Outgoing host O’Riley: ‘I am ‘From the Top’’

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Peter Halstead


The public radio show From the Top, which spotlights young performers of classical music, has dropped its host of nearly 20 years.

The show announced Wednesday that it is not renewing the contract of Christopher O’Riley, who has hosted From the Top since its debut in 1999. “Chris has been dedicated to From the Top’s mission from the beginning,” said Executive Director Gretchen Nielsen in a release.

“We are grateful for his commitment to showcasing outstanding young musicians, and for the impact he’s made on America’s musical landscape,” continued Nielsen, who became the first executive director of From the Top’s producing organization in January. “We wish him all the best with his future projects.”

O’Riley recorded his final episode June 5. A series of guest hosts, including some alumni of the program, will fill his role starting in September, according to the release.

After 18 successful years, From the Top needs to adapt to the changing media landscape,” Nielsen wrote in an email to Current. “Over our history, the show has established how vital the voices and performances of youth are to our society. This will remain at our core, as we feel that it is more important than ever to amplify the beauty, stories, and struggles of our youth who reflect the diversity of America. While we had hoped to work with Chris this year as we began our transition to guest hosts and new voices, we were unfortunately unable to reach an agreement.”

O’Riley told Current that he was negotiating a shorter final season with From the Top until he received a letter late Tuesday notifying him that his contract would not be renewed.

“I feel pretty good about the rather heartening outpouring, first and foremost identifying me with the show,” said O’Riley, who shared news of his departure in a Facebook post titled “They Seemed Nice.”

The show’s producers had told O’Riley that they wanted to give him a bonus recognizing his work with the From the Top, he said, but he responded, “I am From the Top.

“For the intents and purposes of the perception of the audience, meaning stations and the kids who have been on the show, it’s not the organization,” he told Current. “It’s me.”

The producers don’t yet know whether they will look for a permanent replacement for O’Riley, Nielsen said. “The next 18 to 24 months will be a period of discovery and development, so we’re not sure what the permanent hosting situation will be,” she wrote.

The NPR-distributed show airs on 213 stations. In 2007 it branched out with a PBS series.

73 thoughts on “Outgoing host O’Riley: ‘I am ‘From the Top’’

  1. More and more young musicians see modern and contemporary music the path to excellence in their craft and potential to compete for highly desired positions in the music world. I would hope at this time of considering new directions that “From the Top” would give more emphasis on composers. Please curtail the warhorses.

  2. I agree with O’Riley; he is From the Top!
    I can’t imagine anyone else accompanying the young musicians in the fashion that O’Riley does.
    Furthermore, his wit and clever exchanges are priceless.
    He is irreplaceable.

  3. I miss Christopher O’Riley! His way of working with the remarkably talented young guests is unique. This morning’s host , Yugo Cohen, came the closest to Mr. O’Riley’s style of helping the guests relax and do their best. His knowledge and experience is priceless. He encouraged young composers as well as the players. And as one listener noted, who else can accompany these young artists as well as he did? Yes, I miss Christopher O’Riley

    • My wife Joan and I completely agree. His warm manner in introduction of each young participant was just right and was what made “from the top” a “must” program for us every Sunday evening..

        • An idea for Chris
          start a new program at California College of the Arts

          Call is something like “Now From the Top with Christopher O’Reilly”
          There would be plenty of students at that school I would guess.
          He could do podcasts etc like he did in Boston.

          Just a thought!!

        • Chris could start a new program at California Arts College.

          He could call it something like “Now From the Top with Christopher O’Reilly”

          He would have lots of students at the school.
          He could do podcasts like he did in Boston

  4. Saturday, February 23, 2019–7:43 AM Eastern Standard Time
    I just found out about this and had a feeling it was coming. Christopher O’Reilly was overworked and was listening to everyone but himself. I know how he feels. Ii was murdered by society and the Mafia because I vowed, at age 23, to never conform. I have just written Chris to urge him to return to “From the Top”. I am about a year and a half younger than he is, age 61. I will do all I can to support him.
    Emily Albano (Juilliard, BM, ’79, MM, ’80, piano).

