THIS IS the story of Martin Feinstein, once of Crown Heights in Brooklyn, now of McLean and the world, a short, blunt, baby bull of a man who might have ended up a press agent with shiny trousers and a bashed hat and who wound up instead as executive director of performing arts at the John F. Kennedy Center. In a way, the story is a 20th-century morality play, with Push On and Great Odds in the leading roles. Chutzpah has a part, too, though some wouldn't call it that.

The Italians called it testa dura . That's what they said Martin Feinstein had when La Scala canceled its first-ever U.S. visit and Fienstein, who "wouldn't take no for an aria" (as he likes to tell it), hopped on a plane to Rome and Milan that night to begin talking them out of it. And of course La Scala Opera came to America a year ago September, devaluation of the lira and Italian politics be damned, and of course Martin Feinstein was made a Knight Commander of the Order of Merit for his troubles, not to say his testa dura .

"What does it mean?" asked the Kennedy Center's number two man, a bad boy smile curling on his lip. "Why, 'hard head'. Of course."

Maybe you've never heard of Martin Feinstein, this 56-year-old self-styled Kissinger of culture who helped turn Washington from a three-night stand into an American center for opera and ballet. This is the impresario who brought you the Bolshoi Ballet, the Stuttgart, the Royal, the American Ballet Theater, the Joffrey, the Australian, the paris Opera, the Berlin Opera, the Bolshoi Opera.

Not to mention Alicia Alonso and her Ballet Nacional de Cuba, which is coming to Washington for two weeks next June if Feinstein has to row the company here in a dinghy. That one he will present jointly with New York's Metropolitan opera; it is regarded as a major artistic and diplomatic coup, maybe Feinstein's triumph.

You've no doubt heard of Roger L. Stevens, Feinstein's boss and the Kennedy Center's top banana. He got the place built, opened its doors on Sept. 8, 1971, and remains today its active chairman. Stevens, who among other things once bought and sold the Empire State Building, is at ease with establishment Washington, with the town's quaint politics and social eccentricities. That wouldn't be Martin Feinstein's turf at all. His connections are European, his style more West 43rd St. than Foggy Bottom.

"Marty wasn't exactly shy," says Don Forst, former cultural editor at The New York Times, remembering Sol Hurok's ace lieutenant. "He sold. He pushed. He never ran out of ideas. If you couldn't go one way for him, he'd try to get you to go another. But he was never devious. You might say he was in the heavyweight chutzpah division."

Isaac Stern, concert violinist, a friend of Feinstein's for 30 years, says, "I knew him when he was the merest stripling of a New York press agent. You see, Marty always wanted to be an artist - no matter what he says. But failing that, he became the next best thing: a knowing partner in the presentation of an artist. He can be awesomely arrogant sometimes, yes. But behind all that, what makes him a great impresario and the others just managers is his reverence - almost childlike - for the performer. It gives him a thrill just to be there. . ."

Martin Feinstein is at work in his office on the second floor of the Kennedy Center. It is a place befitting a man with multinational contacts. There is a sofa with two facing chairs, a pair of cream-white console phones, a great polished desk. The word around Kennedy Center is that the office was built for Roger Stevens - but Martin Feinstein got it.

The man is in a handsome Continental brown plaid suit with a flag of silk waving from his vest pocket. Streaked silver hair licks around his ears and down his collar. The nose is blunt and stubby, a boxer's nose you'd think. The eyes are deep-set, the brows dark - two furrows in a rutted field. This face could belong to a dock worker, or maybe Edward G. Robinson's brother.

At the moment he has a phone stuck in his ear. He is brokering a meeting between the manager of the Boston Symphony and some visiting Mexican functionaries. This is Feinstein's meat, playing middleman, working deals.

"No, Tom," he says, winking at his visitor, some Brooklyn and oily charm in his voice, "I won't take a commission, but I will take an invitation to go down to Mexico City with you when the orchestra opens." Then he laughs - a rumbling, wicked sort of laugh.

Off the phone, he signs a stack of checks. The checks have been brought in by LInda Reynolds, Feinstein's hyperkinetic secretary ("I inherited her when I came in '72 - she knows the pace"). She informs him he's run up 10 phone messages, two of them trans-Atlantic calls, in the last half hour. "Bring me the criticals, pacify the others," he says, not looking up. Then, to his visitor: "I hate the phone. At home, I rarely answer it."

