From Mattapan to the Top

by David Treadwell '64

Photos by Justin Knight

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By showcasing both the peerless artistry and the adolescent quirks of young classical musicians, "From the Top" has become the nation's most popular weekly classical music program. Broadcast on 250 radio stations, the show now ranks among the top 5 weekly programs on all of public radio along with long term notables "Car Talk" and "Prairie Home Companion." It gets better: In 2007, "From the Top" will begin airing a 13-part television series taped at Carnegie Hall.

One might not have guessed that the public would be interested in a show that features the sterling talents of young people who are both bona fide classical music wunderkinds and down-to-earth teens. After all, these aren't real kids in the sense that "reality" shows depict them. No drama, no attitude, no expletives deleted - just real live teens of all backgrounds who just happen to possess an extraordinary talent for classical music. But Jerry Slavet '61 believed in the idea from the start.

Bowdoin Beginnings

"I was a fish out of water at college in the beginning," says Jerry. "Bowdoin was kind of preppy back then. My parents hadn't gone to college; my one sports jacket came from Filene's Basement; I had no interest in music and zero background in the arts."

Snippets from "From the Top"

A 17 year-old clarinetist from Boulder, Colorado, plays the "Premiere Rhapsody" by Claude Debussy and notes, afterward, that he is a big fan of The Far Side comic strip... a 16 year-old violist from Dallas, after performing Schumann's "Fairy Tales for Viola and Piano," says she glued eyes on her backpack and gave it the name Bernard the Backpack, later amended to Bernard the Pirate Backpack after one of the eyes became unglued... a 13 year-old violinist from Sonoma, California, plays Dvorak's "Romance in F. Minor, Op. 11" and then takes a quiz on his favorite magazine, The Economist... a 15 year-old member of the Rattan Trio, an award-winning percussion ensemble from Chicago, confesses that the group members are constantly screening men as a potential mate for their teacher... a 14 year-old harpist opens the Honolulu show with a rendition of the theme from Hawaii Five-0, and later proclaims that she's written a song about her favorite food, SPAM... an 18 year-old mezzo-soprano from Boston, after completing a rendition of "Oh, Boundless, Boundless Evening" by Samuel Barber, jokes that she convinced a potential donor to contribute to the Sierra Club after promising that she would sing a song in the woman's native Italian.

(Snippets from "From the Top," distributed by NPR.)

During his junior year, Jerry, who majored in psychology and minored in philosophy and German literature, went to a friend's room to borrow a German lesson. "The friend, Fran Fuller '61, was writing a play for the one-act play contest," recalls Jerry, "and he said I'd be just right for a certain part. Although I'd never acted before, I tried out, got the part, and got bit by the bug. I was totally moved by the experience."

That next summer, Jerry attended the first professional play of his life in New York (West Side Story), and during his senior year he landed a small part in a musical written and directed by classmate Stephen Hayes '61.

The Passion Flourishes

After Bowdoin, Jerry moved to Providence, R.I., fulfilling his military obligation by days and acting in plays at a new theater company by night. Then it was on to Catholic University in Washington, DC, where he pursued a master's degree in theater and unleashed his entrepreneurial spirit, founding a theater company, the Garrick Players, that performed in area schools.

The Armed Forces Recreation Service then hired Jerry and some fellow actors to spend six weeks in Germany and Holland, putting on plays and musical reviews.

In 1968, he moved to Virginia, where he spent eight years as artistic director for the Wayside Theatre in Middletown. There he turned a failing, small summer stock theater into a thriving multi-faceted foundation for the arts with a residential summer season, a nine-month educational touring company and an in-residence program at the Theatre in the Woods, Wolf Trap Farm Park for the Performing Arts in Vienna, Virginia. His Wayside Theatre troupe included such notables-to-be as Susan Sarandon and Kathy Bates.

Toward the end of this period, Jerry landed another global gig: serving as United States Good-Will Ambassador in the Arts to Asia. In that capacity, he led improvisational workshops in Indonesia, Burma, Vietnam and the Philippines.

