The stage at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall stands under a four-story-high ceiling, commanding an auditorium that seats more than 2,400 — bigger than any hall most students in the Howard County Gifted and Talented Orchestra have ever played. Soon after they begin their rehearsal, the young musicians can hear, and feel, the difference.

"You can feel how large the hall is when you play," said J.D. Fishman, 16, a trombonist and junior at Marriotts Ridge High School. "Everyone can feel that echo."

"Everything seems really far away," added Joshua Kim, 17, the principal cellist and a senior at Centennial High School. "In an orchestra, you're relying a lot on what other people are playing, so if you can't hear that you have a harder time doing that."

A few adjustments will be necessary for orchestra members, who were having their first and only rehearsal at the Meyerhoff for a concert they will give there Feb. 20, sitting next to members of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.

The afternoon unfolded in two separate rehearsals, one with students only, one with BSO members, each including pointers along the way from conductor Shizuo Kuwahara.

"It's kind of intimidating," said Joshua Waldman, 16, a clarinetist and junior at Glenelg High. "Because of the size, and I've been coming to concerts here with the BSO. And now coming here" to play.

"I've never played on that big of a stage," said pianist Alisa Hwang, 15, a sophomore at Marriotts Ridge who will be playing solo — out front of the orchestra on a Steinway grand — in Sergei Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No. 3, 1st movement, with its passages of dazzlingly fast finger work.

"The number of seats overwhelms you, even if it's empty," she said of the Meyerhoff.

The auditorium can seat 2,465, more than three times the capacity of the Jim Rouse Theatre and Performing Arts Center at Wilde Lake High, the largest hall most of the students have played up to now.

On rehearsal day, the seats were empty but for those taken by half the student orchestra waiting their turn to rehearse, and faculty orchestra leaders keeping close eyes and ears on the proceedings.

This is Howard County's first turn at the BSO's Side-by-Side program, which has been going on for at least 20 years. Students in Baltimore, Anne Arundel and Harford counties have taken their turns on the big stage, but not Howard.

"I've been trying to have a Side-by-Side happen in Howard for years," said orchestra director Rosemary Lather. While both the school and the orchestra were interested, Lather says "planning an event of this magnitude takes a lot of thought and consideration."

There's also money needed to pay the conductor, BSO musicians and the Meyerhoff crew — a sum the BSO declines to release. The amount was raised through a combination of tickets sold by students and the yearly $300 tuition they pay for this after-school activity.

Lather said the learning opportunity is invaluable.

She still remembers her own experience as a 16-year-old violinist at Catonsville High School playing at the Lyric Opera House as a "profound event. …It was so, such a dramatic musical experience."

Gifted musicians

Drawn from all 12 of Howard County's high schools, Gifted and Talented Orchestra members must pass a rigorous audition to make the cut, including sight reading, playing scales, a solo and an orchestral piece.

About 220 students auditioned, and 108 were selected.

They've rehearsed the Feb. 20 concert program at Howard High School eight times, including once with Kuwahara, and will have two more rehearsals there before the concert.

Given this program, they'll need all that. Kuwahara, music director of the Symphony Orchestra Augusta in Georgia, has done many student concerts and took part in choosing the concert selections. But he says he's never conducted a program as demanding as this.