  5. How ungrateful of NPR. I will not being watching the replacement From the Bottom, considering that Riley was let go. I wonder went on behind the scenes.

    Shame on you public radio idiots!

  6. Thank you for 19 + years of From the Top. I’ve been listening since August, 2001 and I don’t think I’ve missed but a few shows. Chris Riley is to be congratulated for showcasing young extraordinary musicians and letting them tell their stories and inspiring them to go on to do great things with their lives and inspire many others. Chris did it all with class and made life of young people better and entertained all listeners with music and stories that we will never forget. Thank you Chris and I look forward to your great future. You set the bar high and kudos for inspiring others and bringing great young musicians from all over the country to my Sunday night listening to their music and personal stories. We’ll try to follow your career where-ever you go. Thanks for enriching our lives and for recognizing the achievements and dreams of young people.

    • I heard Christopher o Riley play with the Redlands symphony (CA) last season – he was magnificent!!! I hope he will continue with from the top because I did like his interactions with the young artists performing there.

  7. After years of enjoyment, I’m afraid the new kids in charge of the candy store format of the show just isn’t working out for me. I reckon I’ll be leaving as well. Best wishes.

  8. Wow, I knew Chris O’Riley was a pompous ass, but I didn’t realize he was quite THAT much of a pompous ass. “I *am* From the Top”? Really? Not the kids, the writers, the producers, Joann, and everyone else who made the show even possible as a platform for your own career? And then people talk about how much class he has? Talk about biting the hand that feeds you. I’m sure From the Top will be just fine without him. While he, on the other hand, will soon be forgotten. You had your moments, Chris, but you’ve just tarnished your own memory…you’re only as good as your last goodbye.

    • Are you kidding me? Christopher O’Riley was offered the hosting job at “From the Top” as a result of his already hugely successful international career as a concert pianist, having won top prizes in Montreal, Busoni, Leeds, Van Cliburn and performing with the greatest symphony orchestras and conductors worldwide (plus his proven wit and charm in broadcast and written interviews). NPR came to O’Riley hat in hand, hoping to ride the coattails of his fame and public following to create a successful show, not the other way around. Check your facts before you cast aspersions. And by the way, the show without Chris? A mere shadow of its former self and not worth tuning in. O’Riley’s right – He *was* “From the Top.”

    • I agree . Although i never though of Chris quite in that way, I feel like his attitude in leaving is so graceless. No one receives credit but him? I will continue to listen to the young musicians who are truly “the top. “

  9. I was just set a live recording for from the top and it is nothing like it is to be. Christopher O’Riley is from the cops was from the top and should be from the top

  10. Christopher O’Riley was a nonpareil host for young musician performers on the NPR show, “From the Top.” My spouse and I long enjoyed the remarkable interplay of O’Riley with youth. He brought out the best in them in a humorous but respectful way, and it was a remarkable synergy to observe. He has been sorely missed, because the guess hosts just can’t handle the task as expertly. At the same time, I fully understand “From the Top” executives’ decision not renew O’Riley’s contract after they decided to go with guest hosts and O’Riley’s ego got the best of him, as he retorted “I AM ‘From the Top!”‘ Of course, he is/was not. He was the show’s “face” and an excellent one, but the show’s success was undoubtedly the result of the efforts of myriad people, including guests. It was an insult to all of them for O’Riley to respond as he did. The end result for him and the show is for the worse, regrettably. Nevertheless, I hope they will both reasonably thrive, apart.

  11. From the top will go the way of Prairie Home Companion after Garrison Keillor left. It will hobble along but, be just another show with a non loyal audience. Anyway that’s my far from infallible opinion.

