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There are youth orchestras and summer music camps all over this country, but Carnegie Hall may have created the best music camp ever. For the past couple of weeks, some of the best teenage musicians in the country have gathered on the campus of Purchase College outside of New York to create the National Youth Orchestra of the United States of America.

And these youngsters have now embarked on a tour with superstar violinist Joshua Bell and the esteemed Russian conductor, Valery Gergiev. Jeff Lunden spent several days with the young musicians and has this report.

JEFF LUNDEN, BYLINE: It's a hot summer afternoon and the recital hall at Purchase College is abuzz with excitement and nervous energy. One hundred-twenty teenagers from 42 states are about to embark on an extraordinary musical and personal journey. Clive Gillinson, executive director of Carnegie Hall, steps up to the podium to greet them.

CLIVE GILLINSON: Welcome to all of you. It's wonderful to welcome you here to the first-ever National Youth Orchestra of the United States.


LUNDEN: Gillinson says playing cello in the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain was a highlight of his life. He became executive director of Carnegie Hall in 2005.

GILLINSON: When I arrived, I could not believe there wasn't a U.S. National Youth Orchestra, so I thought there needed to be. I think every country needs one in terms of inspiring, you know, the best students inspiring each other.

LUNDEN: So Gillinson and Carnegie staff set out to find the finest musicians in the country from age 16 to 19 and began raising millions of dollars to bring the project to fruition.

GILLINSON: There were a number of things that we felt were important. One of them was that it should be free to all the students participating because it should be something where anybody can take part, not that if you don't have enough money you can't. So obviously that makes it more expensive.


LUNDEN: Carnegie is doing everything in a first class way. The instrumental coaches are principle players for major symphony orchestras around the country. The tour will play at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. and in Moscow, St. Petersburg and Lunden. And it didn't take much arm-twisting to get violinist Joshua Bell to sign on as soloist.


JOSHUA BELL: There's nothing like it. It's a different experience of playing with the great, professional orchestra. For them it's not a job yet, you know. Music is not a job yet. It's still all excitement and joy and it should be that way for professional orchestras too, but it's not always.


LUNDEN: Skye Dearborn is a 17-year-old trombone player from Sioux Falls, South Dakota. She says she was walking on sunshine when she found out she was accepted into the orchestra.

SKYE DEARBORN: It blew my mind. The first rehearsal I was speechless. I feel so privileged to play with these kids who are, you know, I feel like half of them are going to Juilliard and Harvard and Princeton, Yale. And it's really awesome to be surrounded by the talent, 'cause I feel like I'm absorbing it, in a way. I'm really lucky to be here, yeah.


LUNDEN: At the start, the orchestra was conducted by James Ross who teaches at the University of Maryland. Sixteen-year-old Mya Greene has played viola in youth orchestras in her hometown, Los Angeles.

MYA GREENE: You know, sometimes it can be overwhelming, just drilling technique, getting people to just even, like, have some basic concept of the rhythm. But here it was like the opposite. It was just basically - it's like he assumed that we'd already have the canvas and he was gonna start painting on it.


LUNDEN: The orchestra spent over a week preparing for the arrival of the Russian conductor Valery Gergiev, and Michael Barnes, a 19-year-old percussionist from Lawton, Oklahoma, found himself overwhelmed by the maestro.

MICHAEL BARNES: The energy that he brings to the stage, wow. There's so much, and I like that he doesn't conduct with a baton. He's not very flashy or showy about his conducting. Sometimes even hard to find the downbeat, but it makes you really hang on to the music more.

LUNDEN: Gergiev, for his part, was excited to work with the young players and bring his considerable expertise to the music of Shostakovich's 10th Symphony, eliciting nuance and emotion from the orchestra.

VALERY GERGIEV: So, I will not simply welcome a beautiful sound. I will also try to make sure that it is a lot to do with the symphony of Shostakovich, to apply the abilities of these young musicians to precisely this score, not just in general comment. All sounds good just because there are many, many things which can sound very good. It doesn't mean this is a great performance of a certain symphony.


LUNDEN: This past Thursday night, the orchestra gave its first concert at Purchase College. They had spent two weeks not just rehearsing, but getting to know each other, becoming good friends. And after several standing ovations, the kids were abuzz again. Percussionist, Michael Barnes...

BARNES: We had a great concert. You know, Joshua Bell's a great soloist, as was expected. But Maestro Gergiev really - wow - he just totally changed when he started conducting the real thing. He just brought all of the stops out. And it was just great. I think we truly became the National Youth Orchestra tonight.

LUNDEN: The National Youth Orchestra performs at the Kennedy Center this evening, then they fly to Russia for the next leg of their tour. At next year, a completely new National Youth Orchestra will tour the U.S. For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.


SIMON: The kids are flying to Russia? I hope they come back. This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

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