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From the Top will now talk down to us

July 12, 2018 by norman lebrecht

59 comments.


The NPR-distributed show has fired Christopher O’Riley, its host for two decades.

Why? No reason given.

In a message to listeners, whom it addresses top-down as ‘fans’, FTT says this is how it’s gonna be.

Gretchen Nielsen, the axe-woman in charge, cannot begin to see how patronising she is being. Read this:

Dear fans,

Below is a press release we released earlier this morning regarding Christopher O’Riley’s contract. This is a big change, and we welcome you to submit questions or feedback at [email protected], or via Facebook at www.facebook.com/fromthetopfans.

Sincerely,
All of us at From the Top


From the Top announced today that the organization will not be renewing host Christopher O’Riley’s contract for the 2018–2019 season. O’Riley, who has hosted From the Top for nearly 20 years, made his last recording on June 5, 2018.

“Chris has been dedicated to From the Top’s mission from the beginning,” said Gretchen Nielsen, Executive Director of From the Top. “We are grateful for his commitment to showcasing outstanding young musicians, and for the impact he’s made on America’s musical landscape. We wish him all the best with his future projects.”…

 

 

“As From the Top enters its third decade, we are thrilled to be working with talented alumni as guest hosts and co-hosts,” said Nielsen. “These new voices and perspectives will help us expand our efforts to support and showcase America’s best young artists, inspiring audiences on public radio and beyond.”

Thank you for your support and for being a listener.

 


Comments (59)

  1. Robert Holmén says:

    I don’t see that as patronizing as just the briefest explanation possible. If there is more to know maybe C. O’Riley will tell us.

    But I have no doubt that a show like that can be done better. Maybe it will be. It’s good to know the show is not being discontinued.

    Maybe they have already dry-run the concept with some “alumni” hosts and feel confident about the change.

    1. Winger25 says:

      You need to try much harder to be offended by/indignant at such stories. Some people here are quite good at it.

    2. Kypros Markou says:

      Robert Holmens states “But I have no doubt that a show like that can be done better. Maybe it will be.” Really? What makes you think that “a show like that” can be done better. I have listened to the show several times and Chris did an outstanding job every time in every aspect.

    3. Cynthia Faisst says:

      If you can come up with a better program then bring it on. We challenged you to produce something that can stand up and keep going right next to FTT. Show us what you’ve got. Let the best show prevail when voted on by the audience.

      But that is not what you have the courage to do. Instead, they just dump FTT with nothing to show for it.

      It is not FTT without Christopher.

  2. Christopher O'Riley says:

    Condescending and disingenuous, to boot. Soon after her being named CEO, Nielsen was addressing kids at the Colburn School of Music, kitty-corner from her former digs at Disney Hall, and she said “I’ll be moving From the Top to LA and making it an education center.” Unbeknownst to her, there were some From the Top alums present who passed along her casual dismissal of FTT’s mission and history as the preeminent media outlet highlighting America’s best young artists. Another bon mot of hers came from her main job interview and was sent to me in which she opined: “Why does it always have to be super-talented and super-articulate kids on the program?” Good point. I would answer her question with another or two: Why don’t we televise Wimbledon for Beginners, or Shakepeare with a semi-literate cast?

    1. Mark says:

      Sorry to hear you go, Mr. O’Riley. I’ve had to listen to FTT over the Internet since our local NPR and classical affiliates stopped carrying it. But moving its home to LA? I am reminded of Neil Simon’s comment when he moved to LA (loosely paraphrased): “When it’s 30 degrees in NY, in LA it’s 73. There are 7 million interesting people in NY, and in LA it’s 73.”

      Why does anyone think that talented, articulate, young musicians aren’t “real, ordinary kids”? Not everyone has to be a dumb klutz. People talk about diversity, but intelligence and informed passion are still considered weird.

      *sigh*

    2. anmarie says:

      What sad news.

      Your charming and unpretentious personality made FTT a hit.

      Loved the Radiohead, too.

    3. Robert Holmén says:

      But you wouldn’t require the Wimbledon champion to also be a promising Shakespearean.

      It sounds like that was the premise, however, with the young music talent being also staged as glib talk-show material.

