WANT TO GO?"Symphony Idol"Presented by the West Virginia Symphony Orchestra WHEN: 8 p.m. Friday and SaturdayWHERE: Clay CenterTICKETS: Adults $10-$62, students and children $6-$15INFO: 304-561-3570 or online at www.wvsymphony.org CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- This weekend, all eyes at the Clay Center will be on the eight finalists in the West Virginia Symphony Orchestra's "Symphony Idol" competition. The audience will decide who wins the coveted title, but the judges also feel the heat of the spotlight, as they were in charge of selecting the finalists from a field of more than 50 competitors."In narrowing down the field from 50-plus to eight, our job was not only to judge the talent of the contestants but to decide whether they could use that talent with a symphony orchestra," explained judge Larry Groce. "Not every good singer can perform comfortably with a symphonic arrangement. We didn't have written guidelines, but all of us, including Maestro Cooper who was probably the most important judge, were aware that the winner was to sing a pops program with the orchestra, and we took that into consideration."Groce, a singer, songwriter and arts/entertainment producer, has seen a lot of talent as the host and co-founder of "Mountain Stage" and as executive director of FestivALL Charleston."I have been part of judging the 'Mountain Stage' NewSong<co > Contest for a while now, so the judging experience was not as foreign as it might have been," he said, adding that the current judges panel (which also includes Mariel Van Dalsum and West Virginia Division of Culture and History commissioner Randall Reid-Smith) judged the first "Symphony Idol" competition in 2008 as well."I'm glad we don't have to make the final decision because often there are several equally qualified contestants, and it comes down to a matter of taste: do you prefer the 'Broadway' singer, the more classical voice or the pop stylist? In my experience, it's often easier to go from 50 contestants to eight finalists than to go from eight finalists to one winner."Van Dalsum, a voice instructor at the University of Charleston, agrees with that."It is difficult to define exactly what I'm looking for in these contestants because all eight are so diverse," she said. "We have a blues singer, a country singer, pop singers, Broadway singers and a few classically trained singers. If I would look for clarity of sound and beauty of line in the blues singer, I would be in trouble. So ultimately what I'm looking for is, 'Does it work, and does it work fabulously?'""Symphony Idol" is a unique production for the orchestra in that the program is different each night. On Friday, each finalist performs two songs, chosen with Maestro Cooper and arranged especially for the singer and the orchestra. At the end of the night, the group is narrowed to four, as determined by audience voting.On Saturday, all eight will perform another song. The final four will be announced prior to intermission, and the audience will vote. The second half of the program features one additional song by each of the top four as well as one by each of the judges and inaugural "Symphony Idol" winner Ryan Hardiman. The winner is announced at the end of the night.The finalists are from throughout the region. They include Christopher Conard, Brynna Horswell and Mira Stanley of Charleston; Amy Hypes of Tioga and Joshua Butcher of Logan. Daniel King, a Charleston student attending Oberlin College in Ohio, and two natives -- Billy King of St. Albans, now living in San Francisco, and Courtney Stanley of Fayetteville native now living in Atlanta -- round out the pack.Van Dalsum, a native of the Netherlands, studied voice at the New England Conservatory of Music and performed in its opera program. Since then, she has sung operatic roles at Tanglewood, Academy of the West and Opera North and has done concert work and recitals all over the United States and in the Netherlands. She said there are many factors that came into play as the judges winnowed the field."Did the singer choose the right song in the right key? Did the singer sing all the right notes and all the right words? Does the voice sound good throughout the entire range? How were the very high notes? How were the very low notes? Was there enough contrast to make/keep the piece interesting? Is the song/piece age and voice appropriate? Does the singer do justice to all the lines/phrases within the piece, and does the piece emerge as a cohesive, beautiful entity?"And after all that, I look at the presentation. Was the singer's appearance appropriate? Was the singer doing anything that was distracting from the beauty of the song? Was nervousness an issue, and if it was, how did the singer use the nervous energy? Was the singer communicating or singing to him/herself? And perceiving the piece as a whole, I always ask myself: 'Did it work?' and 'How well did it work?'"Groce said after the initial audition, the panel of judges immediately agreed on four of the contestants."Then we debated who the other four finalists would be among maybe six or eight possibles," he said. "There were at least 10 or 12 overall who we considered and discussed. Most of those who became finalists had experience performing in musicals, show choirs, church choirs or in formal voice study programs. A couple were more from the pop/rock world."The fate of the winner is in the hands of the audience, and the judges have given them a good slate for making the important choice."I tried not to 'go with my gut' because that is the job of the audience," Van Dalsum said. "People in the audience like a piece or dislike a piece but might not be able to explain why."Reach Sara Busse at email@example.com or 304-348-1249.