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Learning music by reading about it is like

The Baltimore Sun

Learning music by reading about it is like making love by mail," said eminent violinist Isaac Stern. For two decades, young musicians seeking practical experience have found plenty of it at the National Orchestral Institute.

This venture, presented by the University of Maryland's School of Music in College Park, brings together about 100 players each year for intensive performances and career-preparing seminars, working with a faculty that includes members of leading orchestras (including the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra) and other musicians (including members of the Peabody Trio). The public gets to hear the results of all this fine-tuning in performances, several of them free, throughout the run of the institute.

Participants, chosen from 700 applicants, started arriving last week for the 2008 NOI, which runs through June 28. The first public event, a concert by faculty artists, is tonight; student ensembles will start performing this weekend.

"For the first 19 years," says James Ross, artistic director of NOI and director of orchestras at UM, "the emphasis was on helping the musicians prepare for auditions. Last year, our 20th anniversary, there was a shift in focus.

"I wanted NOI to become a place where musicians could equip themselves with the ways to help keep orchestras relevant, to make them cutting-edge institutions. The goal is that they will come out of NOI taking seriously their responsibility to change the orchestral world," Ross says.

The young musicians will still get plenty of advice on how to try out for highly competitive jobs and, in mock auditions, will gain practical experience. They'll also pick up pointers from choreographer Liz Lerman, founding artistic director of the Takoma Park-based Liz Lerman Dance Exchange, on how to move onstage and how to think creatively.

Rita Shapiro, executive director of the National Symphony Orchestra, and NSO bassist Jeff Weisner will present a workshop on the multi-sided politics of life inside an orchestra. The session's provocative title says a lot: "Lovefest or Smackdown."

Along the way, there will be lots of music-making. In addition to symphonic work, participants will get opportunities to form chamber ensembles and also perform in conductor-less chamber orchestras (advised by members of the most famous conductor-less enterprise, the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra).

When it comes to choosing repertoire for the full orchestra concerts, Ross tries "to create a balance, with at least a few things from off the beaten path." This year's less-common fare includes Edward Elgar's In the South on a program conducted by Ross, and Music for Shakespeare's 'Romeo and Juliet' by David Diamond on a program conducted by Michael Stern, music director of the Kansas City Symphony (and son of Isaac Stern).

The final concert by the NOI Orchestra, led by Andrew Litton, music director of the Bergen Philharmonic in Norway, may look at first glance to be quite traditional, with two well-worn symphonies -- No. 1 (Spring) by Schumann and No. 1 by Mahler. But there's something very unusual here.

It's not that the program also contains Mahler's Blumine, the lyrical movement that he originally placed in that First Symphony and later discarded. "Blumine is going to placed in the middle of Schumann's Spring Symphony instead," Ross says. "That music really sprang out of the same soil as Schumann's, so it will be a flower growing in the middle of it. When I told Andrew Litton about the idea, he said, 'That's so subversive -- I love it.' "


8 p.m. today:

NOI faculty members perform Brahms String Sextet No. 2, Stravinsky's L'histoire du Soldat. Free.

8 p.m. Saturday:

Three chamber orchestras perform without conductor; program includes works by Haydn and Ravel. $20 ($7 forstudents)

12:30 to 3:30 p.m. and 4:30 to 7:30 p.m. Sunday:

Chamber music marathons featuring student ensembles. Free.

8 p.m. June 14:

NOI Orchestra, conducted by James Ross, performs Debussy's Fetes, Brahms' Piano Concerto No. 1 (with Kapell Piano Competition winner Sofya Gulyak), Shostakovich's Symphony No. 1 and Elgar's In the South. $20 ($7 for students)

7 p.m. June 20:

Chamber music program with student ensembles. Free.

8 p.m. June 21:

NOI Orchestra, conducted by Michael Stern, performs Strauss' Der Rosenkavalier Suite, Diamond's Music for Shakespeare's 'Romeo and Juliet' and Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition. $20 ($7 for students)

8 p.m. June 28:

NOI Orchestra, conducted by Andrew Litton, performs Schumann's Symphony No. 1, Mahler's Blumine and Mahler's Symphony No. 1. $20 ($7 for students)

If you go:

All performances at Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, University Boulevard and Stadium Drive, College Park. For tickets, call 301-405-2787 or go to claricesmithcenter.umd .edu.

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