Every December for the last 14 years, high school and college students have competed for the privilege of giving up their year-end holiday for 11 days of coaching and rehearsal as part of the New York String Orchestra, culminating in a series of New York and Washington concerts conducted by Alexander Schneider. In last night's Kennedy Center program, there was ample evidence of the high caliber of young talent to be found today in the colleges and conservatories of the eastern United States, from which most of the members of this year's orchestra were chosen.

Given the intensity and energy levels of their playing, one can only imagine the concentration and effort these students put into their rehearsals.

Schneider's obvious rapport with his players establishes a discipline and uniformity that would be the envy of any ensemble, let alone one that was only formed a week ago. Their polished performance and the obvious abilities of the individual members of the group make it mandatory to judge them only by professional standards. Indeed, that is undoubtedly where we will next encounter many of them, as members of various professional orchestras and chamber ensembles around the country.

As for the program itself, it was obviously designed to display the skills of individual players as well as the degree of ensemble feeling that can be established in such a short time with good musicians and experienced teachers. Bach's Second Brandenburg Concerto and Haydn's neglected Sinfonia Concertante brought two different quartets of soloists to the limelight. All eight players deserve high marks, but trumpet soloist Stephen Burns, 23, displayed such finesse and accuracy in handling the stratospheric demands of the Bach Concerto that he must be singled out.

Also on the program were Bach's First Orchestral Suite and Strauss' "Emperor" Waltzes. The Bach Suite was a bit heavy-handed for the style of the French dances it contains, but the Strauss was a delightful blend of delicacy and abandon, the ultimate in musical escapism.

The concert began with a memorial tribute to well-known arts patron John Thacher. The announcement was made of the first $1,000 award to be made from his recent bequest to Lily Guest, chairman of Friends of the Kennedy Center. This year's recipient is not an individual, but rather the entire New York String Orchestra, in collective recognition of their outstanding talent.