A member of the D.C. Youth Orchestra was incorrectly identified yesterday in a caption. The student cellist at left in the photo is Sharon Malachi. (Published 1/9/91)

Backstage at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall not long ago, I watched with melancholy pride as a group of young musicians prepared for the D.C. Youth Orchestra's 30th anniversary performance.

All dressed up and talking Mozart and Tchaikovsky, they were the kind of children who do more than make their parents smile. They exalt this city.

But it hurt knowing that their anniversary concert on Dec. 30 may have been their last. A dispute over funding now threatens to close the curtain on one of the most successful youth orchestras in the United States.

According to the Friends of the D.C. Youth Orchestra Program, the cost to operate the orchestra runs about $107,000 more than D.C. public schools allocate. Government funding has remained the same -- $136,000 a year -- for 10 years.

Without help, the program is expected to go broke at the end of this month.

The friends group has begun charging parents a registration fee of $75 a semester to make up the difference. But school officials say it is not right to charge parents for services provided by the public schools.

I say why not? Private music lessons offering the same quality of instruction as the youth orchestra would cost $1,500 a semester -- or more. At $75, the orchestra program is a steal for the 600 children who participate.

For parents who can't afford the fee, financial aid is available as well as opportunities to pay the fee in volunteer time.

D.C. school officials say they would not object to the use of volunteer fund-raisers. Yet anyone familiar with arts funding in Washington knows that this city is littered with the bones of arts programs that died for lack of community support.

When it comes to local arts programs, the contributions of foundations and corporations that are based here amount to chicken scratch.

Newly elected D.C. school board President R. David Hall reportedly is concerned about the future of the youth orchestra and wants it to survive. Intervention on behalf of the children could be a good use of his new power.

Under the direction of Lyn McLain, a former Coolidge High School music teacher who founded the orchestra in 1960, nearly 50,000 youngsters have been trained in classical music. The orchestra has toured in Japan, Taiwan and the Soviet Union. Its alumni play in most of the major American orchestras and in orchestras in Brazil, Canada, Germany, Austria and Israel.

Most impressively, the orchestra program has trained 25 percent of the minority musicians working in American orchestras, according to a Youth Orchestra Day resolution recently passed by the D.C. Council.

These magnificent feats have been accomplished through a relationship between D.C. public schools and the youth orchestra that has blossomed over decades. But this current conflict threatens to bring it all to a halt, with the children as unwitting victims.

"To me, the most important part of oneself is not the point in which one's future explodes into flower," Toyin Spellman, 18, now a freshman at Oberlin College, wrote in a letter to school officials. "It is the moment the seed was planted. My seed was planted in the youth orchestra, because that is where I first discovered the joys of orchestral music."

Toyin noted that she was excited to know that the seed also had been planted in her 12-year-old sister, Kaji, a member of the orchestra who won first place in the Washington Performing Arts Society violin contest.

Surely, such seeds must not be crushed.

"The $75 fee is a drop in the bucket compared to money spent on things that do not help children," said Takiesa Grant, 12, a cellist with extraordinary talent. "You could not ask for a dollar better spent."

"I'm learning more than classical music," said Joy Ann Rohan, also a cellist. "I'm learning how to discipline myself and how to work with others. That's got to be worth more than $75 to my parents."

These youths are among Washington's greatest assets. Call them ambassadors of culture. Touring with the youth orchestra throughout the United States and to foreign lands, they stand at the vanguard of repelling worldwide bad press about our children.

Here's a chance for D.C. school officials to return the honor. If there is no money in the school budget to keep the orchestra alive, then at least let the parents pay.

Let the children play.