There is no place on earth like the west lawn of the U.S. Capitol on a night when the National Symphony plays there.It is the most beautiful spot in the whole country, and last night it was at its indescribable best.

A crowd which eventually reached well over 40,000 began gathering late in the afternoon. Men came carrying whole watermelons, and one was dressed in black tie, dress shirt, cummerbund and blue jeans; there were babies in carriers, picnic boxes spread out on blankets, and everyone ready to love the music. There were heart-shaped aluminum balloons and wine enough to float the Nimitz. Finally, as Diana the moon goddess appeared over the east wing of the Capitol, the music began.

Presiding over it all, Aaron Copland -- far more than the dean of American music, its very heart -- was looking young in the face of his coming 80th birthday. When he gave the downbeat for "The Star-Spangled Banner," the audience spontaneously turned away from him to face the Capitol where the Stars and Stripes billowed out in the breeze. Couples embraced and hands went to hearts, and some sang and some could not for the choked feeling in the throat. There is no place in the world like that blessed spot of green.

As the audience turned back to hear the music, the clear, straight edges of I. M. Pei's East Building of the National Gallery added a new knifing into the western dusk. As Copland began his own "Ceremonial Fanfare," the silvered shadow of a plane soared in the distance as if to carry the music on its wings.

The "Ceremonial Fanfare" is a more reflective affair than its better-known "Fanfare for the Common Man." Written for the Metropolitan Museum of Art several years ago, it starts quietly and only gradually rises to an imposing finale.

The audience, which had risen at Copland's entrance to give him a tumultuous ovation, continued to hail him throughout the evening. After his fanfare, they welcomed William Schuman's "New England Triptych," whose inspiration is music by William Billings, the Boston tanner who wrote music when this country was birthing. During its quiet pages, slices of cheese and apple were handed around from thousands of hands as the listeners mingled their appreciation of this country's finest composers with their ennjoyment of all of nature's pleasures.

Then came the Third Symphony by Roy Harris, still counted by most experts the greatest American symphony. Even with the raw sound of outdoor amplification, Copland's direction made clear again the vitality and sweeping power of the music.

And then, as emcee Henry Tenenbaum -- whose comments were an unusual pleasure -- said, the second half of the concert was an all-Copland affair. Bradford Gowen, who last year won the Kennedy Center-Rockefeller Foundation Competition for Excellence in the Performance of American Music, played the Copland Piano Concerto and made it very clear that he thoroughly deserved to win that prize. Hearing him two blocks away from the stage, there was still every indication of his complete mastery of style, to say nothing of his command of the formidable technical resources needed for the work.

For the grand finale, there were the dances from "Rodeo," some of the music that placed Copland squarely and permanently in the hearts of the American people as one of their idols. Without rivals in the way they capture an essential element of this country's growth, the dances sounded right at home on the Capitol lawn. Y'all come on the Fourth of July, you hear? Sarah Caldwell is going to be in charge.