Six years ago Luciano Pavarotti sang at Wolf Trap, backed by the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Henry Lewis. He drew a very modest crowd of only a few hundred. The now world-famous tenor was then 37 years old.

If a Pavarotti at that age needed some way to find larger audiences, you can see why Susan Wadsworth, way back in 1961, established a nonprofit group called Young Concert Artists, "dedicated to launching the careers of exceptional young musicians."

Now, after 18 years of presenting the winners of annual competitions in their New York debut recitals, Young Concert Artists is coming to Washington. This afternoon at 5 p.m., in the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater, pianist Sergei Edelmann will play the first in a series of six recitals to be heard there between now and March. The artists, after Edelmann, will be flutist Marya Martin, violinist Ida Kavafian, violist Marcus Thompson, mezzo Zehava Gal and cellist Colin Carr.

While several of these artists have been heard in this area -- Kafavian as a member of the chamber ensemble TASHI, Thompson at the Jewish Community Center and with the MIT Orchestra -- their Terrace Theater appearances will be their Washington-area recital debuts.

The musical public sometimes forgets that many outstanding artists have become outstanding by the time they reach their middle or late 20s. But Washington always has been a good place in which to hear those who were on their way to becoming famous.

Glenn Gould played his U.S. debut recital in the Phillips Gallery, as it was then called. Phillippe Entremont's American debut was in the National Gallery of Art. Jessye Norman, a Howard University graduate, was often heard here in concerts with the choir of that university. William Parker and Bradford Gowen, the first two winners of the Kennedy Center-Rockefeller Foundation Competitions for Excellence in the Performance of American Music, were giving concerts wherever they could around Washington for several years before the KC-RF lightning struck. Now is costs a good deal more to hear them than it used to.

Last Sunday Cho-Liang Lin played a recital for perhaps 100 people at Maryland University's Tawes Recital Hall. You can hear his next Washington appearance if you can get a ticket to the United Nations Concert in the Kennedy Center on Oct. 27 when he plays with the National Symphony under Rostropovich.

Jasime Laredo played a free concert for a few hundred people in the OAS's Hall of the Americas years ago and only weeks later won the Queen Elizabeth Competition that catapulted him into the top brackets of the violin world.

That word "free" has nothing to do with quality. For more than 30 years some of the finest concerts in this city have been absolutely free, offered by young, little-known artists who were sometimes compared to the Budapest Quartet or Lotte Lehmann.

The new Young Concert Artists Series is not free. Single seats will be $6; a series of four or six concerts will sell for $4 per concert. (Ega Hornyak has just added a Young Artists Series to her Maryland University programs this year, a direct parallel in aim and quality to the new Kennedy Center Series. It was on her list that young Lin appeared last Sunday.)

For those hindered by the steady rise in prices for concert tickets these days, or who wish they had "known about these great artists when they were younger," (as people often complain), here's another chance.