The McLean High School String Orchestra brought home the gold this week.

The 25-member orchestra, competing in the International Festival of Music in Ottawa was one of two American orchestras to win the prestigious award.

"The students were more keyed up than I have ever seen them," said director Jane Ralls. "They were really excited and very anxious to get a gold. If I had known they were going to do as well as they did, I might have snuck in a bottle of champagne for the post-concert celebration."

Instead, the Fairfax students settled for a few Cokes and pizza at a nearby Ottawa restaurant.

"There's not really much to do on a Sunday night in Ottawa," Ralls laughed, quickly adding that the lack of a more tinselly celebration did little to dim the excitement of the group's first international tour. "Oh, they were really overcome. Some were weeping, some were laughing. Some even later told me that they had a hunch they just might win a gold."

The rules for taking home the gold in the music world are different than the more familiar battleground of athletics. To win a gold medal in a music competition requires more than outplacing the competition. The groups do not compete against each other, but insted must meet an international standard of performance.

In some competitions, more than one gold medal is awarded, in others, none are. In the Ottawa competition, two out of six participating orchestras won the coveted award of excellence. A Massachusetts high school orchestra received the other medal.

In the history of the International Festival of Music, only 5 percent of the participating orchestras have been awarded gold medals.

Under competition rules, at least one of the pieces performed must be by a 20th century Northern American composer. The other works may be by any composer. For its Northern American work, the McLean orchestra chose Serenade for String orchestra by the American Samuel Barber, who wrote the work when he was 18. Among the other works performed by the McLean orchestra were the aria from Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5 by Latin American composer Villa-Lobos and Concerto grosso by Francesco Geminiani of Italy.