      With that in mind, I wonder how the selection process went.

      “Hey, you play great but… that story about the neighbor’s cat isn’t quite up to our standards. If you could get the cat… out of a tree?… we might be able to fit you in.”

      If the interview portion is key to the radio concept then maybe an solution might be to do longer, more casual chat before the show, edit that WAY down and substitute it for the awkward interaction that occurred on stage with the audience… if necessary.

      1. Christopher O'Riley says:

        The selection process for From the Top has always been exclusively based upon musical performance.
        The interviews are done first as extensive phone conversations with those musicians selected. The conversations are wide-ranging and extensive, and the choice of those questions for broadcast are vetted through our producers and cleared with our guests; we also do a recorded dress rehearsal so that our guests can be wholly comfortable with whatever subject material will be addressed. We are not seeking to fit our interview content into whatever glib format you imply; we are interested in shining a spotlight on what makes each individual guest unique. Sometimes, that involves strictly musical questions, sometimes it has a lighter slant. It’s not up to us, it’s up to our guests how they want to be presented. We have also been keenly aware with our station-relationships and with NPR as to how much talk in ratio to how much music would make our sponsor stations most comfortable. We have incrementally moved toward more focus on music, but it would I’m afraid necessarily might not be ideal for some.
        I hope I have addressed your concerns clearly and adequately.

        1. Robert Holmén says:

          If NPR was the reason the talk proportion was so large and you really wanted more music… maybe it’s just as well that you’re out and you can go elsewhere to do something in the manner you’d prefer.

          As I noted below… cable TV! A thousand channels looking for content and a show with talented kids playing classical music is no more crazy than a show with talented kids cooking exotic cuisine (of which there are several).

    4. Kerry Walsh says:

      Appalling. I can’t even fathom what she’s thinking. You have always been the show. People love your amazing manner with the kids, and you accompany them sublimely. This is a sad day.

    5. rfmz says:

      Christopher – Sorry to learn of your departure. It is a real loss for FTT, in my opinion. I certainly look forward to what you put together next!

    6. Cynthia Faisst says:

      I would really be disappointed if she turned it into a West Coast thing Versus an East Coast thing. She needs to hear from some of the Talented Musicians that you hosted out there in the middle of the Bread Basket.

      It will fail if it becomes rooted and localized to LA. The dynamic that made it grow is that idea that From the Top could show up anywhere in America at a town near you. These young musicians came from every conceivable part of the country.

      It was like a Musical TEDx for young people. I sometimes fantasized about doing a mini From the Top in our own community with talented kids in our region that needed to stretch themselves as musical citizens and leaders by giving back their talents.

    7. timbits says:

      I am shocked and disappointed that you would use this venue as a place to air such comments. This is a poisonous place that professionals in the music world would do well to avoid.

      1. norman lebrecht says:

        It’s always good to hear a minority opinion.

  3. Alan Hyde says:

    I hate that show. Incredibly talented young musicians play four minutes of music, then are interviewed by O’Riley for twenty minutes to show they are just normal kids (they discuss their pets etc), which obviously they are not.

  4. Stephen Schreiber says:

    There is no better show case of young talent and Chris has been doing it for 30 years. Criticism like Alan Hyde’s sounds like he would rather have nothing than four minutes of music…so that is what he will get, nothing. 30 years Chris has been doing it, just think of the talent that has been on the air, vs. nothing if the show were not on the air.

    Stupid decision by NPR management, for what ever reason, like a lot of there stupid decisions…

    1. Christopher O'Riley says:

      Thanks, Stephen. I was involved with Form the Top since its inception 20 years ago, though I’m sure that would seem 30 years to Mr Hyde.

      1. Vaquero357 says:

        Christopher~ I always enjoyed the way you related to the kids on FTT and kept things informal without talking down to them – or us.

        And I loved your LvB Piano Concerto 1 (and Radiohead encore) with the Des Moines Symphony back in the spring. Come back to Iowa *SOON*!

    2. Brian says:

      It’s beyond stupid. O’Riley is an actual musician (and a cracking good one, he accompanies many of the young performers he features), so he understands these kids in a way that an ordinary host or interviewer wouldn’t. FTT has long been among the most successful and popular shows at my local classical station in upstate NY. So unless there is a massive movement, maybe over social media, to make NPR walk back from this disastrous move, this will be a loss to public radio and our culture at large.