Now then, where shall we start? How about with the Vienna State Opera? This is clearly a worry these days for Martin Feinstein - not to say a new cornerstone for his legend. Ten weeks ago, just as everything seemed set for the famed opera's first U.S. visit, there came news from the Austrian government of an austerity program. La Scala all over again.

"After I got the call from Egon (Seefehlner, the opera's director), I said to Roger (Stevens), the first thing I want is a meeting with Kissinger (Henry, who'd been helpful in saving La Scala). We also got in touch with Bill Fulbright, who called Cyrus Vance. And then I went to Vienna myself. I was scheduled to go over anyway to agree on a repertory and to sign contracts. The basic argument I used was that the tour would be an investment for tourism. And in fact, I just got off the phone this morning and I can now tell you the news from Vienna looks very promising."

So the VSO probably will come next September, after all, and Martin Feinstein will doubtless prove an even glossier hero. (Actually, it's not quite that neat. Roger Stevens reminds that even if the Austrians say yes to the trip, the Kennedy Center will still have to raise about $400,000 to help them out. He thinks that's possible; he can't be sure.)

"See, this is a continual crisis business, full of egos and heartaches," Feinstein is saying, buffing the legend. "I started working on the Vienna State's visit three years ago. But when it comes off, when you're standing in the back of the hall opening night watching that audience so enjoying itself, realizing you made it happen . . . well, then, of course it's all worthwhile. I guess I learned about that from Mr. Hurok."

You can't talk to Martin Feinstein very long before the words "Mr. Hurok" pop up. It's invariably Mr. Hurok . Stories about the late black-caped New York showman, who supposedly arrived in America in 1906 with $1.50 worth of rubles in his pocket, lace his conversation. A favorite story is about wining and dining critics at Sardi's. When Hurok was asked why he bothered - after all, you can't buy a good critic for the price of a dinner and who cares about the bad ones - his answer was, "Don't forget, there are two ways to write a bad review." Feinstein knows that one in his sleep. He also practices its moral.

Feinstein worked 25 years for Sol Hurok, starting out in 1946 as an assistant publicist (which some say amounted to being a suitcase carrier). He was fresh from the army and a job on Stars and Stripes in Hawaii. He had a master's degree in music and no contacts.

Before Feinstein was through he had become the Russian-born impresario's most trusted deputy, not to say his adopted son, a knowing partner in presentations of Artur Rubinstein, Marian Anderson, Rudolf Nureyev, the Comedie Francaise , Sadler's Wells (later the Royal Ballet) - the list seems endless. Still, the was a deputy - a kind of perpetual Ed McMahon.

In time, Martin Feinstein probably came to know more about marketing opera and ballet than even his mentor. Some claim he is now the most knowledgeable ballet impresario alive, that he could cast a ballet off the top of his head in seconds. When the Stuttgart first came to America, it was Feinstein who not only brokered the deal (after watching the company for three years), but selected its debut ballet ("Eugene Onegin") and made some two dozen changes in the work, including a rewrite of the ending.

Hurok was graceless when he heard Feinstein was leaving New York. "I guess he is looking for something different," Hurok was quoted in The New York Times. "We'll probably have to hire someone else. I'm sorry to lose him. But it's no problem. I've handled problems all my life. We are going to be bigger than ever.

But by 1971, when Feinstein resigned, the Jurok office had changed. General Electric had taken over the operation by then. Things weren't as wide open, as cavalier, as in the old days when Hurok was likely to tell Marty to get on a plane that night for Sofia or Berlin or Belgrade. Now there were cost accountants everywhere. By contrast, the Kennedy Center, a massive monument open just four months, seemed a shiny new challenge, maybe a chance to "make an artistic statement." Even if the would still be No. 2. . . .

"The way it works around here," Roger Stevens is saying, rocked back in a stainless steel director's chair, his thumbs tucked in his belt, his chin resting comfortably on the knot of a club tie, "is that I let Martin run with the ball on opera and ballet, and I run with the ball on theater and musical comedy. Martin's been invaluable to the Kennedy Center since he came. Yes, you could call us a partnership, I guess. We make independent decisions. We don't worry very much about committees and things. We just get it done."

But isn't Feinstein's title executive director of performing arts - all the arts? "What's in a title?" Stevens says, dismissing the implication. "That's what Martin wanted." Pause. "Course, Martin has a great flair for the framatic, you know, the bighsplash. That's great, we need it. But he doesn't have to concern himself over relations with Congress, for instance, like I do, or with fixing the roof. I always tell him he's got the best job around here. Especially when he says he doesn't make enough."

