Bassoonist Alex Rosales watches flautist Andrew McGee as they warm up before a recent event at Winifred Smith Hall. They're among 13 UCI students who will perform April 9 with classical pianist and NPR "From the Top" host Christopher O'Riley. Steve Zylius / University Communications

Taking it ‘From the Top’

NPR host and classical pianist Christopher O'Riley will share the stage with UCI student musicians April 9 at the Irvine Barclay Theatre.

UC Irvine undergraduate Anne-Marie Alexander grew up listening to gifted young musicians — some as young as 8 — perform on the National Public Radio program “From the Top.”

“I’ve always wanted to play on the show. It’s been a lifelong dream,” she says. Soon the aspiring cellist will get her chance.

Classical pianist Christopher O’Riley, host of “From the Top,” will join Alexander and 12 other UCI student musicians in a concert inspired by his program on Friday, April 9, at the Irvine Barclay Theatre. (Tickets are $20. More: 949-854-4646 or www.thebarclay.org.)

“It’s an opportunity to do something I never imagined I would,” says Alexander, who will play Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 11 Trio with clarinetist Celeste Markey and pianist Grace Liu in the 750-seat hall.

The 8 p.m. event — conceived by Douglas Rankin, Barclay president — will follow the “From the Top” format and feature O’Riley chatting onstage with the students about their music, interests and dreams.

“He seems very approachable,” says Liu, a third-year music performance major who recently won the university-wide annual concerto competition, in which a student soloist is chosen to perform with the UCI Symphony Orchestra. “It’ll be fun to play for such a big crowd — and a little scary.”

O’Riley will perform excerpts from Beethoven’s “Diabelli Variations” and Maurice Ravel’s “Ondine” and accompany Lucas Stratmann, a 13-year-old violin prodigy from Rancho Santa Margarita, on Pablo Sarasate’s “Habanera.”

“The concert’s format gives the students a chance to connect with the audience and share their enthusiasm, their knowledge and some background about the pieces,” O’Riley says. “Their take on the music helps the audience better understand the music and the people behind it.”

Concert pianist Nina Scolnik, instructor and associate chair for performance in UCI’s Department of Music, worked with O’Riley on fine-tuning the event, which features three student chamber groups: a string quartet, the trio and a sextet for piano and wind quintet. They’ll perform works by Francis Poulenc, Ravel and Beethoven.

The UCI students are a couple years older than the precollegiate musicians O’Riley usually features on his radio show. (It’s unlikely any will show up in a bumblebee costume, as a precocious tuba player once did.) But for most it’s still their first opportunity to play with an acclaimed musician in a large hall.

“I knew of Christopher O’Riley because he did transcriptions (rock music compositions adapted for piano) of Radiohead. Then I heard he was a classical pianist, which makes him doubly cool,” says Markey, a senior music performance major.

“I’m curious to see how he interacts with us onstage and what he has to say about our playing. Everything is a learning experience.”

Alexander, a third-year student majoring in music performance as well as criminology, law & society, hopes the concert will help steer her toward a career, possibly as “a cello-playing FBI agent,” she jokes.

“We’re at a point in our lives where we’re wondering what it’s like to do this as a career, so it’s great for us to play with someone who has so much professional expertise,” she says. “That’s something we all need.”

Also performing with O’Riley are: Esther F. Chang (piano); Julia Damron (clarinet); David Daniels (oboe); James Dolas (viola); Andrew McGee (flute); Tim Nguyen (cello); Matt Otto (French horn); Antonina Palanciuc (violin); Alex Rosales (bassoon); and Aaron Tam (violin).

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