      1. barry guerrero says:

        “this will be a loss to public radio and our culture at large”

        In other words, nothing new here. NPR will do as it wants.

  5. Linda Li-Bleuel says:

    My children and I love From the Top. Mr. O’Riley is a fantastic interviewer, and we’ve always found the show to be highly inspirational. I think it’s great that the musicians speak about their own lives, work ethic, and interests because it puts a “face” on the musicians. And what an opportunity for these performers, to be able to musically collaborate with Mr. O’Riley! This decision is most unfortunate, and I hope it will be reversed.

  6. Marcus Valdes says:

    Can we start a petition to get him back? Would he even go back?

    1. Anmarie says:

      You can start a petition here:

      https://www.change.org/

  7. Dyann Espinosa says:

    This is incredibly unfortunate. I love FTT. I’m not a musician, but I really appreciate Christopher’s knowledgeable banter and interaction with the kids. His low-key approach allows them to be themselves and brings out the best in them. It’s always uplifting to listen to these wonderful kids. Whatever the dissention behind the board’s decision is, there is no reason to handle things in such a clumsy and unpleasant manner. Christopher O’Riley has shaped and supported this program for many years and deserves better treatment. (imho)

  8. Larry says:

    The show is great! I went to school (New England Conservatory) with Chris – he was great back then, still is today!

  9. FM Fats says:

    Now I don’t feel so bad that my local NPR station banished the show to its HD channel last year.

  10. Matthew Robb says:

    Christopher O’Riley is a brilliant host and his Emmy Award-winning program, “From the Top,” is among the best in radio history. It’s intelligent, inspiring, witty, relevant, and a breath of fresh air–this at a time when so much programming is unbelievably bad. Thank you for 20 great years, Christopher.

    I hope the powers that be do not wreck his show in a misguided attempt to “fix” something that isn’t broken.

  11. Steven Honigberg says:

    From a professional musician’s’ perspective, I never understood nor liked FTT. It seemed farcical to have a host powerful enough to choose young artists (kids) He deemed worthy to put on his national radio show. On what pretense was that? There must have been tremendous pressure from the outside to present certain young artists, no? Repeating letters, phone calls, emails, invitations … a pandora’s box for shenanigans. O’Riley is a fine pianist and collaborator. Perhaps his future will be back in the concert hall and in the recording studio – what he was trained to do best from his own young years.

    1. Christopher O'Riley says:

      I don’t work there anymore, but your misperceptions demand correction. I was never coerced or even contacts during the decision-making process as to who would be included on the show. There was a music producer in charge of vetting recorded auditions and live auditions when available (like when we’d be at Aspen, Interlochen, Tanglewood, etc.). It was a pretty high bar, and even when someone didn’t make the cut at first, they were actively encouraged to reapply and nothing gave us more pleasure than to have a young musician improve to the point of their being invited to appear on the program. In addition, we were pulling from a national bank of applicants, and would fly our invited guests to wherever we were doing a live taping, with the idea of having a national palate of performers rather than drawing exclusively from a local pool. It was only in circumstances, like San Francisco, for instance, when we would be inundated with such talent that it made no sense to fly kids in for its own sake. No shenanigans, be assured.

    2. Kerry Walsh says:

      I don’t think he made the decisions. And why not showcase the best!?

  12. An Old Evanston Pal says:

    Hey Chris. Tossing away the most effective format for the showcasing of young American talent we have seen? That’s bizarre! Will let them know my contributions to the show are over. All the best to you.

  13. Karl Middleman says:

    Say it isn’t so! Christopher O’Riley’s departure is a grievous loss. The number of young people he reached is huge. The number of oldsters such as myself who are inspired by Chris is enormous. This show was hands down the best in public radio. Each program was filled with humor, joy in living, and beautiful music. The programs also put forward positive, broad human qualities: inspiring slices of life that most people can relate to, things that many of us nearly give up on in these fractious times. Christopher is one of those vivid personalities who will long haunt the memory. His talent, wit, craft and joy are unique. He should have been able to work his magic forever. His absence is immeasurable.