Martin Feinstein makes quite a bit of money, by most yardsticks. His base salary is around $69,000, Stevens says, but benefits nudge it to about $75,000. He also gets a leased car. This probably makes him the highest-paid person at the Center. (Stevens' job in nonpaying; he's a multimillionaire anyway.)

There is an interesting story concerning Feinstein's pay and prestige. A year and a half ago, when the Kennedy Center board of trustees named Thomas R. Kendrick, formerly Styly editor at The Washington Post, to the new position of director of operations, it saw fit at the same time to raise Feinstein's salary to a level above the incoming Kendrick's. This was noted in the papers.

Feinstein's salary has enabled him and his family - besides his wife, Bernice, a Ph.D. in music from Columbia, there are three children, nearly grown - to maintain a handsone but not pretentious home here, and another on Shelter Island in New York. Feinstein doesn't get up there much anymore - maybe a week a year. When he does, he enjoys tennis. He took up the game in his 30s, says his neighbor and good friend, author Martin Mayer. He doesn't like losing.

At home in McLean, Feinstein likes to read and watch TV. (He's mad for "Kojak.") He doesn't putter in his backyard much, says his elder son John, a reporter on the Metro staff of The Washington Post. Feinstein is increasingly visible at embassy and other parties around town ("I generally avoid the ones that say 'regrets only' - too big a crush"), where he is said to ooze charm and wit. He's also been the host of his own successful bashes, usually for visiting artists. If he's not exactly a social wheel in Washington, he's got a lug either.

In fact, the danger with Martin Feinstein is seeing him too monolithically. He'll fool you every time. He can come off as gauche (there are stories about him tagging along uninvited to lunch, about him helping himself to other people's desserts, about him grinning malevolently when he tells the waiter he wants calf's liver with onions not bacon), only to come back at you with his knowledge of, say, wine lists or maybe Flemish art.

Mostly, Martin Feinstein's life is his work. It's nothing for him to be at the office all day, go home for supper and be back at the Center for an evening performance. He'll work Saturday mornings - and catch the matinee. He saw "The Merchant" any number of times, giving notes on cuts and corrections to Stevens (who liked about 50 per cent of them).

Martin Feinstein has any number of ideas, you quickly learn. The problem is keeping track of them, and of course financing them. " I could come up with any number of festival ideas - which would give us a deficit of $1 million. I know it't just not in the cards. I need to work with budgets of around $250,000 or $300,000 for an idea."

Ideas for festivals (he has already put on Bach, Shakespeare and Mozart festivals), for award competitions (he has been in on the designing of two new competitions to take place next year, one for American composers, the other an international contest for performers, co-sponsored by the Rockefeller Foundation), for national conservatories attached to the Kennedy Center. (long-range dream, he admits), for resident companies in opera (maybe not so long-range), for additional theaters (there is already a 500-seat cabaret the theater, a gift of Japan, in construction on the roof of the Kennedy Center). And on and on and on.

"We are national, local and international," Feinstein is fond of saying. "Some people have said Kennedy Center's just a booking house. That's false. Kennedy Center's been in on the production of dozens of plays - nine for the Bicentennial alone. For six years we've probably been running 85 to 90 per cent capacity in the theater. That's unheard of.

"And, of course, you know about opera and ballet.We probably play 99 per cent of capacity in ballet. When I first came to Washington this town didn't know anything about ballet. I said to a friend of mine, 'By God, I'm going to bring a clack in here to show thaes people when to applaud.' Well, all that's changed now. We're changing tradition down here. It's just not New York anymore. You take La Scala. We had 90 critics from across the country."

Some would say Martin Feinstein is a little too hot to change tradition - that it's a point of ego with him to try to make Washington outshine New York culturally. (Which will never happen, most people agree.) John Rockwell and Harold Schonberg of The New York Times were two of the 90 critics who came to see La Scala. They did not "invariably like the Opera," says Rockwell. Afterward, Feinstein was said to have let it out around town that Rockwell and Schonberg - a good friend of Feinstein's - were sour grapes since La Scala wasn't stopping in New York. It was annoying and insulting professionally, says Rockwell, who nonetheless adds Feinstein is the best thing that't happened to the arts in Washington.

For his part, Feinstein denies the sour grapes charge.

