HOOKED ON AMERICAN IDOL

Only in America.

It was bigger than any convention for either party. It was bigger than a Super Bowl. It reached out to more television sets than any program in history. In the end, a scruffy, 25 year-old bartender with facial stubble and messy hair stood weeping in mid-stage as American Idol, 2008, amid screams, confetti, cheers and record contracts falling at his feet. David Cook’s rise to stardom, fete accompli.

Over 95 million viewers participated in the voting process. That doesn’t say much for the poor turnouts we see for political elections.

I’m not a big fan of today’s pop music culture, but I have to give credit where credit is due.

This show does it well.

It all begins with three judges — Simon Cowell, Paula Abdul and Randy Jackson — scouring the nation for signs of talent, selecting a very few from thousands of auditions from amateur singers who — if they get the thumb’s up — move on to the next phases. Contestants must be between ages 16 and 29. Once the final dozen is assembled, the voting is all left to the fans. Judges critique each performance, but have no more weight in the scoring process.

I don’t take well to all of it. Teeny-bopper girls waving hands and screaming at the foot of the stage during and after each performance is more of a distraction than an asset to the show, and it’s sooo scripted. Some of the finalist kids are voted upward based more on popularity, and less about their musical talent. Such was the case, in my humble opinion, of dreadlock-laden Jason Castro, who had little stage presence to accompany his voice, yet millions of young fans thought he was “cool.”

Nevertheless, the majority of talent that did emerge via the voting process was worthy of stardom. Syesha Mercado, who finished in third place, was my pick for the top spot. This young woman not only sung beautifully, her range and versatility of music far exceeded most of the competitors, and she displayed stage presence equal to anyone on Broadway, past and present.

Brooke White, pianist, guitarist and vocalist also exhibited a vast range of styles. I had thought that Michael Johns, the eldest of the group, would have won it all. His Rock & Roll was dynamic as any. Seventeen year-old David Archuleto, who looks more like he’s thirteen, was the favorite of the judges. I didn’t agree. The boy has a good singing voice, but that’s where it stops. His lack of maturity seeps through. When the songs are over, he reminded me of a little kid opening toys under the Christmas tree.

The final ten weeks are grueling for all the kids who are still in the mix. They must learn an array of new songs and rehearse constantly, plus participate in more choreography with past finalists who are still part of the American Idol summer programs.

What I would change: Much like the premise of “Dancing With The Stars,” reduce the weight of fan voters to fifty-percent with judges (maybe five instead of three) weighing the other half. And dump the screamers.

Nevertheless, I’m hooked. I’ll look forward to the next season as American Idol starts fishing once more for the best hidden singing talent in the nation. Never can tell. It could be someone you know. Maybe even — you.

MY DATE AT CARNEGIE HALL

There’s nothing that can be better for a kid, than to have great parents, good health, born talent and ambition. This is a story to warm one’s heart.

Though my Mom had spent many years and dollars hoping her son would one day play violin in Carnegie Hall, alas, she would never see the day. Raging hormones, testosterone, friends and sports would put a major dent in those ambitions as I reached my teens. So, I became a cop.

But all is not lost.

Fast forward some fifty-five years, to the fall of 2006. Knowing I had an interest with violin, good friends asked if I would be interested in meeting a 13 year-old girl and to listen to her play. “Oh… no,” I thought. “Not another rendition of Twinkle Twinkle.” But, I capitulated and agreed to a brief visit at our home.

Remember the name: Esther Muradov.

Weighing around 70 pounds, the diminutive child looked less than her years. She came with her mother, Pervin, a piano teacher and Russian immigrant who arrived in America with her husband in 1990. After polite introductions, our friends, my wife (Suzanne) and I settled in to listen. Pervin sat at the piano. Esther stood. I prepared for the worst.