  14. Helene Kamioner says:

    Christopher, you had a great run. You might try to contact other radio stations like WFMT and WRTI and create you own show independent of Nazi Public Radio. I have some contacts and ideas and am in the book in Bronx, or you can get my number from Eric or google my website. Remember, excellence does not go unnoticed and after all, you are a star.

  15. Manny says:

    Well, I agree. Public Broadcasting has a habit of minimizing talent by over-emphasizing conversation and other habits that minimize the art of music. I want twenty minutes of scintillating music and minutes of lame conversation. You are wrong, in that, Mr. O’Riley. Maybe you had other reasons for that format. Another show has the artists playing their music in someone’s crowded office, a ridiculous situation. MPR build an acoustically dead studio so their fancy-shmancy engineers can manipulate the sound of the musicians to their own delight, ruining the result. WNYC, on the other hand, simply helped them to sound wonderful.
    There are musicians, like Oscar Levant, who are wonderful conversationalists and fascinating personalities. They are few and far between. I listened to From the Top a few times when it started, and never again.
    Maybe, could you do a television talk show, this time, but let the artists play as much as they want before they converse?

  16. Sharon says:

    In the United States organizations of all types that are directly or indirectly using government monies, and especially if they are receiving monies from department of education pots or government media pots, are supposed to have an educational component which does “outreach”.

    It could be that if the kids who are the guests are so talented then it is believed, or assumed, by management that the average young music student will think “I will never be able to play like that” as the title “From the Top” implies, and not listen because he/she cannot “relate” and/or become discouraged.

    In classical music “outreach” the endeavor is to make the average joe, or in this case, the average kid, engage with classical music.

    Probably the ratings, especially among kids, were not high enough so they want to make the guests more average to encourage listenership. Management might want to make it possible for young music student listeners to identify (“Hey, there’s someone whose struggling just like me on the radio!”) and then use alumni as hosts to “inspire” average kids to stay with or to try classical music.

    This controversy over “From the Top” is part of the larger debate about how “elitist” classical music should be.

    I do not know the show but these are just my thoughts from my knowledge of government educational programs which NPR shows, and especially NPR shows geared for kids, are.

    1. Natasha Cherny says:

      I have to respond to Sharon’s comment, above, in the event that there is any possibility of that argument being part of the equation.

      There is a world of difference between “elitism” and “excellence.” Elitism is a PRACTICE, and it is SYSTEMIC, and INSTITUTIONAL. It precludes ACCESS to all sorts of things, including (but not limited to) excellent, live performance of classical music. One of the things Mr. O’Riley’s program did was ensure that excellent youth could be heard.

      As for the premise that young people would be unable to “relate” to such excellence, in my experience, that is utter bunk. What is NOT bunk, however, is that if young people aspire to become classical musicians, and if they are living in poverty, they may well be unable to attain their goals. The solution is NOT to put lesser musicians on the air. The solution is to make access to classical music education available to all economic echelons in our society. If there is any part of Sharon’s thesis that has played a role in NPR’s decision, we are in very serious trouble (as if we weren’t already).

      Here IS my direct experience: Young children, from pre-school through high school, who have not previously had exposure to and access to great classical music, performed at a very high level, once given it, take to it like ducks to water. Opera, piano, chamber, symphony––you name it; they are drawn to it, are hungry for it. Expose children who already HAVE access, and they are often disinterested. They may well fall into that bucket of kids Sharon refers to, who might not relate to excellence; ennui is the privilege of the entitled among us. Since “outreach” (a word I heartily detest) is not intended, generally, for those in our society who HAVE, so much as for those who HAVE NOT, then I would say premise is just not applicable.

      The suggestion that dumbing down an offering is a SOLUTION of some kind is appalling. If that was what was going to be required of Mr. O’Riley (and is coming down the pike), then best he bow out, sad though it may be.

      He would never do it, anyway.

  17. Steven Honigberg says:

    Thanks for clarifying. In a world where our President underhands and who bullies and the scary MeToo movement, it’s nice to hear from you about your above board vetting process.

