Here is the latest piece by CultureCrash’s regular guest columnist, Lawrence Christon. Christopher O’Riley, of course, is best known to some of us for his classical-piano interpretations of Radiohead, Nick Drake and Elliott Smith.
EMPTY ROOM AT THE TOP
By Lawrence Christon
For years it’s been routine, whenever possible, for me to make a six-o’clock Sunday night radio stop at National Public Radio’s From the Top before moving on to watch 60 Minutes’ rigorously depressing reports on the endless variety of swindlers, embezzlers, dictatorial murderers, international racketeers and other notable swine whose betrayal of people who trusted them reaches epic numbers.
From the Top, which has been on the air since 1999, has been a reliably bracing aperitif for what follows. It consists of musically gifted kids age eight to eighteen performing some of the greatest classical music ever written. The show, with its detoxifying ambience of innocence and hope, airs to an estimated half-million listeners from big and little cities all over the U.S., which nicely breaks the bicoastal hegemony over American culture. It’s awarded more than $2.4 million in scholarships through the Jack Kent Cooke Young Artist Award program and has won two Emmys. And for virtually all of that time Christopher O’Riley has been host.
It’s hard to come up with a more perfect fit between personality and format. O’Riley himself is an astonishingly gifted classical pianist, with a deep musical intelligence and pellucid touch that effortlessly adapts to the character of whatever piece he’s playing, whether it’s Berlioz or Mozart—or Radiohead. He seems to embody the Bill Evans’ (whom he admires) precept, “To play well, you have to listen well.”
At 62, he’s still light enough in voice and demeanor to engage the kids on a level that puts them in total comfort. They trust him as an adult and open up to him as a confidant (a lengthy pre-concert audition and interview process, which can take weeks, plus a dress rehearsal, help put them at ease). His manner is fond, gently cajoling, encouraging, interested and respectful—there’s nothing icky or exploitive in the way he gets kids to talk about their lives and music. And they do it in the most charming, funny and touching ways. Where necessary, his role as trusted guide includes sitting down at the piano to accompany his young soloist in fulfilling the show’s unofficial credo: If you didn’t know, you couldn’t tell that a kid is playing this stuff.
Guess what? O’Riley has been fired from the show.
Well, not fired exactly. Let’s put it this way: they made him an offer he had to refuse.
(Before we continue, let me hasten to add, in our scandal-plagued era where everyone is presumed innocent until accused in a media headline, the all-purpose phrase “hint of impropriety” does not apply, nor has it been suggested by anyone connected with the show.)
What happened? The deadly coils of PR corporate-speak that surround the decision make it almost impossible to pinpoint exactly what caused the fallout, but generally speaking, when a couple of long-term board members stepped down in 2016, the organization announced its desire to broaden FTT’s audience base, expand its media platforms and diversify the kinds of music the kids would play. “To bring it into the 21st century,” the statement read, as though the 21st century were terra incognita, cut off from anything leading up to it.
A professional arts management firm was hired to appoint a search team to find a new executive director. That turned out to be Gretchen Neilsen, who earned good repute heading the educational component of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and running the Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles with the approval of L.A. Phil’s conductor, Gustavo Dudamel.
At first, everyone made the right noises. “The board is beyond thrilled to have recruited Gretchen as our next leader.” And, “I am thrilled to bring all my learning, experience and passion to an organization I have long admired,’ said Neilsen.”
Even O’Riley was on board: “I look forward to working with Gretchen…and to empower the next generation of great young performers who will define the future.”
What happened between then and July 12 2018, when the realization of irreconcilable differences became unarguable fact, we’ll probably never know. And in truth, too few care. In the endless swirl of entertainment gossip, any item about a pubic radio classical music program short of gunfire in a broadcast booth would scarcely raise an eyebrow.
The deeper story here may concern an anxiety over the general perception of classical music itself, with its presumptions about dead white males, opulent concert halls, ponderous, esoteric music and plutocratic disdain for the average Joe. (In a partial challenge to that that misperception, O’Riley has mentioned how young musicians have to deal with performance anxiety, family troubles, sexual identity and social isolation problems, just like everybody else.)
If classical music in its infinite variety, scope and range of expression is no longer seen as one of the high achievements of civilization and in fact has been used by municipalities to disperse groups of kids hanging out on street corners, then we’ve dropped a notch or two back into barbarism.
From the Top ’s administration wants to reassure us that its core program will remain intact, and famous musical figures and alumnae will form a permanent rondo of guest hosts.
“We’re about classically trained musicians, but they often branch out into other forms of music,” Neilsen told me.
“Audiences today are media-savvy,” she added. “We want to reach out into social media, YouTube, virtual reality formats, video games. We want to create a format where youth speaks to youth. This is about everybody.”
The truth is however that FTT doesn’t know exactly what it wants to do or how it’s going to do it. And clearly they don’t know what the art of the interview consists of and what intangibles O’Riley has brought in the tender levity of his conversations with FTT kids, the impeccable musicianship which made him their ideal dance partner, and the unique tone he contributed to help define the show.
From the Top will move its headquarters from Boston to L.A. to become, as Neilsen put it, “an education center,” which should change its focus. It may indeed become something entirely new and go on to an expanded freshness that will draw new audiences and wider popular enthusiasm (I may be of a minority opinion that it’s a niche show that’s wonderful the way it is).
Or it may degenerate into the banality of over-earnestness that characterizes so much of public television and radio. But in 2020, when O’Riley’s voice leaves the show for the last time, “From the Top” will have dispatched its smartly companionable guide, and with him, its identity.
Neilsen implied that she was not happy with this development.
“It’s a real loss,” she said.
We’ll see in time how critical that loss will be.