NPR's "From The Top" @ UGA

Out of sheer happenstance and the kindness of friends, I had the recent pleasure of attending the taping of NPR’s “From the Top” at Hodgson Hall on the University of Georgia campus. The show, which was recorded live on Sunday, Feb. 27th, will be broadcast on March 22nd at 8:00 pm on WUGA 91.7 and 97.9 FM.

Hosted by the renowned concert pianist, Christopher O’Riley, “From the Top” is a national showcase for young, ultra-talented classical musicians. O’Riley leads the way with his experience (he was also a child prodigy) spotlighting brilliant instrumental soloists and often collaborating with the young virtuosi as they wow crowds across the country, week in and week out. Toss in a little banter with the kids, and the recipe becomes wholly entertaining, always full of emotional performances.

The first of the featured musicians was Arianna Smith (17 yrs.) on viola, who played a piece penned by her private teacher Paul Coletti, accompanied by Christopher O'Riley on a grand Steinway & Sons.  In a black formal evening gown, Ms. Smith looked -- and sounded -- the epitome of professionalism as she swayed emotively to the composition's gypsy rhythm.

A slight, lanky boy took the stage next and proceeded to mesmerize the crowd with his passionate piano playing, this time a  piece by Brahms.  Nicholas Allgeier, from North Carolina, waivered deftly on the bench as he brought some in the audience near to tears, his hands, arms and entire person emanating the soulful interpretation; it was a memorable performance with some impressive power, and all this from a 12 year old kid whose favorite pets are his chickens, he shared.

Sunday’s radio taping at UGA offered one (huge!) added bonus: the presence of flute master Sir James Galway, a man regarded by most, including host Christopher O’Riley, as the very best in the world. Galway’s duet with O’Riley on piano in the first third of the show was a telling highlight, with the bearded master commanding the crowd’s attention as he lithely sauntered through an allegro by Poulenc. His rotund gravitas notwithstanding, Sir James Galway seemed on the verge of lift-off by way of soaring glissandos, while simultaneously anchoring the sentiment of the Allegro malincolico with dark and husky, low-register musings.  The crowd's fervent applause verified that we were all aware of the presence of a great master of his art -- the man with the golden flute.  And he did a damn fine chicken impression, as well (tune in to WUGA for that)!

For a "halftime" treat, O'Riley professed his love for Athens' own R.E.M. and he did so with an interpretation -- rather freshly arranged -- of the pre-release track "It Happened Today" from the group's upcoming album Collapse Into Now.  It was a rumbling, glistening few minutes of intricate chords with a deceivingly simply melody floating atop plenty of roiling left-hand action.  This was a beautiful moment, a fleeting ode that O'Riley dedicated to R.E.M.'s advocate Bertis Downs.

Rounding out the program was a gorgeous piece of harp playing by Atlanta's own Angelica Hairston (18 yrs.) a "Jack Kent Cooke Young Artist".  Her hands where as lively and precise as any classical guitarist, and her artistry absolutely charmed all in attendance. 

The last piece of music was a trio led by Sir James Galway, which included the young Ms. Smith again on viola, as well as an award-winning violinist from San Franscisco, Kenneth Renshaw.  Their rendition of an Adagio - Allegro Vivace Disinvolto by Beethoven was sinuous yet energetic, and featured some sophisticated interplay between the teenaged string players, all while Sir James, with his immpecable flute, used his grandfatherly musical arms to embrace and guide the young talents; the crowd erupted in deafening applause that lasted and lasted until the musicians finally cleared the stage at Hodgson Hall. 

Find the full program notes at fromthetop.org and be sure to tune in to WUGA on Tuesday night, March 22nd, to hear the show.  These NPR programs are well worth their funding -- don't forget to tell your member of Congress if you agree.

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