    I’m a tiny voice among your legion of fans but for me From the Top means exactly that – From the Top. Established, mature artists who can string more than one sentence together and who can move us with their artistry. How I long to hear interviews from the great artists, composers and teachers from the past.
    This would be an invaluable service to our world, which is quite different from youngsters you interviewed who were giddy from the spotlight thrust upon them.

    1. Christopher O'Riley says:

      I, for one, wouldn’t trace my collaborations with my young colleagues in my years with From the Top for ones with just about any A List artist you could name. And I hardly think that I would call my young friends’ confidences to a national audience of their struggles with nerves, terminal illness in the family, sexual identity and social fallout thereof, and all of the things that would and must inform even the most novice musical interpretation, less than revelatory. And we did have many opportunities to feature A Listers with our kids on the program, and far from being a star-trajectoried plus, they were eventually discounted as ephemeral when compared to the passion and enthusiasm of our kids. Add to that, when our kids would go into the community and share their stories and performances, they were often playing to audiences of their peers, often kids who could still consider taking up music, and more importantly, as an enormously powerful self-actualizing tool. Not that we necessary were proselytizing for more violists in the world, but the message our young audiences got was, “If I put my mind and efforts to something I’m passionate about, I can do anything.”

    2. Brilliana Guillot says:

      Oh Stephen, please~
      “interviews from the great artists, composers and teachers from the past?”
      Okay, I’ll bite. But I think you can only find Gould and Bernstein discussion on Brahms d on youtube or cd now- but I guess we could always call Ludwig… see what he has to say….hmmm? We have incredible documentaries of the greats of the past; most being dead. an interview would be a bit difficult. -good lord!
      .

      1. Steven Honigberg says:

        I will tell you exactly what I mean. There are artists in every university, orchestra and in chamber music who have earned their way to the top. Many of these artists will go unnoticed, possibly for their entire careers. What fascinating stories lie behind each and every artist. That is what I meant. I would rather listen to their story than a child who happens to play their instrument very well. I also played well at 13- years-old. But I would never want to rewind the tape to listen to what I had to say, which was not much. Just an opinion. Isn’t that what this is supposed to be Brilliana? Not a criticism of the fine work that was done by Christopher and dedication to what he believes should be presented.

    3. Brilliana Guillot says:

      P.S. and~ believe me. no one is every “giddy” for the spotlight to be “thrust” on them. especially the young and gifted. It’s frightening. to be young and gifted. frankly.

  18. Robert Holmén says:

    Idea for Christopher O’Riley. Since you are at liberty now…

    Pitch a similar TV show to one of the cable networks aimed at young people.

    Part reality show (a look at their daily life), part banter, and part performance.

    Find an agent and a knowledgeable TV person to help you put the pitch together, maybe shoot a pilot segment to demonstrate.

  19. Bill Hollin says:

    I am a HS band and orchestra teacher. I teach average kids as well as the talented ones every day. I have used FTT to motivate and inspire my students. If FTT wants to air a broader cross section of talent in the US, they can just visit whatever HS they want and set up their microphones. But this I can promise you: Average kids already know what average sounds like.

    1. Christopher O'Riley says:

      thank you.

    2. Cynthia Faisst says:

      I can vouch for that.

      Even young people who struggle to get a musical education from less than ideal environments are very perceptive about their peers and who they can learn something from.

      I teach kids from disadvantaged backgrounds and they aspire to the highest level of musicianship they can get exposure to. Regardless of their limited opportunities they practice just as hard as those who are blessed with resources. They go on YouTube and seek out the best possible role models were ever they can find them.

      We are letting these young people down when we lower the bar.

      1. Kerry Walsh says:

        You are absolutely right, Cynthia. What on earth is that woman thinking?

        1. Mark says:

          That should be two questions:
          What on earth?!
          and
          Is that woman thinking?

  20. Cynthia Faisst says:

    This programming was conceived at a time when Classical music was beginning to carry water and in danger of sinking into the abyss. This award-winning programming had done much to stem that tide even in the face of stronger and stronger tide waters. Now you want to throw the baby out with the bath water.

