An apprenticeship program for musically gifted high school students from the district of Columbia was formally announced yesterday at a press conference held by Mayor Marion Barry and NSO music director Mstislav Rostropovich.

Involving five high school students in its first year and funded with a $20,000 grant from the D.C. Commission on the Arts, the National Symphony Youth Fellowships will allow students to study privately with members of the orchestra, to attend master classes and orchestral rehearsals, and eventually to try out for positions with the orchestra. The program is believed to be the only one of its kind in the United States. The Los Angeles Philharmonic has had a similar program for the past seven years and has placed graduates with such major orchestras as New York, Toronto, San Francisco and Pittsburgh. But it is financed with National Endowment rather than city funds.

"I just wish we could do more of this," Barry said. "I will cancel anything I am doing to be able to make more announcements like this."

"We feel that we have a program like no other in the country," said Commission chairperson Peggy Cooper in a prepared statement. "It should help to give minority students, at an early age, a shot at becoming very competitive in the job market for orchestral musicians."

Later, speaking without a prepared text, Cooper was more specific about the potential meaning of the program: "I have heard many times that we have a white orchestra in a black city and how could this be? We have now taken a long step toward just having a symphony that makes music -- period."

Restropovich said the program "may someday mean the District of Columbia will be the home of the world's next great music conservatory -- this is my dream."

It is a dream that has long been shared with NSO President Martin Feinstein. "Slava and I have talked about this many times," Feinstein said. "I with I could say that it will happen next year or the year after, but we're not ready to make that kind of prediction. Of course, if you have five gifted students in the program for the first year and then you add five more for the second, before you know it we will have the nucleus of a conservatory."

Feinstein said that governments in Maryland and Northern Virginia have not been approached yet for similar programs: "We want to see how this works out before trying to expand the program."

Turning to Barry during the formal press conference, Feinstein said, "I hope, Mr. Mayor, as I'm sure you do, that some day this $20,000 may become $2 million." Barry, who has been wrestling with budget deficits for months but pledged that "this is one program that will not be cut," looked slightly shocked but kept his cool. He waited until the end of the conference to say, with a tinge of regret in his voice, "It's not going to be $2 million -- that's not going to happen."

What is going to happen in the immediate future is that applications for students will be made available at the offices of the NSO And the D.C. Commission on the Arts. They must be filled out and returned by Sept. 15, and auditions will be held in early October. The program is aimed at 10th-grade students, but 11th-and 12th-grade students will also be considered if not enough qualified applicants are found in the 10th grade.

Applications will be accepted from students on all the standard orchestral instruments -- virtually all instruments with a classical repertoire except for piano, saxophone and guitar.

When Cooper mentioned that NSO board chairman Austin Kiplinger would have been eligible for the program if it had existed in his student days, because he is a graduate of what is now the Duke Ellington High School for the Performing Arts, Kiplinger disagreed. "I played the piano," he said, "and that's excluded. But even more important, I had no talent. I wouldn't have made the cut."