Wires snake across the stage at USC's Bovard Auditorium. Microphones and music stands flank a grand piano. A skewed replica of an old-fashioned radio tower sits at one side.
It's a cool December evening, and "From the Top," a weekly classical music radio show that emanates out of Boston, is in L.A. at USC's Thornton School of Music for a taping in front of an audience.
Without warning, James Brown's "I Feel Good" explodes from speakers. The pre-show warmup guy -- Gerald Slavet, the show's gray-haired co-CEO and co-founder -- bops out.
"Remember, on radio, no one can hear you nod," he booms, Santa Claus beard wagging as he pumps up the audience with a sing-along ("I feel good, I knew that I would now ... ") and a participatory wave.
By the time an "on the air" sign flashes and soul turns to Shostakovich, it's clear that this is not going to be your traditional classical radio show.
A musicians' showcase from WGBH Radio Boston and the New England Conservatory of Music, "From the Top" spotlights performers 18 and under, and its talk-and-music format, including brief comic skits, is not the done thing in today's classical programming.
Yet the low-profile show, which according to Slavet has featured about 1,000 young artists over its five years, has become a modest hit. Distributed by Public Radio International, it is heard by an estimated 700,000 listeners on some 250 stations nationwide.
Those are primarily public radio outlets, but commercial stations such as Los Angeles' KMZT-FM (105.1) also air the show -- a tribute to the fact that their mostly adult audiences will tune in to hear kids at play.
"In the beginning, most people thought it was a silly idea," says Slavet, who created the show with co-CEO Jennifer Hurley Wales. "Even in radio, people thought, 'Why would I bother playing kids when I can pull a Yo-Yo Ma CD off the rack?' "
The answer is simple, says Roger Duvall, the station manager for Alabama Public Radio. "The show works because it's a good music show. At the same time, it's not just 'And here's Joey Smith to play the Brahms Third Sonata.' It's finding out something about Joey that gives the whole picture."
For adults and young people who "are kind of afraid of classical music," Duvall adds, the show can serve as an entree to that world. "It makes it more real to them."
Slavet agrees, chortling as he relays what is no doubt an oft-repeated anecdote.
"One day, one of the ladies who helps distribute the show out of Minnesota went into a Pep Boys store and heard some classical music in the background. There were a couple of old geezers behind the counter and she said, 'Do you guys always play classical music?'
"And one said, 'Heck, no. This isn't classical music. This is that "From the Top." ' "
Christopher O'Riley, the respected concert and recital pianist who is the show's resident accompanist, host and notably comfortable center, feels the fact that many adult listeners once studied music themselves is another draw.
"There's an empathy because everybody's had at least some experience, or a desire to play, or a regret that they didn't pursue music. So it becomes less intimidating, without talking down to anybody and without selling the music short."
"From the Top" encompasses more than the radio broadcasts that are its centerpiece. A nonprofit multimedia organization, it also sponsors educational and cultural leadership programs, a young composers program and a participatory website.
In a partnership with publishers Macmillan/McGraw-Hill, many of the show's young artists have been profiled in a new series of textbooks for students grades 2 through 8, and the company is working with WGBH to co-produce a "From the Top" TV series.
So, who are these teens and tweens who concertize with jaw-dropping virtuosity and an enthusiasm that makes a lapsed dabbler want to dust off her own keyboard -- or break it up for kindling?
At Bovard Auditorium, the bill includes the Los Angeles Children's Chorus Chamber Singers raising their harmonious voices in a Faure piece and James Gordon's "Frobisher Bay."
From Massachusetts, lanky cellist Tavi Ungerleider, 14, his bow a blur of glide and agitation, plays Shostakovich. Violinist Yumi Man, 17, of La Crescenta, all shimmer and swaying grace in a blue gown, essays Tchaikovsky.
Trumpeter Alphonso L. Horne, a 17-year-old from Florida, serves up a ringing rondo from a Johann Hummel concerto, while 10-year-old pianist Rossina Grieco of La Jolla ripples through Haydn and Chopin with preternatural poise.
During O'Riley's conversational interludes, Tavi shares a mischievous summer camp anecdote. Alphonso reveals that he loves jazz as much as classical music. It turns out that Yumi, one of the Los Angeles Music Center's Spotlight Award finalists in 2003, first appeared on the program at age 13. And show-stealing Rossina, a self-professed Shirley Temple fan, sings a song from one of her idol's films and tap-dances -- to Mozart.