When the nationally-syndicated public radio program From the Top announced last summer it was not renewing the contract of its popular host, Christopher O’Riley, the news did not go over well. From the Top’s new Executive Director Gretchen Nielsen, who took the post nearly a year ago after a decade as Vice President of Education Initiatives at the LA Phil, said she and O’Riley “couldn’t come to an agreement” about how to “bring new [artistic] perspectives” to the program. This season, From the Top is being hosted by a rotating series of guest artists, including some episodes with O’Riley that had been recorded before his departure. Nielsen says the transition has been bittersweet. “People really miss Chris. We’re hearing that. At the same time, there is excitement about the new artists, both from our audience and from our young musicians.”
From the Top was in town this weekend for a three-day residency which culminated with a taping of two programs which will air in April. The radio shows are just part of the residency, which featured 13 local young musicians. There were also professional development workshops and community engagement activities, including opportunities for the young musicians to craft mission and vision statements, hone their social media skills with Drew Alexander Forde (aka That Viola Kid), and they’ll work with Street Symphony founder and MacArthur Fellow Vijay Gupta in a partner program that utilizes music as a way to help young people transition out of gang life. (Gupta will also guest host an upcoming episode of From the Top which will be taped in April in La Jolla.) Additionally, the young musicians will spend time with electronic dance music artist and Juilliard-trained French horn player Alex Seaver, experimenting and making music that utilizes EDM techniques.
“What I’m noticing more and more about young musicians today,” Nielsen says, “is a longing to serve and find outlets for their artistry beyond the stage. Even though so many of them are working with such determination on their craft, as soon as they are introduced to ideas that are outside of what’s right in front of them—whether that’s working with an organization which supports homeless individuals or working at a preschool and introducing kids to music for the first time—they’re hungry for it and they immediately want to do more.”
By now, the drama behind-the-scenes at From the Top has nearly subsided. Nielsen says broadening the perspective of the show is how From the Top will further its mission which is to put its young artists first. “This is work that we really want to deepen,” she says, “because I think there’s not just a passion for it, but also a recognition that being a musician today can look so differently for so many people. It’s really important that we’re nurturing that side of their whole being.”
You can listen to From the Top on KUSC, Sundays at 6pm.