It was a night when Sousa's "The Stars and Stripes Forever" would vie with Gliere's "Russsian Sailor's Dance," a night when "The Empire Strikes Back," and a night when the U.S. and Soviet national anthems would be separated by only the faintest drum roll. But then, what was one to expect? Last night, the American Soviet Youth Orchestra, nearing the end of a tour that has taken it to 21 cities and three continents, was concertizing on the West Lawn of the Capitol.

Just six weeks ago, 50 young U.S. artists and 50 of their Soviet counterparts had never played music together. Last night, they sounded as though they had never played apart. No doubt principal conductors Leonard Slatkin and Alexander Lazarev had a great deal to do with coaxing these artists through 23 pieces of music in only six days of rehearsal, but the conductors can't steal the credit. These are some of the finest 17- to 24-year-old musicians in the world.

As ambassadors of music they played magnificently.

Following stirring renditions of the national anthems -- here conducted by Slatkin and resident conductor Leonid Nikolayev -- the American Soviet Youth Orchestra launched into two movements from Shostakovich's Symphony No. 1. Under Nikolayev's lissome direction, both the Adagio and Allegro were hauntingly rendered -- but the former, especially. Subtle string tones, lugubrious solos and outstanding woodwind passagework made the movement sing.

Hearing actor Charles Dutton recite selections of speeches by Martin Luther King Jr. against an intricate backwash of musical color -- all part of a Joseph Schwanter composition, "New Morning for the World" -- was made even more vivid by the nationality of the players and the location of the performance. One suspects Schwanter has written a masterpiece, but Dutton's voice reverberating off the front of the Capitol in righteous eloquence, the magical ostinati of the orchestra and the sense of moment could cloud anyone's judgment.

So could violinist Joshua Bell's playing.

While only 23 years old, Bell has played with many of the world's leading orchestras. Hearing him play for the first time, one can see why. His breadth of facility and depth of musical intelligence in the Sibelius Violin Concerto was evident from the outset. Wildly incandescent in the final Allegro, dolefully lyrical in the Adagio, Bell never let the emotional level settle for more than a minute.

After introducing the final selection, Slatkin left the stage to let the orchestra play "The Stars and Stripes Forever" conductorless. It was a fitting tribute: They deserved the stage to themselves.