"It would be easier," says Olga Rostropovich, "if I were a boy.

"I tell my father, 'Papa, I wish i would be born a boy - everything is so easy,' and he says. 'nonsense. You are girl and you should be a girl.'

"But it is true. If you are a girl, they tell you: Go but a nice dress, go sew something, go cook something, go to a movie and cry a little bit. I would rather play the cello."

Rostropovich, 22, the second notable cellist of that name, took up the instrument after years of studying piano, and over the serious objections of her father. National Symphony conductor Mstislay Rostropovich. Tonight at the Corcoran Gallery, she makes her first Washington appearance as a cellist - a modest debut, playing second cello in a Boccherini Quintet with the National Symphony Orchestra Quatet. "I did not know the music before. It is not very difficult but very beautiful."

"Would you believe that three years ago I could not speak a word of English?" Olga's hazel eyes cloud as she remembers her beginning at the Juilliard School, her introduction to New York, the shock of the giant hectic pace and sheer strangeness of this city and country - her new home whose language she did not know.

No you would not believe it: her English is fluent and almost without accent - a slight Slavic tinge in some of the vowels, a subtly foreign lilt in the rhythm. But it is hard to believe that she has learned it all, while also intensively studying music, in the last three years. She seems very American.

But is she? Certainly, there is a Russian soul behind the chic, fluffy turtleneck, the casual, bouffant hairdo. At lunch, she asks the waiter for more black bread ("we have black bread in Russia") and she confesses to moments of weakness.

"On the way downtown, we drove past a church that looked like the Kremlin, and for a few minutes I had this terrible nostalgia I wanted to go home. I wanted to cry. Then it was all right again.

There is a long-standing friendly family argument in the Rostropovich clan echoing the archetypal Russian argument between Moscow and Leningrad. Olga's mother, soprano Galina Vishnevskava, is a Leningrad patriot, Olga a dyed-in-the-wool muscovite. For the parents, who have lost their Soviet citizenship, the argument is academic. Olga and her younger sister Elena still have Russian passports, but don't know whether they will ever see Russia again.

What she sees most often now is New York, and as Olga describes it, her life there is very Spartan - almost totally dedicated to her art: "I wake up at 6:30 every morning, go to the Y and swim from 7 to 8, come home shower, make breakfast, clean my room, dress, and then practice.

"I try to practice at least two hours a day, then I go to school and there the work is endless - just forget about it. I also run for two miles every day, around the reservoir in Central Park, where Jackie Onassis also runs - sometimes I see her there."

There have been no romantic interests in her life since she moved to New York - not, she says, as a matter of principle, but because "I didn't meet anyone who interests me."

"Nobody believes I don't have boyfriends," she says, a shade apologetically. "I don't even have anybody I like, so I say to myself, 'Why not use the energy for the cello?'"

Otherwise, she finds the cultural life of New York very exciting ("you can have everything there - all the musicians come there"), but Moscow remains "the most beautiful town in the world." Her voice grows slower, softer when she talks about it, though some of the memories are painful and she has strong reservations about returning: "Does the free bird fly back into the cage? If you don't know what freedom is about, you can be very happy there."

Her parents, as musicians of international stature, were outside of the Soviet Union frequently in the late '60s and early '70s while Olga was studying at the Moscow Conservatory; when her father publicly sided with Alexander Solzhenitsyn in his dispute with the Soviet government, life became difficult.

"I remember at the Conservatory, one of the maids would come into my room and tell me: 'I just heard on the BBC, your father is in Italy and he says he will never come home again.' Then a few days later, she came back: 'I just heard another broadcast about your father in Italy. You will never see your father again.'"

Because of Rostropovich's unique status in the world of music, the Soviet government finally allowed the whole family to leave the country at the same time - an almost unheard of concession. But Olga recalls an incident shortly before they left which she believes was arranged by the government.

"One day, in the elevator going up to our Moscow apartment, a man pulled a knife on my sister Elena and asked for her money. She didn't have any money, so he told her to be quiet and let her off at our floor and went down in the elevator.

"Elena came into our apartment, very upset, and told us about it and wanted to call downstairs. But I told her: 'Don't telephone. The police will be brought in and we will be witnesses and they can hold us for three years, maybe five years, and we will never get out of Russia.'"

Out of Russia now, in the Manhattan apartment where she lives with her pianist-sister Elena, also a Julliard student, she still has a reminder of communist life nearby. Her window overlooks the building that houses the Chinese UN delegation, and has a view of the roof, where the diplomats have a recreation area.

"Every morning in the summer, if I want, I can see their naked bodies swimming in the pool or watch them doing their exercises. They do it all together with a leader, and it is very funny to see all that politicians and diplomats jumping up and down."

Olga is quick and precise in her gestures and inclined to give you a cool, level gaze while she says mildly outrageous things:

"Do you have children? Are you strict with them? I will not be strict with my children, except that I will teach them music and in that I will make them work hard - lock them in a room and make them practice, practice, practice."

While her parents jet around the world from concert to concert, Olga, with one more year to go at Juilliard, can hardly wait to be free.

"My father says I must get a piece of paper from the Julliard. Why? I already have a piece of paper from the Moscow Conservatory, which is supposed to be the world's hardest, and I don't even know where it is. Nobody has ever looked at it. When I applied at Juilliard, nobody asked to see my piece of paper from Moscow."

Although still a student, Olga Rostropovich has already performed publicly on three continents, sometimes with her father conducting: "He is very strict, but I think he is happy - a little big happy, he could be happier."

When she first became interested in the cello ("very late - at age 13. I started studying the piano when I was 5 or 6"), her father told her that it was "too difficult - he says the cello is physically the most difficult instrument to play, and I think he is right. He said I was too skinny and it is not a girl's instrument, but my mother thought I should try the cello and I did."

One of her recent performances was in Brazil with her father conducting the Shostakovich concerto, which was composed for Mstislav Rostropovich and dedicated to him. "It is a very strange experience, playing this music under the eye of the man it was written for," says Olga, "and it doesn't help that he is your father."

The daughters usually join their parents during summer and Christmas vacations, traveling with them around the world, and they often come down to Washington when their father is here with the National Symphony.

"I do not see him for long periods, but when you see this man for a week, you have enough to last a whole year," Olga says. "He has so much energy; he is so precise and (pausing to find the word) . . . demanding. Not only in the music - he makes a big story out of burning an omelet."

Having tasted the life of a traveling musician, Olga thinks she might like it. She has not made any firm plans for her career after she finishes at the Juilliard next year, but she hopes to play both as a soloist in concertos and as a chamber musician - not with her pianist sister, however: "We are too different. We could never agree."

"I do not like to travel just for traveling, but for the music, yes, I will travel. There is a strength that comes to you when you are performing, a magnetism between you and the audience, that is like nothing else.

"If it were only for business. I would say no to the jet planes and the hotel rooms. Without the music, I would rather sit at home and watch "The Odd Couple."