Friday, May 18, 2012

The Experience- From The Top, NPR's Classical Music Program for Youth

By Matt Lammers of Fein Violins

This past June (2011) my string quartet, the Malik String Quartet, was invited to perform on National Public Radio's youth-in-classical-music showcase program "From the Top". We were thrilled; "From the Top" is a hearty dose of protein for any resume. As a matter of fact it's safe to say you'd have difficulty finding a major competition anywhere in the United States without "From the Top" somewhere in the program biographies. We (and our coach too, it must be said) were nervous on top--rather, from the top--of our excitement.

I remember the conversation well:

"So guys, what do we want to play on the show?"
"I dunno, how about our Shostakovich 5?"
"Nah, too dark. It's going to be a beautiful summer day in June, I don't think the audience will be up for Soviet dissent."
"And it's too long."
"OK, good point, good point. What about our Beethoven?"
"Too long."
"Too long."
"Too long."
"Dvorak E-flat?
"Too long."
"We have to learn something new in the next two months, don't we?"
"Yes, yes we do."

Not a problem for a wedding gig or routine performance, but for "From the Top"? That's a tall order. After an obligatory break for a snack to revive our violist we got back to worrying:

"Alright, how about we learn a shorter movement of Haydn?"
"Seriously? It's just a misnamed violin concerto."
"Fine, fine, how about Bridge?"
"Too gimmicky."
"Dude, we said Shostakovich was too dark."
"Good idea, we can throw that together in a few weeks."
*chuckles all around*

After a hysterical call to our coach, Ray Shows, we finally settled on the finale of the Dvorak "American" quartet. We found it had a tolerable level of appropriate summer festivity...and it was short enough.

In the following weeks we spent hours refining our Dvorak and performing when possible. The day before we were scheduled to jump on the plane we had a performance at the University of Minnesota, a performance that seared Friday, June 24th into our memories as a day that will live in infamy. The recital didn't go well, and after a scorching reprimand from our coach we went home with our deflated egos to pack for the next day.

The Malik String Quartet after a performance in May before "From the Top"
From left to right: John Belk (cello), Mark Hatlestad (viola), Melissa Deal (violin), Matt Lammers (violin)

Day 1 
The six of us (quartet, coach, and cello) took our seats on the flight into New York City courtesy of the show. We were, however, ever so slightly disappointed that our seats happened to be the ones just in front of the lavatory and just behind the engines. That said, we landed undeterred, picked up our rented van, got a taste of NYC "food from a truck" cuisine, and made our way to the address we were given in Rye Brook. As we drove out of the city at a crawl we were immediately taken aback by the New York suburb that would be our home for the next few days. Aston Martins and the occasional Rolls Royce whizzed past our peasant mini van and we ogled at the massive estates and their guest houses until our hotel crept into view beyond a golf course, pristine lake, and forest we hadn't counted on seeing fifteen minutes outside New York City.

We scarcely had time to change from our comfortable flight clothing into Rye-Brook-suitable attire and relieve the wedding party in residence of an hors d'oeuvre or two before we were met by the production team and our fellow performers in the hotel lobby. Once the music producer announced that he wasn't entirely sure where we were going all of us formed a convoy and made our way to the "city" of Katonah to become acquainted with our venue for the next day, the Caramoor Music Festival. As we pulled in our jaws dropped once more; a complex of gorgeous, Spanish style buildings stood before us, and we hauled our instruments inside. We were subsequently told to do the last thing we wanted to that day: unpack and perform the program for the staff for "quality control" purposes. Unnerved by our performance the day before and exhausted from bumming around airports all day, we took the stage and managed to produce a run-through with which we could be satisfied. Our jaw-dropping muscles got another workout as we surveyed our fellow performers as well, and we were reminded once again that our work was cut out for us to keep up with our peers. It would not do our show's performers justice to explain why (you can, however, listen to the broadcast for yourself at "From the Top" from Katonah, New York ). After a dinner provided by the show, during which we all introduced ourselves formally and became familiar with the performers and staff, our day came to a close. After the four of us irritated the hotel's occupants with a late-night rehearsal in a first floor meeting room, that is.

