School of Music students featured on NPR classical music program



Grant Engle | Staff Writer

Some of the best and brightest musicians from the School of Music and around the United States will be on display for Chautauquans and a national radio audience at 8:15 p.m. tonight in the Amphitheater.

The NPR show “From the Top,” hosted by acclaimed pianist Christopher O’Riley, will conduct a live taping of the program. School of Music violin students Laura Park and Alexandra  Switala are among those performing on stage tonight.

The program is broadcasted on almost 250 stations to more than 700,000 listeners each week, and it pairs blossoming musicians with O’Riley for duets and teaching sessions.

It will be the program’s first visit to Chautauqua, and Tom Vignieri, music producer for the show, said the staff is excited to be here.

“It’s always fascinating to find a place like Chautauqua that’s doing really good work at attracting a lot of top students,” Vignieri said. “This is an extraordinarily strong show. It’s just a host of really phenomenal kids.”

“From the Top” has showcased 2,000 pre-college musicians from ages 8 to 18 during its 12-year history. The program has also partnered with the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation to provide more than $1.6 million in scholarships to music students with financial need.

The show has provided a platform for young musicians from all 50 states and has created a national reach that no other music program can replicate.

Vignieri said the show has inroads with faculty from elite music programs such as the Juilliard Pre-College Division, the Music Institute of Chicago, and the Preparatory Division of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.

He pointed out that those connections bring the best and brightest musicians to the radio program and corresponding Emmy Award-winning television show on PBS.

“ ‘From the Top’ is in a unique position, because we’re the only organization of its kind that sees all of these kids,” Vignieri said. “It’s a rare and unique opportunity to catch a glimpse of the future of classical music through the lens of this program.”

O’Riley has hosted “From the Top” for more than a decade. During that time, the Chicago native has recorded six albums, including two tribute albums to the alternative rock band Radiohead.

Vignieri said O’Riley has a wide variety of musical tastes, and he cited a quote by legendary jazz musician Duke Ellington.

“There are two kinds of music: good music and the other kind,” he said.

Vignieri also said O’Riley being well-versed in all types of music lets him connect with the young musicians he works with on the show.

“The vast majority of these kids are as well-versed in the latest indie rock as they are classical music,” Vignieri said. “It’s just a part of their culture. We’re finding that more and more musicians have the ability to speak different musical languages.”

The mission of “From the Top” is to celebrate the passion, dedication and personal stories of the nation’s outstanding young classical musicians through the radio and television programs, events and tours.

Vignieri said young musicians at Chautauqua and around the country have a tough road ahead if they plan to become professional musicians, but he pointed out that music has many benefits outside of earning a living.

“It’s such a healthy pursuit,” Vignieri said. “It teaches kids so many strong fundamental tools in how to navigate life. It’s a kind of discipline that can be applied to anything.”