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University of Minnesota band director Jerry Luckhardt, foreground, talks to Rosemount High School students about directing the piece his band debuted Wednesday night. RHS joined the U of M and other schools -- including Ohio State, Yale and the University of British Columbia -- in commissioning a piece by Washington-based composer Alex Shapiro, standing, who joined Luckhardt Tuesday at RHS.

Rosemount HIgh School band is in elite company with new composition.

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On Wednesday night a crowd at the University of Minnesota heard the world premier of a piece by a prominent American composer. There were members of the Rosemount High School band at that show, but for them the music was nothing new. They've been playing it for months.

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The piece by composer Alex Shapiro was commissioned by the University of Minnesota and a number of other schools. It's a prestigious list that includes Yale, Ohio State and RHS.

For band director Steve Olsen and his students it's a unique experience, to say the least.

"They're really in good company," Olsen said. "There's no other high schools doing this."

U of M band director Jerry Luckhardt is Olsen's neighbor, and he approached the RHS director two years ago about commissioning a piece of music. Olsen was interested, but he knew RHS didn't have the money. When Luckhardt found a grant to pay for the school's share, Olsen was in.

RHS will perform the piece at its May 19 concert.

The piece by the Washington-based Shapiro is different from anything the RHS students have ever done in class. It's a lot longer, for one thing. And it uses an backing track of recorded electronic music, which means Olsen has to keep the performance moving on a tight schedule to avoid falling behind.

"It's just not what we typically do," Olsen said. "It's just non-traditional, different sounds and playing around with an electronic track. The ideas that she has, the musical ideas, they develop much more slowly than we're used to."

Olsen joked that most pieces of band music have to be three minutes or less to fit in the typical teenager's attention span. Shapiro's piece, called Immersion, is 25 minutes long.

"It really challenges the thinking in ways they haven't really been challenged before," Olsen said. "Because the music evolves slowly over time they have to keep track of where they've been."

The students got some help in their preparation Tuesday when Shapiro visited the school. She listened as the school's ninth graders performed the piece in its entirety and offered feedback. With older students, she talked about what inspired her to write the music and about the music business in general.

Olsen said it was an unusual experience performing music for the person who composed it. Most of the composers responsible for the band's playlist are "dead, European white males," Olsen said. Shapiro is an American woman who is "very much alive.

"I was quite nervous," Olsen said. "I wanted to do it right, and I wanted to let her know that we knew what we were doing. She was very gracious and very kind and very complimentary.

"She was just excited that we were enjoying performing her music."

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