    • Funny you should n=mention Garrison Keillor. I thought of him, and have been hoping that Chris leaving was not for the same reason. It looks like it isn’t, fortunately. I’ve been missig Chris and will continue to miss him.

      On the other hand, I would hope that the concept and execution fo “From the Top” will in fact outlive any of us and all of us. It serves a good and necessary purpose. Long may it continue.

  12. After making sure I listened to “From the Top” every Sunday I could, I had feeling that something was happening when the second ‘guest host’ was on the show. My instincts told me Christopher O’Riley may not be on any more and along with the musicians, he really ‘was’ the show. His interaction with the kids to set them at ease as well as his superb sense of humor really made the show one not to be missed. I agree that Christopher’s comment to NPR was an insult to these talented musicians, but I also agree that Christopher really did an extraordinary job on this show and I look forward to hearing from him and about him soon. He will be sorely missed on this show, if it does survive without him. He really did make the show terrific. Now, I won’t be as disappointed if I miss the show.

    • Icompletely agree with you but it was a mistake for him to make the comment I think that was his undoing(hubris never goes down well). Better to have waited for someone else to make the judgement.

    • That said it so well. I, too, won’t be quite as disappointed if I miss the show. But these kids are an inspiration and I truly hope the show does not go the way of “Prairie Home Companion”.

  13. Just tuned into From the Top after a long absence. Am so sorry to find out Chris O’Riley is no longer part of the show. I had listened a few times the past months and was aware of guest hosts, but did not know until I went on line that Chris’s contract was not renewed.
    I was not impressed with the guest hosts before and certainly not now. They talk too much with each other rather than talking with the kids.

    I won’t bother to listen to From the Top in the future.

  14. The following was emailed to fromthetop.org:

    It was with some dismay that I learned just today of Mr. Christopher O’Riley leaving the host position of From the Top permanently. From what I could ascertain from the little I could find online it was apparently something that could not be avoided, which truly saddens me.

    What bothers me was this line: “After 18 successful years, From the Top needs to adapt to the changing media landscape,” which I found on Current.org. Yes, there has been a tremendous change in the “media landscape” over the years. But one of the reasons I listened to From the Top was to hear the interactions of Mr. O’Riley and the up-and-coming musical stars of tomorrow, done in a warm, encouraging and “unchanging” way. Every Sunday I could expect to be continually impressed with the talent and wonderful abilities of the young and gifted artists that will be carrying on the traditions and high level of achievement that classical music requires to perform it well; all curated and fostered in an inviting environment offered by Mr. O’Riley. It was with increasing concern that I noted the continued weekly change of hosts. I had hoped that Mr. O’Riley was on a deserved sabbatical or extended vacation (18+ years is a long time after all), and while some of the guest hosts have been interesting I kept waiting to hear Mr. O’Riley’s voice return to the show. After thinking about his absence I went online and discovered the current situation.

    While the old adage “nothing lasts forever” is true, this change in the show was totally unexpected and the comment “From the Top needs to adapt” sounds “off” to me. The comment I read from Mr. O’Riley about him being “From the Top” was unfortunately stated, if that was what he actually said. But I must tell you, his statement had a great deal of truth in it. Christopher O’Riley and his way of working with the young performers was the main reason I listened. You should know that after listening to many episodes of From the Top with the guest hosts, I find the show lacking in its warmth and demeanor. The young artists are still wonderful to hear, but there now seems to be a large empty hole that emanates from my radio when From the Top is being broadcast. This may tell you something: Long before I knew of what has happened, not too long after I began hearing the guest hosts each week, I found my interest in the program drifting off to other things. As this continued I found myself simply turning the radio off and picking up a book, putting on a CD or streaming music from other sources. After all, if I am going to just be listening to musicians performing I can arrange that myself and make my own selections of what it is I will be hearing. It was Christopher O’Riley’s personality, performance and presentation that made From the Top something to listen to, and appreciate.

