From the Top: William Bolcom joins teens to play his music

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December 31, 2008 - This week, gifted young musicians gather at Boston's New England Conservatory to perform music by an American original — William Bolcom, who joins them in a concert of his music. A 17-year-old violinist plays the "Graceful Ghost" rag, a 14-year-old soprano enlivens a campy cabaret song, and a teen string quartet performs music Bolcom wrote at age 12. 


Karen Cueva's earliest memory is of holding a violin. It was at her very first music lesson when she was a toddler and she's been hooked on the fiddle ever since. Now a student at Walnut Hill, a prestigious arts school just outside of Boston, 17-year-old Cueva performs regularly with New England Conservatory's Youth Philharmonic Orchestra. 

Melanie Sierra first performed on From the Top when she was ten years old. A miniature dynamo with a powerful singing voice and the acting chops to match, she performed "They Say It's Wonderful," from Irving Berlin's Annie Get Your Gun. Four years later, now she's back to perform "Amor" from Bolcom's Cabaret Songs, with the composer himself at the piano. 

Sierra knew she wanted to be a singer by the time she was three. 

"I loved watching Judy Garland films, especially the Wizard of Oz," she recalls. "Hearing Judy Garland sing was amazing to me. I became obsessed." 

Sierra says years ago her grandmother was also obsessed with singing, but never pursued a career. 

"In her time it wasn't right for a society girl to perform onstage," explains Sierra, whose sister is an opera singer. "Not only do my sister and I sing for ourselves, but we sing for her too. We are also exploring her dream." 

Eleven-year-old Brian Ge demanded piano lessons before he had even turned three. 

"My older brother played the piano and I liked to sing along," he says. "I couldn't wait to play piano myself." 

Today, Ge attends the Juilliard School pre-college division where he studies piano with Veda Kaplisky. 

In addition to being a talented pianist, Ge also sings with the Metropolitan Opera Children's Chorus and is a competitive swimmer. He performs Bagatelles Nos. 5-9, from Bolcom's Nine Bagatelles. 

Meet the Bolcom Bros: 16-year-old violinists Ryan Shannon and Brendan O'Donnell, 17-year-old violist William Neri, and 16-year-old cellist Quinn Kalmansson — all students at the Walnut Hill School in Massachusetts. The four teens got together to revive Bolcom's "String Quartet No. 2" — music that hadn't been performed since the composer wrote it at age 12. 

Learning the work posed a special challenge for the young musicians: the score was handwritten (and sometimes tricky to decipher) and there were no recordings available for them to reference. 

"It was the first time any of us had ever played a piece without listening to a recording to help us figure out an approach to take," says O'Donnell. 

Bolcom had not heard his Quartet played in over 50 years. 

To conclude the show, host Christopher O'Riley joins the Bolcom Bros, playing movements three and four from Bolcom's Piano Quintet. 

Bolcom felt a sense of satisfaction after hearing his works come to life in the hands of these young musicians. 

"These kids are phenomenal," he said. "They are among the very best musicians I've ever dealt with!" 

Special guest William Bolcom is a composer of cabaret songs, concertos, sonatas, chamber music, operas and symphonies. He was named 2007 Composer of the Year by Musical America, and was honored with multiple Grammy Awards for his ground-breaking setting of William Blake's "Songs of Innocence and of Experience." In 1988 Bolcom was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in Music for his Twelve New Etudes for piano, and in 2006 he received the National Arts Award. In 2008 James Levine led the Boston Symphony Orchestra in the premiere of Bolcom's Eighth Symphony.