For nearly three decades, top chamber musicians such as cellist Yo-Yo Ma have scheduled a stop in Howard County on their concert tours.

Famous musicians, and those who aspire to be, are drawn to the county by an invitation from Candlelight Concerts, a Columbia-based nonprofit organization that stages chamber music performances in county theaters.

Now in its 27th season, Candlelight Concerts has developed a reputation for presenting the best performers as well as introducing those who show talent and promise to concertgoers from throughout the Washington area and as far as central Pennsylvania.

"They're one of the finest chamber music organizations in the whole state, in the whole region," said James Backas, executive director of the Maryland State Arts Council, which has awarded about $32,000 in grants to Candlelight Concerts in the past three years. "They have had for a long time a real talent for picking out that which is not expensive, but will soon be," he said.

One of the oldest arts groups in the county, Candlelight Concerts has grown from producing an annual series of six concerts in the early 1970s to a 14-concert season from October to May. The series includes chamber ensemble concerts and recitals and classical jazz performances showcasing national and international performers, according to Executive Director Bonita Bush.

Performers have included pianist Richard Goode, the Emerson String Quartet, the Billy Taylor Trio, soprano Dawn Upshaw and the New Black Eagle Jazz Band.

The organization also offers six performances for children and families by professional touring groups from October to March. Past performances have featured tap dancers, marionettes and ballet dancers.

Candlelight Concerts considers its home the Smith Theatre on the campus of Howard Community College. It also occasionally has concerts at the Jim Rouse Theatre at Wilde Lake High School, both in Columbia. The concerts draw an average of about 300 people, Bush said.

Like many nonprofit arts groups, the organization relies on state and local grants, corporate donations, fund-raising and ticket sales to fund its $170,000 annual budget.

Its major fund-raiser this year, to be held in June, will be a performance by political satirist Mark Russell.

"Most challenging for us is making it fiscally," said Jim Coggins, vice president of the Candlelight Concerts board of directors. "In the best of all possible worlds, we'd have some endowment. The trouble is we're like all nonprofit organizations. We're all going door to door with our hands out."

Colleen West, executive director of the Howard County Arts Council, noted that Candlelight consistently receives high marks for artistic merit, organizational excellence and service to community when applying for council grants. The council awarded $19,000 to the organization last year.

"They bring world-class musicians to Howard County audiences, and nobody else is doing that," she said.

The commitment of Bush, a former music teacher who's been executive director for nearly nine years, and her predecessors to choosing high-quality musicians and treating them well has earned Candlelight Concerts a stellar reputation among chamber musicians.

One is Miles Hoffman, artistic director of the Washington-based American Chamber Players, who has been associated with Candlelight Concerts since the early 1980s. His group, which he founded in 1985, tours nationally and is a regular in the Candlelight series, appearing "every two or three seasons."

"One of the things I have always felt with Candlelight is there is an affection for musicians. They value music and musicians. They make sure their standards stay high, and they work very, very hard," he said. "Every time we play there, it always feels like coming home."

Bush, who selects the performers, said she follows what's hot in the music world by keeping tabs on the New York, Boston and Washington arts scenes.

"I make choices based on part of the series being mature, established ensembles, and a portion dedicated to young artists coming up but also of the very highest quality," she said.

Candlelight also is committed to broadening its audience through outreach programs. The organization has sponsored performances at local nursing homes, Howard County General Hospital and the Cedar Lane School for Exceptional Children.

Since 1979, it has presented workshops and lecture-demonstrations in local schools by artists who perform in the concert series. Bush said the number of school performances has declined recently because of school budget cuts, but Candlelight is working to rejuvenate the program.

Hoffman, a commentator for National Public Radio's "Performance Today," called Candlelight Concerts a model for how to run a successful chamber music organization.

"They have built an extremely loyal audience that knows what they hear on a series is going to be good," Hoffman said. "A chamber music series is like a fine restaurant really. You don't know what the specials are going to be, but you have to trust the chef."