Pillbox

NPR features young musicians

Making their way to their seats at Carnegie Music Hall last Tuesday night, the show’s attendees must have wondered if they’d come to the right place to see From The Top, an NPR program hosted by renowned pianist Christopher O’Riley. A showcase for musicians under age 18, From The Top was in Pittsburgh for a live recording.

The stage looked more like it was set up for a three-ring circus than for a live taping of a radio show: Along with the music stand and grand piano, there were four microphones on stage right, a high wooden chair and small table on stage left, and a curious black box covered with a black cloth. One could almost visualize jugglers dancing about the stage and the young performers playing their instruments while dangling from trapezes.

The black box ended up being an actual magic trick: The show’s announcer, Joanne Robinson, placed a red suitcase on the black box and proceeded to pull out an assortment of plastic flowers and plant them in a vase on the small table. The box then got up and walked off stage — there had been a woman handing Robinson flowers from the box. Other theatrics included one of the show’s producers cartwheeling on stage and an announcement that “coughing during the music is punishable by death.”

Once the actual recording began, a euphonium soloist was the first to perform. It was certainly an odd opener, but 17-year-old Grant Jameson made the instrument — a mini-tuba of sorts — sound like a lilting, brassy bassoon. The versatility he presented was astonishing.

What truly made From The Top different from a classical recital were the interviews. After every young musician’s performance, O’Riley would chat with him or her at the microphones on stage right. These interviews seemed to be planned out in advance, but they were still interesting. They served to let the audience know a little more about the young musicians, while adding some comedic entertainment.

Two of the acts — 17-year-old violist and Pittsburgher Daniel Orson, and the Temple University Music Prep Honors String Quartet — were very good, but paled in comparison to the two best musicians of the night.

Aleksandr “Sasha” Voinov, a home-schooled 14-year-old from the riverside Pittsburgh suburb of Sewickley, has been arranging and composing his own music since he was six years old. He gifted the audience with a flashy performance of Frédéric Chopin’s Polonaise, the Romantic composer’s “let’s rock out” piece for piano. Quite the little showman, Voinov took moments to recoil from the piano like a cat crouching to pounce, so that he could have the momentum to pound out some of the more exciting chords.

During the interview, Voinov revealed that his showmanship tends to control how he presents his performances. For example, last year he arranged a version of “Frosty the Snowman” for piano and orchestra, and performed it with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra — dressed as a snowman. He finished the interview by going back to the piano, donning a frizzy black wig, and playing his own jazzy arrangement of Niccolò Paganini’s famous Caprice No. 24.

The show’s peak, however, was violinist Kelly Talim, a 16-year-old Illinois resident and student of Carnegie Mellon music professor Cyrus Forough. She performed Belà Bartok’s Second Rhapsody with seeming effortlessness. Judging her solely by that performance, one could rightfully say that she’s bound to have a successful career.

The show itself wasn’t flawless: While interviewing Jameson, who was talking about how he comes from a long line of brass players, O’Riley made the remark, “I enjoy a line of Jamesons, now and again.” There was also some feedback during the interview with the Temple University Quartet, so part of it had to be re-recorded. However, the phenomenal young musicians definitely made up for the inherent pitfalls of a live radio show.