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Fiddler Mark O'Connor Teams Up with Young Texans

This week, From the Top comes from San Antonio, Texas. Talented Texans include a 16-year-old baritone from Fort Worth performing Handel and a 16-year-old clarinetist from Duncanville, playing Carl Maria von Weber. Also, a special guest, composer and fiddler Mark O'Connor, makes music with all of the kids on today's show who join him in performances of some of his own compositions.

Baritone Thomas Shivone's rocky musical beginnings challenge the myth that great musicians need to show talent immediately. "I was definitely not a natural musician when I first started out," admits Thomas, who first tried his hand at singing when he was 12. "For one thing I couldn't count (I got the numbers right, but they weren't in the right order). Also, I was pretty much tone deaf." But Thomas persevered, and these days he has no trouble keeping time or singing in tune—and doing both extremely well. He sings Handel's "Si tra i ceppi," accompanied by host and pianist Christopher O'Riley.

Seventeen-year-old Amber Packard was drawn to the beautiful orchestral music she heard in the Disney movie Fantasia. She started learning flute in the sixth grade and has been playing every since. "I feel I can express myself through music," she says. "I can talk to people by playing for them." One of Amber's most memorable experiences was playing flute at a funeral. "That tender experience reminds me every day why I want to dedicate my life to beautiful music." She performs music from a flute sonata by Otar Taktakishvili, with Christopher O'Riley at the piano.

When Elias Rodriguez, 16, joined the school band in the sixth grade, he wanted to play trumpet, but his folks persuaded him to give woodwinds a try instead. "I was a small kid and they told me that the trumpet would take too much air," he recalls, "so I wound up picking oboe, which I actually found takes a lot more air than the trumpet!" But he was forced to switch from oboe to clarinet when he discovered that the prospective oboe teacher lived too far away. These days, Elias plays clarinet in the Duncanville High School marching band. He performs "Polacca," from Weber's second clarinet concerto.

Among the many high-profile artists with whom Mark O'Connor has collaborated is American soprano Renee Fleming. For her he wrote the song "The Meadow," about a transformative place where there's hope to meet one's beloved once again. O'Connor and O'Riley perform with From the Top students, including baritone Thomas Shivone, flutist Amber Packard, and clarinetist Elias Rodriguez.

Violinist Julia Li, violist Rainey Weber, and cellist Branson Yeast all attend the High School for the Performing and Visual Arts in Houston, Texas. When they were told they'd be joining the famous fiddler Mark O'Connor to play one of his pieces on From the Top, Branson went straight to YouTube, to watch Mark play a caprice he wrote. "I didn't realize fiddle music could be so related to classical music," says Branson. When she saw the sheet music they were to play, Julia thought to herself, "No problem—I'll just sight read it at rehearsal." But when she actually heard the piece, she realized it was going to be far more challenging than she expected. "The style is different than what we normally play," explains Rainey. "We usually play more traditional classical music, and this fiddle style was hard because it was looser, but still very rhythmic." The three teenage string players got together with O'Connor to work through the piece, and the newly formed quartet went on to perform a movement from O'Connor's String Quartet No. 1.

O'Riley at the Break: Host and pianist Christopher O'Riley always takes time out to play a piece of music during the show's break. This week, he plays his own arrangement of "Hazy Jane," a song by the late British singer-songwriter Nick Drake.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.