      • I agree with you, too, Bob Wilson. I miss the warmth and humor, with which Christopher O’Riley interacted with these talented young musicians. He made them feel at ease, and encouraged them greatly, so they could go on playing in confidence and inspiration! I’ve been listening to several of these “guest hosts”, and it’s just not the same. The kids still play very well, but the interactions are not as fun to listen to. (That was about my favorite part!) I was sorry to read his comment, because, as someone else wrote, it would have been better coming from someone else. This way, it sounded very conceited, even if true, to a certain extent. And yes, the show was made up of many others, beside Christopher. He should have given them some acknowledgement as well. The other thing is: it seems like the whole music repertoire is shifting to more and more contemporary stuff. I don’t mind some of that, but some pieces sound like just noise to me! I don’t think I’ll be listening to “From the Top” anymore.

        • I so agree with you!!!
          I am hoping that Chris can start up a new venture in California with one of the schools like they did in Boston.
          He can name it lots of different ways.
          Chris and From the Top
          From the Top of the Page.

    • Thank you Bob Wilson for speaking for so many of us. There was a very special humility, kindness, and warmth that Christopher O’Reilly shared with the kids. His praises to them after they performed never sounded forced or insincere or “over the top.”

      And while the performers still sound good, often they would attest to the help he gave them in preparing their pieces. And to the thrill of working with a world-class musician.

      Christopher O’Reilly’s personal charisma and genuine love for the kids–not to mention his sly and gentle humor–made the show something special. Perhaps his comment (was it taken out of context?) was unfortunate, but he was indisputably the star of “From the Top.” Without him, it’s just a nice collection of student performances, strung together by overly-verbose comments by guest hosts who are trying too hard to validate their presence.

      We miss you, Chris! Hope you will use this opportunity to do more concertizing. I hope some day to see you perform live and to meet you in person. You brought a lot of joy to a lot of lives– not only to the young performers but to all of us radio listeners as well.

    • I totally agree. I miss Christopher’s conversations with the young artists and do not mind missing the shows now. He was fabulous.

  15. I have listened to several From the Top shows featuring guest hosts. My conclusion is that despite Mr. O’Riley’s petulant good-bye, he really is indispensable to the show’s success. The comparison to Garrison Keillor’s PHC seems apt. I hope that there is a massive amount of support for rethinking the terrible decision to fire Mr. O’Riley and to radically change the mission of the program.

  16. I am truly disappointed in the firing of Chris. I can understand his comment made in the pain of his job loss. My husband and I listened every Sunday night on NCR and loved the interplay between Chris and Joann and the kids, as much as we enjoyed the music. The new hosts/hostesses may play well, but they leave a lot to be desired. I miss the funny questions and interplay that I enjoyed so much. This has been a year of loss, first my husband and now From The Top. I will not listen anymore.

  17. Everything that was said already. I am also concerned about this show needing to adapt to the current media landscape. A bunch of words which mean nothing to me. What are they planning to adapt to? Is the classical music format too decrepit for them? Maybe they need to throw in some current political barbs? I loved Christopher O’Reilly and I don’t mind his comment. After all, he was fired after giving a good job for 18 years. I predict a short-lived post O’Reilly show. Fortunately, I have a lot of nice classical CDs I can listen to.

  18. I miss Mr. o’Reilly for all the reasons everyone has mentioned but especially his gentle graciousness. I will continue to listen to “From the Top” because of the young people and the music.

  19. Outrageous. Unforgiveable. His hosting was the show and he’s entitled to all the chutzpah he showed. I don’t know either what the show needs to adapt means. He had the most outstanding variety of young musicians. I knew Chris from his early days of concertising when he was part of a group that played chamber music in a local church in Maplewood NJ. Others in the group included Ani Kavafian, Carter Brey, Bobby McDuffy, Jimmy Cho Lang Lin, Teddy Arm an old school chum of mine, Eugenia Zuckerman, all huge names in the music world today. To have treated Chris in this manner is a travesty and a huge mistake on NPRs part.

