BOSTON — The setup at New England Conservatory's famed Jordan Hall in Boston last month was pure "Jeopardy" - but with a definite twist. The theme song was a slightly skewed rendition of Beethoven's "Fur Elise," the contestants were two teenagers, all the questions were about music, and the grand prize was not big bucks but a kazoo. (In typical self-deprecating fashion, the loser got two kazoos.)
"Musical Jeopardy" is just one of a number of gimmicks on the fledgling radio show "From the Top" designed to lure young listeners - and young performers - to a celebration of classical music. Consulting producer Tom Voegeli calls it "a pure classical music show with a light heart." It's an engaging, refreshing mixture of silliness and serious musicmaking by kids from age 12 to 18 hosted by renowned concert pianist Christopher O'Riley. (The show initially is being carried by 30 public-radio stations nationwide (check local listings); upcoming air dates are Feb. 23 and April 6.)
"From the Top" is the idea of executive producer Gerald Slavet and project director Jennifer Hurley-Wales, who have as their mission nothing less than creating heroes out of dedicated young musicians.
"Star musicians are never celebrated on the level of star athletes," Mr. Slavet says, "but if you want serious music and serious arts to have a prominent place in society, you have to start all the way down in junior high and high school. If kids are celebrated in school, what they've accomplished will be celebrated more in adulthood."
With that in mind, the show is less interested in discovering true prodigies than in exalting "regular" kids for whom music is a vital aspect of their lives.
"We're celebrating kids who are extraordinarily gifted musicians, many of whom may not even continue musical careers," Slavet explains. "But we're delighted that program directors at radio stations around the country have been amazed by the level of music that these kids make." Participants, screened via tape, come from across the country, referred by musical organizations, radio stations, schools, teachers, and through open solicitation.
Integral to each one-hour show are interviews with participants. Mr. O'Riley engages the young performers in freewheeling dialogues that range from repertoire to details about their personal lives. He also tries to tap into what interests not only the performers but also his young intended audience, and he does it with unswerving respect, a great deal of humor, and much charm. When 13-year-old classical guitarist Max Zuckerman confessed his favorite guitarist is not Segovia but Jimi Hendrix, O'Riley encouraged the youngster to cut loose in a few licks, prompting what was probably the Jordan Hall debut of "Purple Haze."
Each show features five performers or ensembles and an occasional guest star, such as clarinetist Richard Stolzman or guitarist Mark O'Connor. In addition, there are a number of "featurettes," games such as "Musical Jeopardy," "Third Degree," "Fact or Fiction," and "Desert Island Disk." O'Riley has even been known to enter into "Dueling Pianos" or "Name That Tune" with young pianists.
A feature that has become a favorite of audiences and participants is the "Amazing Audience Choice Award," in which the audience casts ballots for the performer or ensemble they'd like to hear give an encore. While many music educators have cringed at the "Star Search" implications, the producers work hard to make it a positive aspect of the show.
"One of the things we seemed to have lost the last decade is the art of 'foreground listening,'" Slavet says. "Even a lot of public-radio classical music is meant to be used as background music while working. The art of listening to something in the foreground needs to be cultivated.
"With this game, you can't pick a favorite unless you really listen."
Meanwhile, the performers discount the notion of competitive pressure. "It was really incidental to what was going on," says soprano Elizabeth Shapiro, a senior at Lexington (Mass.) High School, who performed on the program in the fall. "We all were a bit nervous about performing, but once we did our schtick, we weren't worried about who got chosen ... we were all rooting for each other."
The show now has a Web site (www.fromthetop.net) and producers are working on an educational component for classrooms. After this first season of seven shows, they are set to begin taping 26 more in September for national release in 2000. By then, they hope it will air in roughly 150 markets, with some shows taped "on the road" with regional performers.
"We're trying to create a show that can appeal to a faculty member at New England Conservatory as well as to a third-grader who's never heard a piece of classical music," Slavet says.
"We don't want to be didactic or pedantic, but rather say, 'Here's some great music played by some great kids. Enjoy it, and in the process you might learn something.' "