    The audience for From the Top was the next generation of young musicians and audiences, not frozen old icebergs that were headed for the equator. It was, in fact, the first time that talented young musicians were asked their opinions about anything. The innovation of this formatting style by Christopher grew and cultivated a following that is still growing even though you have made it more difficult to access From the Top at a time when you should be pulling out the stops and making it more accessible to larger audiences.

    If you want to dabble in new experiments then do that. The more the merrier. I think Chris would welcome the friendly rivalry. We are in no danger of experiencing a glut of classical music programming that reaches young audiences. Let’s see if anything else you can come up with improves on what Chris was doing or discover a new niche that hasn’t been exploited yet.

    More and more parents are realizing that music education is an important part of their child’s access to benefiting from their other educational opportunities. They are struggling to keep young music students inspired regardless of what their future goals may be from becoming a musical professional to just becoming a more resilient and empathetic human being that loves music.

    From teaching preschoolers to college students, parents and amateur musicians there are not enough choices to chose from that include some aspect of Classical Music that is designed to cultivate new and future audiences. Until then From the Top is a lifeboat among scarce rafts in the media ocean while the Titanic sinks into oblivion while the music of the last generation plays. Please don’t recall one of our best-rigged and equipped lifeboats or fire its most experienced captain. Send out more of them !!

  21. FM Fats says:

    Hey, maybe this opens up some guest host slots for Paula Poundstone!

  22. Richard says:

    It’s a bummer. I moved across the country so I couldn’t see Symphonie Fantastique. And now I can’t even hear Christoper on the radio..

  23. Rick Posten says:

    I have witnessed few live recordings of FTT from behind the scenes and I must say that my impression of Mr. O’Riley was the one of a self-absorbed diva- it is hard to judge from the broadcast but I am glad that a fresh approach is taking over the hosting of the show.

    1. Christopher O'Riley says:

      Taking as a starting point your impression of me as a ‘self-absorbed diva’, but that you readily admit it’s ‘hard to judge from the broadcast’ I guess you’re willing to admit that the majority of a few million people who’ve enjoyed said broadcast over the course of 18 years would perhaps not have ‘self-absorbed diva’ as their prime take-away of my performance as host. Add to that the hundreds of people with whom I’ve interacted post-taping in venues around the country and abroad and I’ll go so far as to say that my conviviality in greeting them and my testimony to them of my appreciation of their support is also not contributive toward your ‘impression’. Fair enough? Add to that your caveat of your experience ‘behind the scenes’ and I’ll venture that you’ve not experienced any of the music rehearsals, and that the selflessness with which I place my considerable skills as collaborator in the service of our young artists’ making their best impression on an international broadcast audience is also not conducive to such an impression on the artists, their parents, their teachers or colleagues. Norman on occasion quips that it’s always useful to have a minority opinion, but at this wide a discrepancy (like 5million to one?) I’m not sure your opinion has any utility whatsoever.

  24. Jeffrey Solow says:

    I am shocked to hear about this terrible decision. FTT has been a remarkable and important show for 20 years, as the innumerable comments before mine can attest. And this has been due to two main ingredients: the incredibly talented and accomplished young artists and the incredibly talented and accomplished host, Christopher O’Reilly. NPR has just shot itself in the foot.

    1. FM Fats says:

      I don’t think this was NPR’s decision.

      1. Cynthia Faisst says:

        Most of us fear that. It may be an indicator of the erosion and demise of public broadcasting. Degrading of anything that is fresh and inspiring.

    2. Jules says:

      This decision came from FTT, not NPR.

  25. Tom Hensley says:

    As a professional musician myself, my initial reaction to hearing FTT some years ago was surprise that a performer as successful and respected as Mr. O’Riley had taken on the burden of a show such as this, and that NPR had benefited greatly from the good fortune of his involvement.

    I would have assumed that when the show eventually and inevitably came to an end, it would have been because of the demands of Mr. O’Riley’s career and the need for him to weed out the kind of pro bono work that FTT surely represented.

    Gretchen Neilsen’s name can now be added to the roll call of unfortunate administrators who have obliterated so many fine projects, concepts, staffs, and inspirations over the years, usually after sniffing the scent of possible greatness with credit going to others. And to Mr. O’Riley, I must add the obigatory reminder: “no good deed goes unpunished.”

    1. Christopher O'Riley says:

      +1


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