At the conclusion of the Northern Virginia Youth Symphony Orchestra's concert Sunday, conductor Luis Haza turned to the audience and said, "I think that this is the finest beginning of a season for this orchestra in its 23-year history."

It would be hard to dispute him, and equally hard to find another student concert played with more polish.

Drawing a respectable crowd to Fairfax High School on a beautiful fall afternoon in direct competition with a Redskins football game is not easy for young musicians. But then the music was not standard high-school caliber playing. It was the product of the top talent from more than 80 schools across Northern Virginia.

The orchestra is the senior performing group in the Northern Virginia Youth Symphony Orchestra Association, which also includes the Junior Youth Symphony and the String Ensemble. In all, more than 250 students from about 80 schools were selected in auditions for the three groups.

The concert began with Beethoven's "Overture to Fidelio," which calls for the various sections of the orchestra to introduce the opera's themes. The brass and winds displayed well-rehearsed playing that was set against a supple, unified backdrop in the strings.

Principal flutist Britton Plourde created a relaxed atmosphere essential to Debussy's "Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun" with his first long, clear notes. The orchestra maintained the calm of the introduction, as it painted a scene of lush colors. "I would not have programmed that piece if I hadn't had Britton Plourde there," said Haza, who is also a first violinist for the National Symphony Orchestra. "It's not every young flutist who can play that."

As with any group of unseasoned musicians, there were lapses of clear intonation and, on occasion, one or another horn player would miss his attack by a noticeable margin. But this was far from the rule.

Throughout the concert Haza could be seen reining in overzealous violinists, urging them to allow the rest of the musicians to be heard. But problems of coordination could easily be written off to the relatively short rehearsal schedules for the concerts.

The finale to Dvorak's majestic "New World Symphony" was truly impressive. The forthright declaration of the trumpets was echoed in the unison of the strings. In mining the rich melodies that are the hallmark of the Czech composer, the musicians regularly struck gold.

For an encore the orchestra offered a repeat of Brahms' Hungarian Dance No. 6, which was played earlier with Hungarian Dance No. 5. Having found their groove as the concert progressed, the musicians' second attempt was more fluid, with a playful show of percussion and horns.

The applause had hardly died down before several members of the audience came on stage, rolled up their sleeves, and packed the equipment away. That's to be expected of a group that has relied heavily on the efforts of dedicated parents to keep it going for more than two decades.

Students interested in auditioning for any of the groups in the association must be Virginia residents under the age of 19. For audition and general information, call (703) 356-2666.