What's it like to compose orchestral music in America? Anyone paging through the latest music-gear catalogs could easily conclude that composers and listeners today bask in a golden age of orchestral music.

Just look at what composers have at their disposal: Sumptuously recorded libraries of sampled instruments (Vienna Symphonic Library, East/West Quantum Symphonic Orchestra) enable any composer--even if you're cursed with sloppy keyboard technique--to input and render a tolerable sonic facsimile of an orchestral performance. Notation software (Sibelius, Finale) not only makes your magnum opus look as great as your well-thumbed Beethoven pocket scores, but it extracts individual parts for the musicians, too.

Despite such tools, I still pity the composer of orchestral music in America. Does any other profession offer so few opportunities for actual practice? And, God forbid, to make mistakes? Student composers rarely enjoy hands-on experience with an orchestra. Student, community, and professional orchestras almost never "read through" new pieces. Concert programs teem with orchestral works that received a first (and probably final) performance. Nonetheless, composers must do what all artists must do: persist.

The Seattle Symphony's Made in America festival commemorates some of those who persisted in the 20th century. For starters, I suggest the "Leonard Bernstein Celebration" (Fri May 6, 7:30 pm) with hits from West Side Story along with the exhilarating overture to Candide in which the hyperventilating razzamatazz of Broadway collides with Rossini. Tucked into the program is a suite from the underrated early 1970s ballet Dybbuk, parts of which suggest that Bernstein finally got around to hearing Stravinsky's AGON. Don't miss "American Originals" (Sat May 7, 8 pm) with music by Elliott Carter, Roger Sessions, Ned Rorem, and the first truly great American composer, Charles Ives (the elegiac Symphony No. 3 "The Camp Meeting"). CHRISTOPHER DeLAURENTI

Made in America runs through May 19 (Benaroya Hall, Third Ave and Union St, 215-4747), $10-$61. Check www.seattlesymphony.org for details.

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