CHAUTAUQUA - Friday evening, audiences at the Chautauqua Amphitheater will be offered an opportunity to participate in a broadcast of the most popular classical music radio program in our country today.
''From the Top'' is broadcast weekly, on Saturday mornings, on National Public Radio. The program has more than 200,000 regular listeners in 33 states. The program can be heard on Saturdays, locally, on WNED Public Radio, at 94.5 on the FM dial, from Buffalo, and also on WNJA, which is the broadcast of the same programming from Jamestown, at 89.7 on the FM dial.
The program is hosted by concert pianist and recording artist Christopher O'Riley, and features the performing talents of young musicians between the ages of 8 and 18. O'Riley sometimes performs with the young musicians, and sometimes invites guests such as Joshua Bell, Sir James Galway, and Bela Fleck to perform with them, as well.
O'Riley began playing classical piano at the age of 4, and started his own band, while still in the sixth grade. As a result, he understands the pressures on young musicians who want to practice six hours per day, while surrounded by a culture which discourages and often ridicules accomplishment and learning. He started the program to encourage and support young musicians, and to introduce the world in general to the brilliant talents and often outstanding and original personalities of the prodigies.
Two violinists from the Chautauqua School of Music will be performing on Friday's edition of the program, along with three other musicians. Both young women are 18 years old.
Laura Park, from Des Plaines, Ill., will be performing the Waltz-Scherzo, Opus 34 by Peter Illyich Tchaikovsky. Alexandra Switala - also known as Allie - from Grapevine, Texas, will be performing an original composition by 17-year-old composer Franz Zhao, who will be a guest on the program. Anyone expecting these young artists to play ''The Gypsy Dance'' from "Book No. 4," is in for a surprise.
Allie chose to be interviewed by telephone. As is always true of young people studying at Chautauqua, a time had to be found, sandwiched among lessons, rehearsals, performances, classes and other requirements.
She told me that she had started to play violin at the age of 4. She started with the Suzuki method of learning, which encourages young students to make music first, and only begins teaching the reading of notes, when the student wants that knowledge in order to better make the music.
''It was the right approach for me,'' she said. ''I was hooked immediately.''
Her studies progressed until two years ago, when she convinced her mother that the two of them should temporarily move from the Dallas/Ft. Worth area, where they usually live, to Chicago, so that she could study with Almita and Roland Vamos, who are among the most distinguished members of the faculty of the Chautauqua School of Music. Because her teachers come to Chautauqua in the summer time, she has come, as well, to continue her studies.
Ms. Switala told me that she has already appeared and performed on ''From the Top'' on several occasions. She said that the program's producer had been looking for a talented student to perform Zhou's composition, and recognized that she would be present at Chautauqua, so they asked her to do it.
She said that she has not yet met Zhou, but she has his music, and has been working on preparing to play it on Friday.
And what is the best thing about studying violin? She answered, ''Oh, definitely the performing. In a few moments, all the hours of work pay off, and I feel in contact with the audience and as though I'm offering them something very special. Without the audience, none of it is worthwhile."
Laura Park chose to meet me in person, on the large porch, behind the Amphitheater, shortly before the beginning of a rehearsal of the Music School Festival Orchestra. A tiny and graceful young woman, she looks younger than her 18 years.
She told me that 2012 is her second season at Chautauqua. Her home is a suburb of Chicago, and like her colleague, she is a student of Almita and Roland Vamos.
She will be performing a solo on ''From the Top.'' I asked if this would be her first appearance on the program, and learned she has already performed on an earlier broadcast, with a string quartet, of which she is a member.
No newcomer to performing, she was the soloist with the Music School Festival Orchestra on July 9 of this year, when she performed ''Violin Concerto No. 1 in A Minor,'' by Dmitri Shostakovich. That particular work is fiendishly difficult, with the second movement typically described as ''demoniac'' and the other movements described as ''a suppression of feelings,'' ''appalling grandeur,'' and ''total abandon.''
How did the performance go? ''It was fun,'' she said.
One of the attractions of Chautauqua for her is the opportunity to play with and especially to solo with a full orchestra. ''Unless a student can afford to hire an entire orchestra, she often never gets to do it, unless she wins a major competition,'' Ms. Park said.
Has she won major competitions and gotten to play with orchestras? ''Yes,'' she said simply.
Ms. Park admits that she started to play the piano at age 4, but because she wanted so much to be like her older sister, who played the cello, she wanted to change to a string instrument. Because she is so small, she felt the violin was a better fit for her, and she confesses that even in sixth grade, her hands weren't big enough to play a full octave on the piano.
She admits that her typical day of practicing at least six hours can be boring and can be lonely. ''I loved school, but we decided that I should be home schooled the last two years of high school, so that school didn't interfere with my practicing,'' she said.
Is it worth giving up all the typical activities of youth to stand in front of an orchestra and make great music? She looked shocked. ''Of course,'' she said.
She said her non-musical friends have been very patient with the fact that she is often away from them and usually can't participate in their activities. ''They're very supportive, though, and they come to my concerts and say kind things,'' she said.
Her musical friends? Is there the sort of backstage, cutthroat activity which we often see on television programs about musicians? She said it wasn't so in her experience. ''One of the great things about the Vamos Studio is that the students are like a family. If another student makes an advance or wins a competition, we're happy for him or her, just as we would be for a brother or sister who had a success.''
In addition to Laura Park and the composer, Franz Zhou, with whom Allie Switala will perform, the performers on the show from Chautauqua will be Ho Joon Kim, a 13-year-old pianist from Seattle; Emily Helenbrook, an 18-year-old soprano who will sing an aria from the opera ''Linda di Chamounix;'' and Xavier Zara, an 18-year-old guitarist, from Minnesota.
Friday's live recording of "From the Top" will begin at 8:15 p.m. For more information, visit ciweb.org.