Nearly every cellist in Washington was at the Terrace Theater last night, including Mstislav Rostropovich, who leaped to his feet first at the end of the program and started a standing ovation. The audience for cellist Carter Brey was relatively small but elite, including a high proportion of professional musicians, a musicologist or two, and the director of at least one international music competition -- the kind of people who know about a great young artist a year or two before the word reaches the general public and seats become hard to get.

Will success spoil Carter Brey? At 28, he is potentially that kind of talent -- a young Heifetz, Horowitz or Rostropovich. His technique is nearly flawless, he can turn up the emotional thermometer to the boiling point when he chooses, and he has the sense of showmanship without which his spectacular musical ability might remain known only to connoisseurs. But at the moment, he still plays with a kind of good taste that does not usually attract large audiences, and he even slips challenging pieces of contemporary repertoire into his programs.

He is able to do this because he is sponsored by Young Concert Artists Inc., a nonprofit management organization that is more interested in music than celebrity status or the bottom line. The keystone of last night's program was the 1948 Cello Sonata of Elliott Carter, a landmark of postwar American music and one of the key works in Carter's development of metric modulation, the tricky manipulation of time signatures that adds so much complexity to his music. Brey is a realist as well as an artist of principle, so the Carter was carefully buffered by two clusters of musical lollipops: Schumann's Fantiestu cke, Op. 73, before and three pieces by Fritz Kreisler afterward. In Kreisler's "Tambourin Chinois," he broke all existing speed records, including those for violin (for which the piece was written) without losing a milligram of schmaltz. But he also kept it musical, as he did every phrase played throughout the evening. He was greatly assisted in this by the outstanding partnership of pianist Barbara Weintraub.

After intermission, the concert concluded with Rachmaninoff's gorgeous but self-indulgently long Sonata in G minor. The performance was passionate, exciting and technically precise (perhaps two notes were not dead center in intonation); the tone was rich and subtly varied in nuances, the legato phrasing superb. One expects these virtues in Rachmaninoff, though not perhaps in this degree. The surprise of the evening was to hear the same qualities (suitably adapted for the style of a different composer) in the Carter Sonata--once considered a formidable piece of modernism.

The Carter Sonata may seem ultra-modern to those who were born in the '20s or '30s, but Brey is still very young, and this music was a classic of sorts by the time he became aware of it. This background clearly influences an artist's approach to a piece of music. Brey plays Carter not as a bomb-tossing radical but as the latest step in a great tradition that stretches clearly back to Bach and Beethoven. The attitude showed clearly in the performance. The music was played lyrically, dramatically, with a magnificent sonority in the double-stops, an excitement in the complex rhythms, a fine emphasis on rhetorical detail and a sense of its overall form that made the music instantly approachable and enjoyable.