Making Mr. Mozart downright cool

Washington Post

As a Chicago second-grader, Christopher O'Riley was listening to the radio one day and happened upon a concerto played by violinist Jascha Heifetz. Drawn to the sound like a moth to the light, the boy dug into his communion money and bought himself an FM radio.

Now O'Riley is 50, a concert pianist who is perhaps better known as the Pied Piper of young American classical performers. As host of "From the Top" -- the weekly radio show that gives promising teenagers the chance not only to show their musical chops, but also to demonstrate that they are funny and even cool -- O'Riley plays the roles of Art Linkletter, Johnny Carson and Garrison Keillor, all wrapped up in an on-air persona that owes as much to Jim Carrey as to Leonard Bernstein.

But the kind of happenstance that led O'Riley to the love of his life is rapidly becoming nearly impossible for today's young music explorers.

For example, "From the Top," which is produced for public radio, aired in Washington on WETA-FM until that station dropped classical music two years ago. The show moved to the city's commercial classical station, WGMS-FM, but now its format is about to vanish from the airwaves, with the station becoming Redskins owner Dan Snyder's fourth sports-talk outlet in the Washington area. Soon the only ways to hear the show in Washington will probably be via XM Satellite Radio or online.

As school systems cut back on arts classes, music instruction and classical music, O'Riley's 8-year-old show fights against the tide, presenting the classics as a form of achievement every bit as accessible as a great college sports game. In Los Angeles, the show is heard Sundays at 8 a.m. on KMZT-FM (105.1).

Despite O'Riley's rejection of an elitist tone on the show, he is also adamant that the music not be dumbed-down, as he far too often finds it is in the ever-narrowing spaces for classical music in the mass media.

"No organ music, no choral works, just the same light, easy pieces over and over." That's what O'Riley says he hears on the dwindling number of radio stations -- public or commercial -- that devote themselves to a classical format. On "From the Top," you hear young people diving into contemporary compositions, a Japanese work for the marimba, a 20th century piece for trombone.

"On too many radio stations, there's this feeling that you're really listening to the Top 40 all the time," O'Riley says.

That's not to say that the pianist eschews the popular in his own performances; to the contrary, he is renowned for his transcriptions of songs by the band Radiohead, which he has recorded in solo piano versions that have captured the fancy even of critics who have a visceral distaste for so-called crossover recordings.

The point is that O'Riley and the kids who appear on his show get a blast out of smashing through categories, even as they eagerly try to introduce the classics to an audience that knows little about the music. And too often, O'Riley finds that one of the most difficult obstacles to category busting is the nature of the radio business.

"When we started 'From the Top,' the original idea was to cross genres, to include bluegrass and a jazz quintet from New York," he says. "But when we shipped the pilot shows to classical stations, they said, 'If you have one minute of jazz or bluegrass, you're off, because we're a classical station.' "

Even if radio remains strictly segregated by genre, the pianist has no intention of adopting the business' tunnel vision. O'Riley, who lives in Ohio with his fiancee, has an album of Nick Drake tunes coming out in the spring.

But he worries that young people have few points of entry into classical music. Despite the seemingly infinite array of pop and rock music available to share on the Web, there remains an odd paucity of classical music to download. It is still radio that provides the introduction that can alter the course of a young life, he says.

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