Feinstein can be "ruthless," it is said when it comes to negotiating union contracts. "He'll give you hell if he thinks he's right," says Sam Jack Kaufman, president of the D.C. Federation of Musicians. "But you can reason with him." William Bennett of Local 22 of stage hands union refuses comment. During the La Scala crisis, Feinstein got Local 22 to do nearly the impossible - agree to a moratorium on increases. (No slouch at raising money either, something that's ordinarily Stevens' province, Feinstein got the Philip Morris Foundation to put up $100,000 for La Scala, the Cafritz Foundation to donate %125,000. There is talk, unconfirmed, that IBM will help bail out the Vienna State.

All of his - his tough union bargaining, his nonstop ideas for festivals and programs and awards, his glamorous international coups, his increasingly national vision of Kennedy Center - might make one wonder if Martin Feinstein isn't out heir apparent cultural czar, America's Ivan the Terrible of Art with only Roger Stevens in the way of a public crowning.

He thinks that's ridiculous. "Look: Writers are always trying to paint in stark contrasts. I couldn't be Roger Stevens if I wanted - he doesn't get paid remember? A czar is someone who dictates. I'm not dictating anything. I'm just Martin Feinstein." On another day, though, he says there's not a cultural job in America he can think of he'd rather have. Running the Met is just an opera position. Running the National Endowments for the Humanities and Arts are too bureaucratic. No, in a sense, he's already on top of the pile.

At least one other Kennedy Center figure agrees. Lily Polk Guest runs the influential Friends of Kennedy Center, a group of 275 working volunteers. She is said to dislike Martin Feinstein. For the record, all she will say is: "Well, I blow hot and cold about him, but generally I like him." Regarding his power, she says: "I don't know; when you get to Martin's level, there's not much place else to go. Maybe there's some job in Europe. . ." She cautions, though, on the czar idea. "It's too strong. He's held by budgets and the board."

Others argue that Feinstein's day is already over; that while the Kennedy Center's first half-decade emphasized the cultural splash at which he excels, it must now reach out to another mandate of educational programs in addition to the performing arts. (Stevens himself hints at this new phase.) For someone whose bag was always the box office, this could be tediuos.

New York. Martin Feinstein on his home field. It is a rainy Thursday and at La Guardia airport, an American Airlines jet has just eased into gate 24. The engines stop, the doors open, and suddenly a man in a jaunty blue suit with briefcase and topcoat in tow pops from the planes's innards as though shot from a gun. It is Feinstein, and he is on the move. The getaway, impressive on its own, is startling when you learn Feinstein has been riding in coach. How in hell did you get over all those first-class passengers?

(Simple, actually. You try for the first seat on the aisle in the smoking section of coach - 19C usually on American - and keep your gear at the ready. When the captain cuts the switches, take off like Mike Thomas.)

The plane is in from Detroit, where Feinstein attended the debut the evening before of his friend, Antal Dorati, as director of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. This, too, is instructive, for Martin Feinstein is a man who doesn't forget his friends.

Never mind all those nasty stories that flew after the announcement of Mstislav Rostropovich's appointment as musical director of the National Symphony Orchestra. Stories that had Dorati, then the current director, sitting in Europe without so much as a courtesy phone call while Feinstein middle-manned the appointment - "almost obscenely fast," as one insider put it - through the board of trustees. Supposedly, Dorati could not be reached by the board before he read the news in the papers.) Never mind that at all. He and Dorati are still close.

He is about to hop in a cab, but first Feinstein wants to make a call (to Jane Hermann, special projects director of the Met, to say he's on his way). he throttles down at the nearest pay phone, a little black book in hand. "What?" he nearly cries. "Don't tell me I don't have the number for the Metropolitan Opera. Look: London, Moscow, Stuttgart, Berlin. But no Met."

Thia minicrisis is survived (by looking the number up in a driectory).

Settled now in the back of a taxi, studying the gray October wash out the window, Feinstein turns suddenly gregarious, even warm. Maybe sentimental. We are on his past.

"My parents never had it knocked. They were Russians emigrants. We lived in Crown Heights in Brooklyn, a couple of blocks from Ebbets Field. I don't think my father father even finished elementary school. He had this little cafeteria shanty for longshoremen under what is now West Side Avenue. He used to be out of the house every morning at 5:30. I'd help him out after school and on vacations.

"ON Saturdays, my pop and my mom would meet for a date on the balcony of the old Astor Hotel on Times Square. She'd take the subway over, and he'd come from work. They really looked forward to that. He had a bad heart attack at 52 and died six years later. My mom's still alive."

