He comes to the meetings, impeccably dressed in black suit and white shirt, chain-smoking cigarettes, listening thoughtfully to the reports, sometimes making critical remarks with such delicacy that they end up sounding vague.

Van Cliburn, the virtuoso pianist, was here for the three-day weekend meeting of the National Council on the Arts. Cliburn, one of the 23 members of the council, which advises the National Endowment for the Arts and reviews controversial grant applications, travels with his mother and his manager - and he rents a Steinway piano wherever he stays.

"Actually I didn't practice at all today," he said with a mock-pained expression Saturday night at the Hirshhorn Musuem's birthday party for its founder, Joseph Hirshhorn.

He spent Saturday at the all-day council meeting and later attended a dinner party.

"Usually I practice in the afternoons," he said. "I play whatever sparks my fancy."

He is currently on sabbatical from concert tours, spending the time at committee meetings, visiting conservatories, and relaxing at his house in Tucson. "You really need a vacation after a while," he said.

Council members and Endowment staffers speak of him with amusement and affection, some worrying about his ashen complexion. ("He looked even paler the last time the council met," one observer said.)

In the past, during grant reviews, observers said Cliburn has been mystified at the grants for electronic music.

"Fifty thousand dollars for a machine you plug in?" he reportedly said of one grant, during a previous funding cycle, for a computer that produced music.

But, ever the diplomat, when it came time to discuss the grant for the computer, said one Endowment official, "Van Cliburn avoided the question of the quality of e music and said, "In this time of energy crisis, we shouldn't fund anything that will die during a brownout." We just all sat there for a minute and smiled."