      • Completely agree with you. We were big fans of the show until they took Christopher O’Reilly off probably for political reasons. The few times we have listened post-COR, a sweet chef, Molly Yeh, was moderating. She’s a terrific cook but not the musicican that COR was.
        The show has lost its luster. And yes, C. O’Reilly was the show. The performers loved him.

  20. It’s only just now that I’ve realized that Christopher O’Riley is no longer hosting FROM THE TOP. While I’ve enjoyed the alums hosting. I thought it was temporary. I miss Christopher O’Riley and I don’t get why his contract was canceled. This was a mistake. I’m less interested now.

  21. This all reminds me of the Worthington Inn in Columbus, Ohio. Joe Dunlap was the house pianist, and he had a large of friends and fans who would come to hear him play. I was one of them.

    When the daughter of the owner thought Joe was dispensable, all those people left, and many followed Joe to his next gig at the Knotty Pine.

    The Worthington Inn is now available for lease or sale.

    I remember watching From the Top at the Southern Theatre in Columbus, Ohio. That was a true highlight for me.

    The best scenario would be if Christopher O’Reilly was able to start another show with young talent. All those listeners would flock to that show, much like the Worthington Inn music lovers heading over to the Knotty Pine.

  22. While listening to the show today, with guest hosts who don’t measure up to Christopher O’Reilly in terms of knowledge, presentation and interacting with the proformers, the hosts all talk at once.
    I googled “Christopher O’Reilly and found out he has been fired! Wow! What a colossal mistake on management’s part! I would listen to the show to hear the host tell me about the performers and accompany them on the piano. Sad how bad the show has become, one of the hosts just said “you are amazing man”…..
    You will lose audience members by getting rid of Christopher O’Reilly!

    Perhaps there is a way to get him back?

    • More likely that O’Reilly will move on (or has already moved on) to other projects. I think NPR is starting to realize that they’ve killed off “From the Top” with this colossal error in judgement, and that the date of its last broadcast is just a matter of $$.

    • I tried to register my displeasure with my local station. My guess is that until/unless that face reduced donations they don’t care about the issue. And there isn’t a good way to judge how many of us are dismayed in part because even now not everyone knows that O’Riley has been fired. As someone from the White House once tweeted: Sad.

  23. I agree with all the people who have responded above. We are part of NPR’s loyal listeners to From The Top, and believed that Chris O’Reilly might be on temporary leave due to illness. After hearing vapid adults talking to one another instead of featuring young artists I decided to check out what really happened. What a sad surprise to learn that C. O”Reilly has been asked to leave the program. A serious mistake!

  24. Without Christopher O’Reilly, From the Top is not a program worth tuning in to on Sunday nights, something my husband and I planned our dinner around. Current offering is just frivolous chatter – gushing and trippy without connection or support for the young performers. Chris made them shine. Another reason we no longer contribute to NPR.

  25. Over dinner, just wondered out loud if something happened to Christopher O’Riley— we are intermittent listeners but when timing is right we tune in on Sunday evenings to hear From the Top… Finally looked online to see what’s up.

    The show weren’t broke and didn’t need no fixin’ !!

    Please, if it isn’t too late, bring Christopher O’Riley back. We recognize the guest musicians but hardly hear the guest hosts.

  26. Please bring Christopher O’ Reilly back. This show is not the same as it used to be. I feel sorry for
    the young talents to appear without him. He was a great inspiration to them.

    I, as so many others, will no longer listen to this show.

    • once again I am i8n complete agreement with all those who feel that this show needs Christopher O’Riley to be viable. . I have not read a single comment congratulating producers on their change of direction, only listeners bemoaning the strategy.