The facade of the Caramoor Estate

The Malik String Quartet's arrival at the Caramoor Estate

The Malik String Quartet tuning up before the "quality control" performance for the cast and production team

Day 2
We woke up to a lavish breakfast spread in the hotel courtesy of the show, then made our way once again to the Caramoor Estate. Instead of being ushered indoors we were shown to the Venetian Theatre, the stage we'd be taking later that day. By this point in the trip we should have been expecting it, but as we walked under an enormous tent we were once again blown away by what we saw. The stage was nestled into one of the buildings with stone columns on three sides, there were about a thousand seats, and all of this was surrounded by lush gardens and forest. Here we met the performers and staff for a dress rehearsal (footage from the rehearsal and performer information can be found at "From the Top" Green Room ). Each performer made his/her way through the web of microphone cables and lighting cords to take a dry run through the show. Despite the odd sensation of having a sea of unoccupied chairs staring at us, we managed a take of the Dvorak that bested our performance the day before. Our spirits were lifted by the upswing. Once the dress rehearsal concluded, the technicians were finished telling us what not to touch, and we'd kicked ourselves over the stupid things we said in the mock interviews, the producer brought us to a buffet set up outside the theatre for lunch. We had some good food and discovered some more interesting quirks of the production team.

After our long meal and expedition through the Caramoor gardens we were shown upstairs behind the theatre to our green room to avoid watching the audience fill. That didn't do much good, as our nerves were already pushed to the limit. Sitting through the show until it was our turn took a painfully long time as well. As we finally took the stage to take it "from the top" and surveyed our audience we were stunned; we'd envisioned that a select number of NPR aficionados were going to show up to the taping, but we were very wrong.  Almost every seat was full. The biggest "hall" we'd ever played for was nearly full to capacity. We ducked and weaved through the maze of recording equipment again, and our cellist made introductions as we got situated. Then off we went. Our second violinist laid down the law in the first few bars with a brilliant tempo, and the rest was history as we gave the performance we'd been hoping for. We also managed to escape the interview with just one strange comment between us. We were met at the back door of the theatre by our ecstatic coach, who was on the phone with his wife (who also coached us on a regular basis before the show) shouting with excitement. We, and our fellow performers, were perplexed by the empty plaza outside the theatre until we were informed the doors, which were cleverly placed across the plaza from us, hadn't yet been opened yet. The deluge of people that came soon after was an overwhelming mixture of congratulations, handshakes, and the occasional photo op. The day was a success.

Game faces were a mandatory part of the pre-taping dress rehearsal

Getting situated on stage before the recorded performance

A celebratory photo op with our coach, Ray Shows, before the plaza was inundated by an eager audience

Day 3
Day three was very confusing for us. We'd gone from acclaimed performers on Sunday to pupils of an unexpected philosophy on Monday. We spent the majority of Monday morning and afternoon becoming informed on how to use our music to serve the community. Aside from the standard call to service with a musical spin, however, we had the opportunity to get to know our fellow performers better. The group dynamic was interesting. We had eight people with largely different personalities getting along famously with music as the tie that bound. It was also at this point that I had a revelation. Here I was having an enjoyable time with seven other musicians that are expected to be the most pretentious of the arrogant and most snide of the elite, but they were none of these things. Nor was anybody on the production team.

I believe this is the cue to do away with the preconception that classical musicians are inherently "snobby" and can only dream of one day achieving "normalcy". It simply isn't true, and passionate classical musicians are among the most human people I've encountered.

...and we saw Alec Baldwin in the airport on the way home.

Are you a violinist or interested in becoming one? check out our Fine Violins

1 comment:

  1. The coach's name is Ray Shows and he deserves some credit for getting the bums on the show. ;^)