When Zvi Plesser flew home to Tel Aviv during winter break from college, the gifted young cellist expected to see a lot of his family and friends, and to fulfill a number of concert engagements he'd lined up.

That was before the bombs started falling.

"The evening of the first shelling, a pianist and I were in rehearsal in the center of Tel Aviv, a place that was later hit," he recalls. "I was very eager to play. My girlfriend was there, and she kept saying, 'We have to go home. They said something might happen.' But I just couldn't. I was in the middle of playing Beethoven sonatas. Later, after I came home and the bombs fell, I realized that she had been right.

"But maybe that's the way to handle things -- to try to forget -- because you can't do anything, really." Plesser is slumped on a couch in the bowels of the Kennedy Center, where he will perform this evening with the National Symphony Orchestra. He is dragging on an Israeli cigarette. He returned to the United States 10 days ago, but the knowledge that his mother, grandmother, brothers and other family members continue to huddle with their gas masks on in the outskirts of Tel Aviv clearly unnerves him.

"I was there during the first six bombings. It was frightening. Yes, Israel has gone through six, seven wars. We've seen bombs. We've seen blood. But not this kind of war, where you never know when, or how, or how long it's going to last. This is not a war where you can give of yourself and go to the front or care for the wounded. You just sit home and wait. It's a bad feeling for everybody. You just live day to day and try not to get too depressed."

The 23-year-old performer has played with most of Israel's orchestras, was featured with Isaac Stern and Pinchas Zukerman at a gala concert in Carnegie Hall, and appeared with the Juilliard Symphony under the baton of Zubin Mehta. A member of the Aviv Quartet -- a young Israeli ensemble currently in residence at the State University of New York at Stony Brook -- he is also a special student at the University of Maryland, studying cello and chamber music with David Soyer of the renowned Guarneri String Quartet. Winner of the National Symphony's 1990 Young Soloist Competition, he'll join the NSO this evening at 7 for a performance of Lalo's Cello Concerto in D Minor.

The son of a physicist (and amateur violinist) father and schoolteacher mother, Plesser and his three brothers were encouraged from an early age to take up music. They all began with the haleel -- the Hebrew word for recorder -- and then moved on to stringed instruments.

"I had a few limitations," he laughs. "I was very small, and our house was small, and the budget was very small. We had no room for a piano. And my hands were too small for most wind instruments. But the cello ..." His eyes twinkle. "I started with an eighth-size instrument. I was small and the cello was even smaller."

But his gift was large. After only three years of study, 11-year-old Zvi -- having taken up residence in Chicago during his father's sabbatical at Argonne Laboratories -- found himself studying with the Chicago Symphony's principal cellist Frank Miller. And after the Plessers returned to Israel, the young musician began an intense student-teacher relationship with Zvi Harel, former first cellist of both the Israel Philharmonic and Tokyo Symphony orchestras.

"The thing that makes the cello special is its human voice range and sound," says Plesser. "It's the closest any instrument gets to singing. Harel's approach is all to do with singing. He always says: 'You don't need cello lessons. What you need are singing lessons.' You'd go and listen to Caruso or Domingo, all the greatest singers, and you'd learn much more from them than from any cellist." Harel remained his teacher for nine years, and to this day provides coaching and support whenever he comes home.

During these stressful times in the Middle East, Plesser sees a vital connection between his roles as artist and citizen, but feels frustrated at the lack of opportunity to realize it.

"I think concerts, any cultural contributions, would help in many ways," he says. "Zubin Mehta started his big connection to Israel during the Six-Day War. The country was on the edge of being wiped out. Mehta canceled everything and waited for a flight in Rome for days. Finally he came in on a cargo plane carrying ammunition to play concerts in Israel. It was wonderful.

"But this time concerts are impossible, especially at night. You can't put 3,000 people in a hall and wait for the bombs to fall. You know, I met Mehta there, and I understand that he is frustrated because he can't give concerts. I was ready to do all my performances, willing to go there with a gas mask near me and play until they stopped me. But all of them were canceled. People are trying to go back to normal life, but it's going to take a long time."

Despite his country's perilous situation, Plesser intends to make his permanent home there.

"I realize that in terms of my career, Israel is a small place and far away from the big concert halls. Our Aviv Quartet did 16 concerts in one month, and I don't think there was one music-loving person there who didn't hear us." He chuckles. "Maybe I'm exaggerating a bit. But really, there is no way to make a living just performing there. You must travel elsewhere to concertize. But you find a way. I know for sure that Israel is the right place for me."