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The New Brunswick Youth Orchestra likes to get a little physical with one of its pieces, livening things up by spinning cellos or literally raising their bodies as the music rises to a climax.

During competition at an international festival in Austria, they felt that would be too outré, said cellist Lydia Mainville. But after placing first and being invited to perform this week at Vienna's famed Golden Hall of the Musikverein, they were too exuberant to hold back.

"I said, 'We're doing the spin,' " said Mainville from Vienna on Wednesday. "And they loved it."

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Their performance of Conga del Fuego Nuevo, by the Mexican composer Arturo Márquez, earned a standing ovation. It's a rare occurrence in that hall, according to festival artistic director Jürgen Partaj.

"It doesn't happen often in the Wiener Musikverein," Partaj said. "The young people and the young conductor, Antonio Delgado, they have a lot more friends [now] around the world."

The 68 young musicians, who range in age from 14 to 24, return to New Brunswick Thursday with a first-place finish at the Summa Cum Laude International Youth Music Festival and a judges' designation as "outstanding."

Their victory – the NBYO won out over six orchestras, culled from approximately 30 that applied to compete – and their performance at the finale of a Golden Hall gala on Tuesday capped a remarkable decade of building by the youth orchestra.

Founded in the 1960s, the NBYO by 2002 had an annual budget of just $25,000, said president Ken MacLeod. That season, they played to a cumulative audience of no more than 700 people. They had a chance to perform at Carnegie Hall, but the opportunity seemed destined to be scuppered by the high cost. Fundraisers found a rich vein of support, though, and they secured well in excess of the amount they needed.

That performance at Carnegie Hall led to both a documentary, appropriately called Practice, Practice, Practice, and their first CD – all boosting their profile. The orchestra later performed in Italy and China, which provoked another CD, and brought them a guest conductor and a faculty.

MacLeod said the NBYO's budget last year was nearly $250,000 – from a mix of fundraising, student fees, ticket sales and government support – and their performances were seen by more than 10,000 people. The ballooning audience numbers were partly helped by a strategy of featuring guest musicians.

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"It brings in a new audience, people who came to hear Matt Andersen also heard the orchestra," MacLeod said, referring to the New Brunswick-based bluesman.

Another change was conductor Delgado, a Venezuelan. He had been visiting New Brunswick to see his girlfriend – now his wife – who was working in the province. After guest-conducting with the orchestra, he agreed to join full-time last year.

Since then, he's been working hard to get the group to focus on more than technical ability.

"Basically to work harder … trying to find the feeling, the meaning beyond the notes," Delgado said, adding that it's "a big responsibility" to have won in Vienna. "We have to keep the level."

Delgado is a veteran of the Sistema model, a children's music program that started in Venezuela in 1975 and is catching on around the world – including Canada (Ottawa has a program, and others are planned for Winnipeg and Toronto).

The NBYO launched a prototype Sistema program in 2009, providing children with free instruction and access to instruments, and has an ambitious fivee-year plan to have up to 600 kids learning music throughout the province. "We're already identifying kids in Sistema that we think, in a year, will be able to audition for the [NBYO]," said MacLeod.

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