After his first and only child Eliza was born, Jerry and his wife Susan left Virginia and moved to Dennis, Massachusetts, on Cape Cod, for a brief hiatus from the world of theater. "I didn't want my Jewish child to grow up in rural Virginia, and the time required to fulfill my career passion was tough on my marriage." He and Susan worked as waiters for a spell until another exciting theatre opportunity arose, proof that the performance bug lived on.

Another Global Gig

Jerry's previous contacts with the State Department led to another fascinating global assignment: serving as United States Good-Will Ambassador in the Arts to South America. He spent a year "banging around" South America, and getting assignments from the U.S. Embassies in Brazil, Uruguay, Venezuela, and Santo Domingo. Highlights included leading improvisational workshops throughout South America; directing "Front Page" at the National Theatre of Uruguay; and serving as Visiting Professor of Drama at University de Bellas Artes in Salvador, Brazil.

Seeking a more settled life and career, Jerry returned to Boston in 1977 with no money and high hopes. "I wanted to start a theatre company in Boston, but that dream lasted about one week!" he laughs.

Not lacking in chutzpa, Jerry then decided to purchase a 100 unit apartment complex with no money down. "In the course of that venture I met some good guys from MB Management Corporation, and somehow I convinced them to hire me."

Ever the entrepreneur and salesman, Jerry helped turn this small real estate firm into a major residential property management/development company in Massachusetts.

And then, serendipity struck.

A Father-Daughter Triumph

"My daughter Eliza, then five, was taking lessons on the recorder. I decided to take recorder lessons, too, figuring it was a neat father-daughter thing to do. In fact, we even played a duet during a recital. There we were, sitting on these tiny chairs, and I got mixed up and stopped playing. But she kept right on playing."

And playing and playing... Eliza's talent as an oboist eventually led her to a seat on the New England Conservatory Youth Philharmonic Orchestra. And that honor introduced Jerry to the world of classical music.

Music Pied Piper Hits His Stride

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Jerry got deeply immersed with the New England Conservatory Youth Philharmonic Orchestra. "I would go to rehearsals as a parent, and I became fascinated with classical music, no longer intimidated." Jerry's active involvement and enthusiasm led to his appointment to the board of trustees. Along the way, he served as producer, publicist, fund-raiser, and musical ambassador for this esteemed youth ensemble. He consulted on the Orchestra's tours to Spain and Israel; arranged and coordinated tours to Argentina and Brazil; and produced highly acclaimed documentary films and compact discs of the Orchestra's global performances. One of his documentary films won top awards at the Houston Film Fest, the Columbus Music Festival, and was featured at the Denver Film Festival. He even coordinated a New England Conservatory scholarship to be presented by the President of Chile to a deserving Chilean musician for study at New England Conservatory.

Jerry's immense talents for getting things done for the New England Conservatory Youth Philharmonic Orchestra did not go unnoticed in the musical world. In 1994, he arranged for the First Lady of Portugal to invite the Yale Symphony Orchestra to tour Portugal in cooperation with the Portuguese and U.S. governments and the National Bank of Portugal. He raised all funds for that tour, as well as arranging all travel, concert bookings and publicity. In 1996, he served as the consultant for the Harvard University Orchestra's tour to Italy.

"From the Top" is Born
In 1995, shortly after the New England Conservatory of Music had undergone an extensive renovation of Jordan Hall, the board of trustees and staff were charged with bringing more people to more events in this remarkable concert venue.

Later, while standing on a street corner, Jerry and Jennifer Hurley-Wales, at the time the Acting Director of External Affairs, shared a magical moment. Jennifer said, "We should do an old-fashioned radio show in Jordan Hall." Jerry replied, "Great idea, but it should focus on kids!"

“We want to show that they do normal kid things, like play hockey or tease their brother or get in trouble in class or eat too much fast food..”

With substantial funding from the U.S. Department of Education and a successful pilot season, in January 2000, "From the Top," with host Christopher O'Riley, debuted as a weekly public radio series on 100 radio stations around the country. Today, the show is heard on approximately 250 stations nationwide by 750,000 listeners each week.