Poised, confident, she held the instrument perfect. The bow touched the first string, and — shockingly — the hair rose on my arms. I gasped. She played the first movement from a Vieuxtemps concerto. Flawless. Dazzling. Amazing. When she struck the final note, everyone was applauding except me. My jaw had fallen to the floor. This was no easy piece for Jascha Heifetz, yet Esther Muradov.

Esther said she practiced four hours a day since the age of four. I asked about her dreams. She hoped to play, one day, in Carnegie Hall.

Meanwhile, she had just been qualified to participate in an international music competition in Ibla, Sicily. But her family is of modest means and didn’t have the money to travel.

There were other problems.

Esther had a mediocre violin, certainly unable to match the instrumental quality of her competitors.

An honor student with many awards in dance, music and science, Esther would have to attend public high school where her mother felt her talents and abilities would be thwarted.

Electro-charged by such a wondrous kid, Suzanne and I both felt the calling to try and help. First, I offered Esther an opportunity to play a few test notes on my own 18th century Italian-made violin which produces a tone equal to the many of the best instruments. “Which do you like to play better?” I asked. “Yours or mine?”

Bashful, she looked for approval to her mother. Then she said, “Well, yours.”

It’s okay, I have a spare. Consider it an unlimited loan.

Then we organized a special fund raising recital, to be held inside a gutted, double-wide trailer currently used as a sanctuary for the Unitarian Fellowship. Because the facility would only seat 110, we decided to charge $50 a ticket, hoping that some people of means and serious intentions might attend. Some said we’d be lucky to fill a few seats. But, with the help of a local newspaper article, it was a sell-out. Esther played several pieces to standing ovations. As host, I conducted a brief interview which demonstrated her articulate and humble nature.

This has to be logged as one of the great inadvertent successes of my life. Not only did Esther and her family raise the money to compete in Ibla, some people in the audience found her musicality and charm so endearing, she was invited to play in the private homes of wealthy benefactors. From there, she secured other admiring sponsors. Rotary Clubs also invited her to various luncheons where scholarship monies were awarded.

As a bonus, another recital attendee saw the spark of academic brilliance in Esther, and with special recommendations to follow, was encouraged to apply for scholarship to the Phillips Institute in Andover, Mass., one of the more prestigious private schools in America.

Today, Esther is a scholarly freshman at Andover.

The Ibla Competition? Naturally, Esther was among the top winners. As part of her award package, she was invited to play at Carnegie Hall in April of 2008, along with a handful of other winners. Her dream would come true after all.

It was an evening we could not miss. A half an hour before the recital was to begin, Suzanne and I managed to visited with Esther in the back hallways of the famed concert theater, as singers could be heard warming up in studio rooms nearby. Now fifteen, she looked beautiful and aglow in her Cinderella dress, though wrought with anxiety as the minutes passed. I spotted my violin behind her in the case, looked around furtively, and lifted it under my chin. Then the bow. From there, I played a few bars from Tchaikovsky’s Canzonetta…just to caress my treasured instrument of fifty-five years, and to wish it well in its prestigious debut.

Not long after, I sat in the audience and watched with pride, this young talent playing the Lalo concerto as the tones from my violin reached glorious heights. Never had it been played so beautifully.

To my mind, this is a story with a happy beginning, not an ending. Esther Muradov now has a first-rate violin, she has played in Carnegie Hall (I suspect not for the last time) and is attending a first-class private school on scholarship. She has inspired a handful of Brevard County music lovers to apply for a foundation for tax-free support of creative artists. She has captured the heart of many admirers who are standing in line to offer their assistance. There will be no limit to her future. All she has to do is, be Esther.

Meanwhile, her parents have much to beam about, having provided the inspiration, love, sacrifice and guidance while helping her to develop those natural talents. For more on Esther, visit her web site:

Click here: ESTHER MURADOV

As for me? Suzanne and I bask in a great feeling of satisfaction knowing we may have helped to jump-start a promising and prosperous life ahead for this deserving young lady.

Besides, now I can truthfully say… “I played violin in Carnegie Hall.”

Mom would be proud.