Ralph Kirshbaum made his basic life decision--to be a cellist--when he was only 6 years old in Tyler, Texas. He had been "sawing away on the violin" for about two years, he recalls, when his father, a music teacher at a local college, asked him if he would like to become a professional musician. The senior Kirshbaum showed his son a violin, viola and cello and told him to take his pick. It was love at first sight, Kirshbaum says, and it was sight, not sound, that did it:

"One hears such wonderful stories about being swept up off your feet by the sound of an instrument," he says. "For me, it was that I saw the cello. And I chose it only because it was the biggest one he showed me. If he had shown me the double bass, I would probably be a double bass player today!"

If so, he would not be playing at Wolf Trap Wednesday night in the Brahms Double Concerto; Brahms wrote no concertos for double bass, and neither did many other composers. Kirshbaum, who has soloed with orchestras throughout Europe and Australia, has not performed in the Washington area since 1967, when he played at the Phillips Collection while still an undergraduate at Yale. Shortly after that he went to Paris to study cello, and he liked Europe so much that he has lived there ever since, though he has changed his home base to London. He calls his decision to study and live in Europe not so much a matter of music, but "a matter of life. What you communicate in music isn't just the notes of a score," he explains, "it is a constantly growing and broadening sense of life."

Kirshbaum still has vivid memories of his last appearance in Washington--once again, a memory of sight more than sound. "I looked up in the midst of the Debussy Sonata," he recalls, "and I saw a nude woman standing in the wings. I almost dropped my bow." After the concert, Kirshbaum raced backstage to see "who this could possibly be. When I got there, I found that it was a statue, placed in such a position that the stage lights made it look like a human figure."--Charlotte Sutton