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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From country to classical now. There are many programs for gifted young musicians around the country, but New York's Face the Music gives teenagers a little extra. It focuses exclusively on contemporary music, and that means they get to do what they can't when playing the classics: work directly with composers.

Jeff Lunden has the story.

(Soundbite of music)

JEFF LUNDEN: This past Monday, a group of teenagers nervously gathered at Merkin Concert Hall on New York's Upper West Side. They were there to rehearse for a concert featuring a couple of pieces by Nico Muhly, a 29-year-old composer who seems to be popping up everywhere these days.

Muhly is feverishly working on several compositions, including a commission for the Metropolitan Opera, but right now, his attention is focused on these kids.

First up is Haley Gillia, a 15-year-old from Brooklyn. She's doing "Honest Music," a piece for solo violin and tape.

(Soundbite of song, "Honest Music")

LUNDEN: After Haley has finished, she and Nico Muhly hover over the score, and he gives her some suggestions about performing with a pre-recorded tape.

Mr. NICO MUHLY (Composer): And what you're doing about these endings is exactly right. Like, you let that come into that. It's exactly precise. And in fact, you don't need to, like, immediately stop. You can, like, diva out, you know what I mean? Like, you just let the note - bam.

(Soundbite of music)

LUNDEN: Haley Gillia has been playing violin since she was four and has been part of Face the Music for several years now.

Ms. HALEY GILLIA (Violin Player): It's really exciting. It's not like when you're playing a classical piece and, you know, the composer is dead, and you can't really talk to them or anything. But with contemporary music, you know, you can reach out to the composer, and it's really exciting.

(Soundbite of music)

LUNDEN: Face the Music is the brainchild of Jenny Undercofler, who runs the Special Music School, a New York City public school for gifted young musicians. Most of their training focuses on traditional classical music, but Undercofler wanted to expose kids to contemporary music and living composers.

Ms. JENNY UNDERCOFLER (Special Music School): What is amazing to me is how enthusiastic they are about it, how engaged they are, how tough they are. And I am convinced that it's a big thing. You know, I'm convinced that if we can engage more students like this that we will be eventually changing the music profession itself.

(Soundbite of music)

LUNDEN: The other Nico Muhly piece on the program is called "How About Now?" for a small ensemble. Muhly says it's rhythmically challenging.

Mr. MUHLY: It requires this very intense ability to lock in with other people. For me, that's kind of the essence of chamber of music is that moment when you have an eighth note before someone else and before someone else, and there's this kind of magic game of basketball with the rhythm.

LUNDEN: And 14-year-old guitarist Ethan Cohn(ph) says finding that magic requires hours of hard work.

Mr. ETHAN COHN (Guitar Player): We just practice it over and over again, and before long, we're not really counting the meter, and we're more like just playing it all in an even flow together.

(Soundbite of music)

LUNDEN: Nico Muhly says he came away from rehearsal impressed by the young musicians.

Mr. MUHLY: Dealing with them has been akin to dealing with professionals. Weirdly, it didn't feel that much different than dealing with the Philharmonic or something. They were just like, we're here to work, we'll do what you say. You know, we can do this weird rehearsal technique if you want. It was great.

LUNDEN: And one day, Nico Muhly might be working with some of them as professional musicians. Luis Diaz, a 16-year-old flute player, says Face the Music has made him think seriously about focusing on a career in contemporary music.

Mr. LUIS DIAZ (Flute Player): I want to go into performance and education and possibly composition, because I love contemporary. I don't think I would've wanted to go into composition if I didn't do contemporary.

LUNDEN: Face the Music performs at Merkin Concert Hall tonight and at the Bang on a Can Marathon next month.

For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.

BLOCK: And you can see performances by Face the Music at nprmusic.org.

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