From its beginnings as a handful of home-grown amateurs to the present 80-member ensemble that includes well-established professionals, the Annapolis Symphony Orchestra has kept the beat for classical music lovers since 1960. This season, the group celebrates its 30th anniversary.

Although its tempo has quickened (the budget has ballooned to nearly $400,000, and Saturday night performances are sold out before the season begins), members say the group is still able to hold on to its sense of community.

Viola player Charlotte Dunham, who has played with the group since 1974, said, "We're all friends that get together because we like music. It started that way and things haven't changed."

Music adviser and assistant conductor Karen Deal has helped lead the group for four years. "The people here give their best whether they are music teachers or professionals," she said. "You have a spirit here of wanting to play and wanting to do your best. You can't make more exciting music than with a group with this sort of attitude."

According to Dunham, the emergence of the ASO is representative of many groups in the area. "There has been an enormous growth in orchestras in the last 20 years, mostly due to the area's population growth, as well as a growing interest in symphonies, with stronger public school programs, music camps and festivals," she said.

All season concerts take place in the 850-seat auditorium at Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts in Annapolis, formerly Annapolis Senior High.

Known as an "urban orchestra," the ASO began in the late 1950s as a small group of string players -- some local amateurs and some professionals from the U.S. Naval Academy -- who held weekly Tuesday night sessions in the basement of Trinity Methodist Church.

As the group grew more serious, it sought professional direction from Kenneth Page, instrumental music director at Annapolis High School and a graduate of the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore. In 1961, Page led the group in its first concert.

When Page died in 1969, well-known concert pianist Leon Fleisher of Peabody became the ASO's second music director. Under his leadership, which continued until 1984, the orchestra grew. Among the guest artists who performed with the orchestra during his tenure were violinist Isaac Stern and pianists Gary Graffman, Andre Watts and Eugene Istomin.

In 1984, Fleisher's assistant conductor, Peter Bay, took the baton and conducted the group until the end of last season.

"Leon Fleisher put us on the map," said violinist Jack McCarthy, who with his wife, Carol, is an original member of the group. "And some of our best players came from Peabody because of his connection there."

The group is now auditioning candidates for music director/head conductor.

Although its 30th season does not officially begin until October, the group will perform on Labor Day at the opening of Anne Arundel County's newest park, Quiet Waters in the Annapolis Neck Peninsula. The free program will begin at 6:30 p.m.

"Music is a way to communicate without the binds of race, gender, age or social status," said Deal. "Some people think of classical music as an elitist activity, but here it is a community one."