RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

For half a century, a group called Young Concert Artists has been turning talented young hopefuls into professional performers. Some of classical music's biggest stars started their careers with the organization, among them: pianist Emanuel Ax, violinist Pinchas Zuckerman and singer Dawn Upshaw.

Jeff Lunden has the story.

JEFF LUNDEN: On a Saturday in November, over a dozen talented musicians, ranging in age from 15 to 27, gathered at New York's 92nd St. Y for final auditions. They were all trying to earn a place on the roster of Young Concert Artists.

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LUNDEN: And after a grueling day, three were named winners including pianist George Li, the youngest of the bunch, a high school sophomore from Lexington, Massachusetts.

Mr. GEORGE LI (Pianist): Well, it's like really exhilarating. And like it's so exciting and like, like right now, I can't think anything.

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LUNDEN: Susan Wadsworth, who founded YCA 50 years ago and still runs it, says George Li is just the kind of musician her organization is looking for.

Ms. SUSAN WADSWORTH (Founder/Director, Young Concert Artists): My goal has always been the fun of identifying, recognizing a talent that is going to really excite people and have a place in the music world, because they're individual and strong.

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LUNDEN: Wadsworth has been picking winners since she started presenting concerts in a Greenwich Village loft in 1961. She founded Young Concert Artists as a non-profit and began booking her musicians on cross-country tours.

Now, YCA signs the most promising musicians for a minimum of three years, to develop professionally, before they move on to commercial management.

Ms. WADSWORTH: The artists who start with us have not performed very much. And there's an awful lot to learn about how to respond to an audience, how to respond to the people who are presenting you in concerts, how to manage the traveling and being in hotels and how to present themselves.

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LUNDEN: Jeremy Denk won the YCA auditions 14 years ago and hasn't looked back. He plays as a soloist, chamber musician and frequently collaborates with artists, like violin superstar Joshua Bell.

Denk says YCA was a major bridge from the conservatory to the concert hall.

Mr. JEREMY DENK (Pianist, YCA Alumni): How does one grow up out of musical adolescence and become a musical adult? Everybody has their own way of doing it and you need a lot of help getting there and that what YCA's for, you know - to give you the confidence and experience.

LUNDEN: And even wardrobe advice. Violinist Ani Kavafian who's a member of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center and runs the YCA Alumni Association says when she won the audition at age 22, Susan Wadsworth was very hands-on for her New York debut.

Ms. ANI KAVAFIAN (Violinist/President, YCA Alumni Association): She came backstage before the concert and was, you know, doing my hair, like combing it a certain way or something like that. She was very much a part of the whole thing. And maybe I needed her that way, because my mom lived in Detroit and I was here in New York. And so, Susan was my second mom.

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LUNDEN: Singer Dawn Upshaw, who's appeared at major opera houses around the world and has a recording contract with Nonesuch, was only 24 when she joined Young Concert Artists. She says, as she did those early tours across the Midwest and Florida, in many ways, she found her voice.

Ms. DAWN UPSHAW (Singer): (Singing)

Ms. UPSHAW: It also gave me an opportunity to perform a lot and kind of get used to or try to understand this other animal of singing in front of people: Engaging with an audience, understanding that that's a very different experience than the private practice room experience.

Ms. UPSHAW: (Singing)

LUNDEN: Upshaw says being on YCA's roster gave her a step up when it was time to move on.

Ms. UPSHAW: I think that a lot of folks in the music business do pay attention to the musicians chosen for the Young Concert Artists roster. So it definitely - I felt it gave me a bit of an advantage when I was looking for commercial management.

Ms. UPSHAW: (Singing)

LUNDEN: And if Dawn Upshaw is now a well-known name in the business, Susan Wadsworth hopes new winner George Li will make his mark, too.

Ms. WADSWORTH: George Li is only 15. And I feel that he is a great pianist disguised as a little boy.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. WADSWORTH: Honestly, when I listen to him, I can't put what he looks like and what I'm hearing together.

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LUNDEN: For now, Wadsworth doesn't plan to give Li his debut recital in New York until he turns 16. But she will most certainly be there, dispensing musical and wardrobe advice. After 50 years running Young Concert Artists, she has no plans to retire anytime soon.

Ms. WADSWORTH: I get such a kick out of hearing these kids play every year. It's just amazing. And everybody that works here with me - I would say five staff members have been with me, together, over a hundred years.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. WADSWORTH: And I think what holds us all together is everyone gets a great kick out of these amazing young people and the music they make.

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

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

And I'm Linda Wertheimer.

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