopher O'Riley has been hosting NPR's radio program and the Emmy Award-winning PBS television series From the Top and doing exactly that: Offering a forum to showcase emerging pre-collegiate musicians ages 8 to 18, granting scholarships and encouraging conversation so youngsters can usher classical music into the 21st century.

From the Top is en route to Houston for a taping. Set for 7:30 p.m. Saturday at the Wortham Theater Center, this episode presents a host of local hopefuls — 16-year-old cellist Charles Seo, 15-year-old pianist Esther Liao and the 82-member Houston Youth Symphony — alongside 18-year-old horn player Shelby Nugent from Waterloo, Ill., and 17-year-old baritone Aaron Bigeleisen from Pittsford, N.Y.

"Audiences expect a more rewarding and personal relationship with the onstage artist. The old concert presentation is a dying dinosaur. The need for actual contact is real."

O'Riley has warm memories from his last Bayou City radio gig in 2008, conducting scenes from Humperdinck's Hansel and Gretel at Houston Grand Opera and performing at piano festivals at Rice University.

CultureMap spoke with the soloist and media host on the phone, chatting about changes in the classical music industry, education and what he's learned from young performers.

CultureMap: For more than a decade, you've been in tune with the risings stars of classical music. In what ways has the industry changed since you were a child hoping to break into the scene?

Christopher O'Riley: When I was growing up in a strict classical world, playing great was basically the way you made a career. It's quite a different landscape today.

For kids to pave a successful career path, they need to make their personalities unique and compelling. That means they need to bring to the fore a wide range of musical interests, something that in the past may have been dampened. Their diversity of interests in music outside of classical music will set them apart from all the extraordinary talent out there in professional circles and in music conservatories.

The straight and narrow path can be risky. I know talented players that won orchestral jobs only to have that ensemble go belly up. It's not a heartening time for young musicians. Those who celebrate who they are and are encouraged to cultivate a wide musical world with passion will thrive.

CM: I was listening to last week's show and I was astonished that a young 18-year-old flutist flew right through Eugene Bozza's Image, playing technical passages that are extremely taxing as if she didn't realize the piece is difficult — at all.

Do kids surprise you?

CO: Absolutely! Year by year I am astonished at the level of musicianship, technically and emotionally.

We live in a Technological Age. Besides working hard and having good training, emerging musicians have a global awareness of what is technical prowess, appropriate performance practice and excellence. Think of what's available on YouTube.

CM: There's a problem in music performance education: You have master teachers who learned in the musical world of yesterday hoping to help students survive in a much different industry. How is that conundrum addressed?

CO: When I am counseling students to go to various music schools, they must find teachers they connect with personally. A good teacher enables the student's natural abilities to thrive.

I don't expect many piano teachers will be able to coach Rachmaninoff, the nuts and bolts of style within the classical realm and then shift to Radiohead. This is something you pick up on your own. 

When I was learning jazz — I never told my own piano teacher I was doing so — I had to listen to records. 

CM: Career development, entrepreneurship, business: These are key words in music education today and even From the Top has its own program that addresses these skills. Do you miss the days when music was just enough?

CO: I think of it more as arts advocacy. The day after a taping, we get children together to share their journey and generate ideas of how music can improve lives and support communities. These artists are the ones with the ideas to connect people, influence the political scene and keep arts funding alive. 

It's less about career development and more about making music compelling and important. There are plenty of adversaries in every city who want to cut the arts. 

CM: How have you changed since you've started hosting From the Top? What are some valuable lessons you've gleaned from your guests?

CO: The concert experience has changed: Audiences expect a more rewarding and personal relationship with the onstage artist. The old concert presentation is a dying dinosaur. The need for actual contact is real.

They've learned the lesson that a performing artist is also an advocate, one that needs to understand the responsibility to make the arts an essential part of their communities. And they've learned this in a much shorter time than my generation.

From the Top visits Houston on Saturday, 7:30 p.m. at the Wortham Theater Center. Tickets start at $30 and can be purchased online or by calling 713-222-5400.