You ask a simple question. You don't get a simple answer.

"How does it feel to win? So that's where we are, is it -- feelings, Tom Wolfe, the new school of journalism and all that?"

What is it with this violinist? An international jury at the Kennedy Center has just awarded Gregory Fulkerson first prize in the Rockefeller Competition for Excellence in the Performance of American Music. He will receive up to $75,000 in awards, his solo career may soar like a rocket, and he wants to talk about journalistic approaches?

As his accompanist Robert Shannon puts it: "Everything's very conceptual with Greg."

Under the velvet couch in the Kennedy Center's Green Room sit Fulkerson's track shoes, held in shape by wooden shoe trees, with a pair of athletic socks neatly crossed on top. It's a Monty Python world, so you ask Fulkerson when he's going to put his track shoes back on.

"Soon," he answers solemnly. "These are my concertmaster shoes," he explains, indicating the gleaming black coverings on his feet at the moment. "I bought them when I joined the Honolulu Symphony because my dad said that concertmasters always wear shiny shoes."


"Yes. A great place, but it's a bit far. You find all your money is eaten up in plane fares going to competitions. This should help me to stay one step ahead of the landlord."

Suddenly Fulkerson, who looks like a cross between Jonathan Cooke and a young, slim Isaac Stern, flops back on the couch. "How does it feel? It feels wonderful. It feels great. I've been looking forward to this competition ever since it began."

This combination of emotional directness and intense, slightly quirky, thoughtfulness produced his highly indivudual performance at the Kennedy Center Saturday night. His journey began in June, when he and 74 other violinists entered the preliminaries. Twelve were then selected for the semifinals, held earlier this week. For the finals this weekend Fulkerson and two others were chosen to present full-length recitals.

As first-place winner, Fulkerson received an immediate award of $10,000. Next year he will receive an additional $5,000 if he gives American music a prominent place in his future programs. He also stands to receive a $25,000 recording contract with New World Records and $35,000 in concert promotion funds.

"I hope to be able to stop orchestra work and become a soloist," said Fulkerson, who is under contract to the Honolulu Symphony through the 1980-81 season. "Without this money I couldn't do that. I'm 30 -- too old to enter most competitions."

The Rockefeller competition, because it stresses repertore, sets no age limit. Fulkerson was among the younger semifinalists; the average age of the competitors was 33.

Fulkerson grew up in Louisville, starting the violin at age 5. He did not, however, decide on a music carrer until after Oberlin College, where he finished in 1971 with honors in math as well as music. After a three-year stint with the Cleveland Orchestra, he went for four years to Juilliard, where, according to Fulkerson, the renowned string teacher Ivan Galamian "accomplished miracles. Somehow he managed to make me into a soloist. I don't know how he did it. The process was very slow, very gradual."

Fulkerson describes himself as belonging to a new breed of artist -- "a player who expresses ideas. To play this music well it makes no sense just to pump out a series of pitches. The performer is under an obligation to go bhind the notes and project the underlying ideas."

If Fulkerson's approach sounds unduly cerebral, accompanist Shannon knows better. "Greg will go to any lengths to find a concept. And everything's discussable," says the pianist. "For example, we'd finally decided that the right image for a movement from the Copland sonata was an Appalachian dawn. But that wasn't the end. We spent the next day driving through Kentucky, arguing about the exact shade of dawn it ought to be."