‘From the Top’ is a hit with local audience

Young performer Henry Johnston conducts a sound check of his guitar during rehearsal in Aalfs Auditorium on the USD campus last weekend.  (Photo courtesy of the National Music Museum)

Young performer Henry Johnston conducts a sound check of his guitar during rehearsal
in Aalfs Auditorium on the USD campus last weekend.
(Photo courtesy of the National Music Museum)

By Travis Gulbrandson


The National Music Museum (NMM) launched its 40th anniversary celebrations on Sunday with the help of some very talented teenagers.

That afternoon, several of the museum’s instruments were used in the taping of “From the Top,” a nationally-syndicated radio show that gives young musicians the opportunity to display their performing skills, as well as the non-musical aspects of their lives.

Eight students from across the country performed in the show, which was taped in Aalfs Auditorium.

One of them, 13-year-old violinist Maya Buchanan, comes from the Rapid City area, where she lives on a ranch with her family, who raise steer.

“Even though we live on the ranch, we’re a classical music family,” Buchanan said. “My sister is a violinist and my brother is a violist, and sometimes we play together.”

“I love the contrast between your life in the Black Hills and your life studying classical music,” said Christopher O’Riley, classical pianist and host of “From the Top.” “For example, you do a lot of traveling just to study the violin.”

Buchanan said she flies to Texas on a regular basis to study with Paul Kantor.

“One day at the Suzuki Institute of Dallas where I have my lessons, I just found an open room where an old guitar teacher (used to teach),” Buchanan said. “It was just an empty room, so I just decided it would be my studio, so I just put my name up and turned it into my studio.”

She then put a lesson sign-up sheet outside, and now she has a 7-year-old student.

During the show, Buchanan played the first movement of Beethoven’s Violin Sonata No. 5 in F Major.

She was accompanied by O’Riley on one of two of the NMM’s historic grand pianos that were featured in the show.

The Luna Quartet also performed. Consisting of students from the Artaria Chamber Music School in St. Paul, MN, the quartet played the fourth movement of Haydn’s String Quartet No. 64 in D. Major.

“The piece is very happy and energetic, and very smiley,” said violist Alexandra Sophocleus, 18. “We like to smile a lot when we play, as well, and it’s nice to play a piece that embodies that smiley nature. When you play something that’s darker and more mysterious, like Shostakovich, it’s a little less appropriate to smile.”

The piece is technically challenging, as well.

“There’s a lot going on with this Haydn,” said second violinist Emma Richman, 15. “One of the first challenges is actually starting the piece together. We tried many ways of cueing it, different upbeats, and nothing seemed to be working, so we figured out that (first violinist) Anna (Humphrey) taps her thumb twice on the neck of her instrument before we start, and we come in together. So that’s what we’ve been doing.”

Humphrey, 17, vouched for the piece’s complexity.

“There are a lot of runs in this piece, so it’s kind of stressful for the first violinist, but at the same time it’s really rewarding,” she said. “When you hit the really high notes, it’s just the greatest feeling.”

When they’re not performing for an audience, cellist Nora Doyle, 17, said the quartet enjoys sight-reading.

“That’s something that we really enjoy, something that we just do for fun when we have quartet sleepovers, actually,” Doyle said. “It’s part of how we choose our repertoire for the year, too.”

Fifteen-year-old pianist Evan Lee of Brooklyn, NY, performed Franz Liszt’s Transcendental Etude No. 4.

Lee spoke about how his first lesson at Julliard Pre-College brought about the most important change in his musical life. He said he brought a Chopin concerto to play, which he now says he should not have done.

“(My instructor) pretended to listen to me for about two pages, and then she told me to stop, and was like, ‘No, we have to basically start from scratch,’ because I wasn’t ready to play something like that,” Lee said. “So, I didn’t understand what she was doing to me at that time, but since she was my teacher I trusted her, and went on through the first year. …

“It was a huge change for me, but the second year I really understood why she wanted me to start over. My musicianship improved,” he said.

Guitarist Henry Johnston, 16, of St. Paul, MN, performed the third movement of Manuel Ponce’s Sonata No. 3.

Johnston has been studying music since he was three years old, although initially he was going to play the violin.

It didn’t work out.

“My lesson got rescheduled to what was formerly my naptime, so that was a bad idea right off the bat,” he said.

Once the lesson was set to begin, Johnston hid under a piano.

“Finally toward the end of the lesson my teacher was trying to coax me out … and I ended up saying something along the lines of, ‘I want to take your violin out into the parking lot and smash it with a car,’” he said.

Eighteen-year-old saxophonist Jon Corin of Sarasota, FL, performed the first movement of Fantasia by Heitor Villa-Lobos, and was accompanied by O’Riley on the piano.

Corin said he enjoyed walking through the saxophone exhibit at the NMM.

“The staff was amazing and explained a bunch of different things about the development of the sax,” he said.

During his interview with O’Riley, Corin shared a view of music that was conveyed to him by conductor Steve Davis.

“Oftentimes music is portrayed as being good for something other than its own sake, and (Johnson) really feels that music should be promoted and endorsed because it’s amazing on its own,” Corin said. “Basically, this really rang true with me.”

This episode of “From the Top” will be aired nationally the week of Oct. 21.

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