Ever since 18-month-old Wendy Harton sang "Jesus Loves Me" with perfect pitch, her mother has known she would lead a musical life.

Though each of the family's four children was taught enough piano to plunk their way through a hymn, Wendy took her lessons to heart.

"God has given me this talent," says Harton, now 22, who recently received her master's degree in music at the University of Maryland at College Park. "I'm just trying to develop it and see what He does with it."

For the last three weeks, He has kept her quite busy. Harton--along with 104 musicians who range from college freshmen to graduate students and hail from across the United States and around the world--was recently selected to participate in the National Orchestral Institute (NOI) at the University of Maryland at College Park.

For three consecutive weeks, a different guest conductor leads the group in five intense days of rehearsal, culminating in a public performance. The third and final music program takes place Saturday.

At the ensemble's June 12 performance, conducted by Andre Raphel Smith of the Philadelphia Orchestra, the participants already sounded like old pros.

"This is a particularly good year," says National Orchestral Institute Director Don Reinhold, who traveled to 16 U.S. cities and listened to more than 700 students audition for the program.

Days after the orchestra's first performance, which included Dvorak's "Carnival" Overture and Mahler's Symphony No. 1 ("Titan"), Reinhold was still beaming.

"The wind solos projected beautifully," he gushed. "It was an incredible performance considering these students had never met each other before."

Carlos Castrillon, a 21-year-old French horn player from Hyattsville, calls participating in the institute a remarkable opportunity. "It's almost like a dream orchestra," says Castrillon, who recently graduated with a bachelor of music degree from the University of Maryland and will pursue a master's degree in music at the University of Cincinnati in the fall. "It's the closest thing to a professional experience that I've had."

Benjamin Lynerd, a 22-year-old pianist from Bowie who also graduated this year from the University of Maryland, is equally enthusiastic about the program. "It's the dream of every orchestra major" to perform the pieces the institute selected, he says.

Last week's guest conductor was Marin Alsop, music director of the Colorado Symphony. For this Saturday's performance, conductor Maximiano Valdes will travel from Spain to lead the orchestra in Silvestre Revueltas's "Sensemaya," Debussy's "Iberia: Image for Orchestra No. 2" and Sibelius's Symphony No. 5 in E-flat Major, Op. 82.

Valdes, a native of Chile, spent 10 years as the music director of the Buffalo Philharmonic and has conducted orchestras in Mexico, Italy, Vancouver, Seattle, Florida and St. Louis. This is his fourth collaboration with NOI, and he's always a favorite with its students.

"He's done some wonderful work," Reinhold says. "He's got a program that will really show off the orchestra's colors."

For Wendy Harton, the group's grand finale represents another opportunity to serve God. "There is a quote that says God gave us music so that we might pray without words," Harton says. "That's what it means for me."

The National Orchestral Institute's final performance is at 8 p.m. Saturday at the University of Maryland's Tawes Theatre, University Boulevard and Adelphi Road, College Park. Tickets are $12 for adults, $10 for seniors and $5 for students. For more information, call 301-405-6538.

CAPTION: Carlos Castrillon, left, Benjamin Lynerd and Wendy Harton are county participants in the National Orchestral Institute. "This is a particularly good year," says the program's director, Don Reinhold.