Molly Feinstein lives in a retirement center in Miami Beach. She's "79 or 80, I don't remember which." She says her little boy Marty was crazy for music almost from the time he was born. "He used to cry bitterly and then I'd turn on the radio - and bang - he'd stop. When he was 5 or 6, he started keeping time to the radio on the kitchen table with a knife. We didn't have one in house that wasn't bent. When he was 10, he was studying violin. At 12, he was writing these little compositions and leaving them around the house. But eventually, he gave it up. I think he knew he wasn't going to be an artist."

He has come a long way. In Hermann's office now, Fienstein has three phone messages waiting for him. (His secretary Linda in Washington is a whiz at tracking him down.) One is from Henry Kissinger. "This wasn't a setup," he says, reaching for the phone, proud as punch. Rats, though, because Kissinger has gone out in the interim. He will try this afternoon.

Next is lunch across the street at the pricey Le Poulailler. His campanions are Anthony Bliss, director of the Metropolitan Opera Association; John Tooley, general administrator of the Royal Opera House, Convent Garden; and Ms. Hermann.

Throughout the very wet meal (Dewar's mist and bottles of Lowenbrau), in which upcoming seasons and tours are discussed with all the civilized import of a Yalta conference, Feinstein easily holds his own. In fact, he is full of beans and dreams. These are his pals, and he is rolling. "I must say, gentlemen," he says, holding aloft a chunk of glistening meat, "there are many crises we face in this business, but getting the meat off this ox tail is one of the worst."

Guffaws all around.

"I say, Marty, what's the attraction of this Cuban troupe, anyway," asks John Tooley, referring to the Ballet Nacional de Cubs.

He explains - about the enormouse political and diplomatic benefit to be derived from the visit, which will be the first time a major artistic troupe has come to America since the two countries broke off realtions in 1961. "But then there is Alicia all by herself. And of course the repertoire is good."

He then launches into a reminiscence of how he and Hermann and Alicia's husband were sitting around the Tropicana one night last summer when they closed the deal, the men lighting fine cigars and talking of how this was really the life. The story glows.

In the afternoon, his stuff is still on. In Roger Stevens' Times Square office (on the 22nd floor of the paramount Building), Feinstein connects on the Kissinger call. Stevens is not in, and the office is all but empty, so Feinstein helps himself to Stevens' desk. He puts his feet up. "Listen," he says a little to loudly to a secretary in an outer office, "this chair of Roger's is awful. The first thing I'm going to do when I get a munute is buy him a new one."

He reaches Henry Kissinger, working up his best diplomacy, suggesting how a call to the proper Austrrian officials "would be most flattering and would probably swing the whole affair." It doesn't go off like clockwork.Kissinger gives him a name to write a letter to on th case. Keep me advised. He looks disappointed.

A cab ride across town, and Feinstein is sitting in his office of his old booking crony, Shelly Gold. The two of them were with Hurok for years. Gold's now with the concert division of International Creative Management.

"And how's Mickey and the kids?"

"Terrific. How's Bernice?"

They discuss an item of business; then, maybe for the benefit of a reporter taggging along, get into "some old numbers."

"What were the numbers for Philly?" Feinstein says, as Gold produces from another room a giant dusty ledger book. They pour over it like kids with a Lionel.

"I dunno, but I got the Savoy Theater in Boston here. Lemme see, this was '67. Yeah, we did $80,000 that run, Marty. Look, you can read 'em for yourself."

Feinstein gets set to go, another meeting. They continue for the rest of the day and into the evening, the old advance man always on his hustle. Finally, on a 9:30 p.m. flight back to Washington, his coat off, his tie down, his hair raked and wild, holding a cigarette and a can of Pabst, Feinstein slows. He looks tired.

What is it that keeps him going?

"I don't know, he says slowly, deliberately, his tough face softened in smoky thought. The plane is semidark and snoring can be heard somewhere in the distance. "It's hard to determind exactly the things that form a man's life. I suppose my prime thinking was always to do the best job I could. When I was a kid growing up in Brooklyn, an artist was something very, very special. Jasca Heifetz, Fritz Kreisler, Rachmaninoff - I mean, thes were all gods to me. I never thought they even sat down with mortals. and then I got to actually work with some artist, present them . . ."

It looks like he is finished, but no. "At the moment," he says, almost to himself, his old half-wicked smile creeping up, "I visualizw myself doing exactly what Mr. Hurok did - working right up till the hour he died. Literally. You know, he had lunch that day with Segovia, then went downtown to a meeting with David Rockefeller. he got off the elevator and had a stroke and a little while later died. I think he must have been happy - enve if he never finished that last deal."

And at that, Martin Feinstein has a small, private laugh before nodding off to dreams.