The show's format varies slightly from week to week, but some elements remain constant. Christopher O Riley, a superb musician, serves as the engaging host. He accompanies the musicians - usually solo performers, but sometimes ensembles - on the piano, and then offers genuine kudos after each piece ("That was inspiring, so colorful." "That was such a pleasure, so gorgeous!") He then interviews the individual performers - or selected members of the ensembles - always with a warm, light touch to get at the essential "kidness" of these stellar musicians. Some shows also feature playful skits performed by the student musicians and, often, the show's personable announcer Joanna Robinson.

"We want to present the kids as kids, not as weirdos," says Jerry, "We want to show that they do normal kid things, like play hockey or tease their brother or get in trouble in class or eat too much fast food."

While these kids are normal, their musical talents fall into the supernormal category. Nearly 500 students apply - or are nominated - for about 100 coveted spots on the show each year. And, because of "From the Top's" stellar reputation, much pre-selection goes on; almost all of the applicants are superb musicians. The challenge, then, is to select an interesting and diverse range of performers for each show.

In 2005-2006, "From the Top" is traveling coast to coast, recording 20 shows for the national broadcast. Jordan Hall is serving as the venue for four shows, while other sites range from The Village Church in Fort Myers, Florida, to Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, from the Harris Theatre for Music and Dance in Chicago to the Hawaii Theatre in Honolulu, Hawaii.

Jerry's multiple duties include meeting with the students the night before the show at an informal pizza party. He always stresses the need for students to play an educational role, sharing their great gifts with their peers and their communities. He also takes great delight in warming up the audiences before each taping.

"We want to make heroes of these kids," he says, "and we want them to serve as role models, changing the way their peers treat them and the way society views musicians and artists."

More Than a Show

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Because of the broader educational focus, "From the Top's" many outreach activities extend beyond the weekly radio show. The Cultural Leadership Program encourages performers to develop their leadership skills and return to their communities empowered as cultural advocates and role models; the "Make Your Own Radio Show" curriculum, in partnership with Young Audiences, enables students to create their own shows right in their own schools and a partnership with McGraw-Hill publishers features "From the Top" musicians in their new series of textbooks for children in grades 2-12.

In 2005, The Jack Kent Cooke Foundation teamed up with "From the Top" to identify and award deserving young musicians Jack Kent Cooke Young Artist Awards of $10,000 each in support of furthering their musical education. These young classical musicians between the ages of 8-18 have high levels of artistic achievement; demonstrated financial need; and a solid academic record.

Jerry Slavet is a huge proponent of "From the Top's" myriad outreach activities.

"In this society and even in most of our schools, our top young classical musicians aren't celebrated," says Jerry. "In fact, many young performers are embarrassed to let their peers know about their great musical talent for fear of being labeled 'geeks.' That dynamic has to change. And that's exactly what we're doing.

“I’m helping shatter the stereotypes that people have in the U.S. about classical music. I love what I do. I feel blessed..”

"When students in a high school class see a guy they've known as a hockey star, say, play a beautiful piece on the flute, it blows them away."

Jerry relates the story of a 10 year-old Asian student who was giving a talk and performance at an inner city school in Newark, New Jersey. "After the young musician finished his talk one of the students asked, somewhat scornfully, 'Why do you spend so much time doing that?' The boy responded, 'I work my butt off playing music because that's what I love to do.' And the young man in the class, apparently satisfied, said, "That's cool, dude!"

So Many Rewards

Jerry Slavet's work with "From the Top" is an act of love, pure and simple. He estimates that he devotes at least 60 hours a week to the show, fund-raising and related activities with no financial remuneration. But his intangible rewards run deep; he couldn't be happier.

"I get to meet amazingly articulate and quirky young musicians from all over the country. I work with a wonderful and devoted administrative staff. And I'm helping shatter the stereotypes that people have in the U.S. about classical music. I love what I do. I feel blessed."