  27. In shock and disappointment. An awful decision by management. The lame excuse “adjust to a changing media landscape” or whatever they said is nonsense and insulting to both listeners, performers, and Christopher O’Riley. If that is what NPR can offer up as “vision” for the future, it’s hard to be optimistic about things. And what a shame for the many young musicians who have thrilled “From the Top”‘s loyal listeners, skillfully shepherded by Chris. While Chris’ response might seem egotistical, it happens to be the TRUTH. The managers responsible for his departure are fools and nasty. They stabbed in the back Chris and his loyal fans.

  28. This morning, I listened to the show again, which happened to be an older one, because Chris O’Riley was hosting it, a pleasant surprise. I only rarely listen to it now because his successors lack his warmth with which he communicated with the young artists.

  29. NPR’s mistake in letting go a priceless gem like Christopher O’Reilly. As for the current lineup of guest hosts? Sadly, there is no there-there.

  30. I agree with most of the people there. Christopher O’Riley was the heart of this show, and the “guest hosts” including Peter Dugan are often Cringe worthy in there comments and interactions. Often so condescending or trying to be “hip”. Yes, the idea of the show is great, but it is simply not the same and I will not try to listen as I have in the past.

  31. I just listened to FTT again after a long absence. I do miss Chris. Peter does not come even close as a host. The show is so stiff. I don’t think the music selection has changed to keep up with the times. So how does the format do so?

  32. Without Christopher O’Reilly, From The Top has lost its charm. Speaking from a management perspective, it is easy to fire someone, but far more fruitful to find a way to work with the person who may be giving you issues in one area, but has remarkable talent in other areas. Mr. O’Reilly was an integral part of the young musicians’ experience on the show as well as the audience’s reception. You don’t cut off your head because you have a headache.

  33. I’ve been reading these comments for over two years, and it seems clear that as far as the listening public is concerned, NPR made a huge blunder in firing Chris. Listenership has dropped to a mere sliver of what it was under Chris’s leadership, just as it has for the pale-imitation of Prairie Home Companion that is its wannabe replacement, “Live From Here”. Rather than tuning into these two former blockbuster shows’ timeslots, NPR’s radio audience has found other uses for its time. I still support my local public radio station but the time I spend actually listening has greatly diminished.

  34. I have not been a close follower of the show but heard it enough to understand and respect all this shock—for me as well. All the above makes it clear why Chris claimed (rightly as far as I am concerned) to “be” From the Top. I don’t think it was a dismissal of others’ roles—but acknowledgement of his personal contribution to the success of what has become mundane without him. He was the artisan of a fine construction which now lies in parts. Wood planks do not a cabinet make—alone.
    Airhead culture creeps further into the land…..too much of that is going on. Why do Front Offices fear distinctiveness, intelligence, learning, grace, wit, wonder? Why do they think we are all dim bulbs requiring a dumbed-down, slack diet— or arrogance, explosions and brutality for entertainment? You make more money by pandering? That is all we are on this planet for? It would not be surprising to see the musicians drift away over time, for lack of the sympathetic support and expert mentoring, despite the valuable exposure the show provides.

  35. Clearly the show should be re-named “Almost From The Top”.

    That is meant as no disparagement, at all, towards the performers; rather it’s an arrow aimed at the perpetrators of NPR’s decline at the heels of Social Agenda.

    Without the extraordinary charm, grace, and presence of Christopher O’Riley, it could not possibly have been the same show, and after all this time, that has proven to be true.

    I find myself becoming less interested in their offerings, which is regrettable, as I have been a long-time appreciator and supporter. Now I listen more to personally-curated music and podcasts. It’s my choice to do so…

    Thank you, Christopher, for the extraordinary and amazing effort and energy you brought to the airwaves for such an impressively long time.

  36. Legerdemain – After over 20 years, Mr. O’Riley was ready for a change, and for his final lesson to young musicians he decided to pull this trick. An amicable separation would have provided no teachable moments. Instead, he played the role of an over-the-top, musical super-ego, and we fell for it. He’s now at home quietly laughing.

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