Barry Tuckwell, best known as a French horn virtuoso nonpareil, has taken on the added role of musical midwife. Saturday night, before an audience of 1,400, he delivered to the people of Hagerstown a brand new symphony orchestra.

The Maryland Symphony Orchestra, with the native-Australian superstar waving the baton, was born to thunderous ovations from a sellout crowd in a renovated downtown movie palace. "I didn't know there were this many tuxedos in Hagerstown," marveled a local doctor, Al Ditto. An event such as rural Maryland has never seen, the birth culminated two years of hard work and close-to-impossible dreams.

"We've done it. It's a great success. It's all happened," Tuckwell exulted after the premiere, in which the ensemble played a world-class program from Berlioz to Brahms. "From now on, it's up to everybody else to consolidate behind us."

Libbie Powell, arts editor of the Hagerstown Daily Mail and a resident of this city of 35,000 for more than 30 years, predicted that they will. "This has united the town more than anything I've ever seen -- people from all walks of life. I never believed that something like this, something cultural, would ever make it. But the people are here, and I can tell: They're proud."

Among those who braved the crush to their seats in the Maryland Theater -- a rococo wonder built in 1915 -- were Australian Ambassador Sir Robert Cotton and Sen. Paul Sarbanes (D-Md.). Tuckwell's publicist, Margaret Carson, a grande dame of the music world who also represents Leonard Bernstein and Michael Tilson Thomas, came downfrom New York, while his manager David Foster flew in from London, where he'd been watching a client perform at Covent Garden.

"No, I'm not surprised that Barry would do something like this," Carson said. Foster, standing beside her, burst into peels of laughter. "If you say so, Maggie," he managed after composing himself.

The regional orchestra -- 65 professional musicians drawn from Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania -- was formed after Tuckwell made the surprising announcement last April that he would lead it. No one seemed more surprised than Tuckwell himself, who for years -- as he's careened hither and yon playing solo engagements -- has brought his French horns for repair to his friend Walter Lawson, a craftsman in nearby Boonsboro known far and wide.

Tuckwell said that when he was first approached by local music mavens two years ago--after he played a concert in Hagerstown attended by only 300 people--he was quick with his reply. "I said no. I just didn't think there was a public here." But, he said, a woman named Frances Machen, the owner of a music store, was persistent and, in the end, persuasive.

"When I was talking with Frances, I started to realize that this wasn't just some fanciful dilettante," said the soft-spoken Tuckwell, his Australian accent leavened by years of living in London. In his dressing room before the concert, he grinned and shook his head. "I finally told her, 'You know, I think I would like to be part of this.' "

Machen, by most accounts the driving force behind the new orchestra, set about organizing an orchestra guild and raising local money -- about $115,000 so far, she said, with pledges of more to come. She said about 1,300 subscriptions have been snapped up, all but guaranteeing sellouts for the three concerts left in the season. "All the groundwork was laid before we went public," she said. "There was just a lot of hard work and community support."

Last week, Tuckwell, who has guest-conducted worldwide for the last 10 years and is music director of the Tasmanian Symphony in Australia, began the task of shaping a new ensemble -- prodding the group through hours of rigorous rehearsal. On Friday, the theater crew hung a specially designed acoustical shell over the stage.

By the fifth rehearsal on Saturday afternoon, the music, too, seemed well in hand. Polishing details of Grieg's "Suite from Peer Gynt," Tuckwell tapped his lectern at a noisy page-turn. Smiling puckishly, he offered a final piece of advice: "Be careful out there with these abrasive music stands, especially when you slide the lower end of the page. If one person does it, we can get away with it. But if three or four people do it, it's a disahhhster." He scrunched up his nose. "I mean 'disaster'," he revised, his accent suddenly Americanized. Laughter all around.

Saturday night, before a festively dressed crowd, the sound of the orchestra prevailed -- punctuated every so often by the stomping of Tuckwell's foot in what looked like euphoric frenzy. There were glitches here and there, as might be expected from people making music together for the first time in public, but the evening was a triumph.

At the end of Brahms' Fourth Symphony, the applause erupted in wave after wave. The audience rose to its feet. Tuckwell bent down to receive a bouquet from a little girl. He beamed.

"Isn't it nice," said a man to some friends, "that something like this could be happening in Hagerstown?"