In music as in politics, Washington's biggest headlines of 1987 were made by Russians. Pianist Vladimir Feltsman and cellist/conductor Mstislav Rostropovich were in the news before Mikhail Gorbachev's visit to Washington, but the figure of Gorbachev loomed in the background of both stories, as did the White House.

The Russian interludes provided the most life and color in a musical year that was otherwise frantically busy and frequently reached high levels of artistic quality but often gave an impression of "business as usual."

Even in a year of business as usual, of course, there are changes and surprises. While the National Symphony was celebrating its music director's 60th birthday, the Washington Opera suffered two losses -- both serious but neither fatal. Francis Rizzo resigned as the company's artistic director and the Terrace Theater was phased out as a venue for operatic productions.

The University of Maryland found its musical activities in the news more than it might have liked. Washington audiences, usually painfully polite, broke out in vociferous boos at the end of this year's University of Maryland Piano Competition when the judges declined to award a first prize. Later in the year, at the University's Handel Festival, a performance of "Israel in Egypt" was delayed when one of the soloists, soprano Julianne Baird, was arrested by campus police in a brouhaha over a parking space.

But the Maryland campus was also the scene of one of the year's unique musical events: an excellent production (and the first in the hemisphere) of Handel's opera "Tolomeo, Re d'Egitto." Although it was cast with students and produced on an almost nonexistent budget, this production received international recognition as one of the important musical events of the year. The work of Nicholas McGegan, not only as conductor but also as stage director, contributed enormously to this impact.

Two of music's most legendary performers died in 1987: Jascha Heifetz, who may have played the violin more perfectly than any other performer in its history, and Andres Segovia, who single-handedly raised the guitar to the status of a classical instrument and inspired hundreds of new works.

But the names that attracted the most attention were those of Rostropovich and Feltsman -- actually, two Rostropoviches and three Feltsmans.

The Soviet government, in the spirit of glasnost, allowed Rostropovich's sister Veronika (a retired violinist with the Moscow Philharmonic) to leave the USSR for two months and join his intercontinental birthday celebration -- not only in New York and Washington but in Paris, Milan and Tokyo. The Soviet bureaucracy kept Feltsman waiting for eight years before giving him the exit visa he had requested in 1979, and he was subjected to extraordinary harassment while waiting. But when the visa finally arrived, it included his wife Anna and their four-year-old son Daniel.

The Reagans expedited the Rostropovich family reunion and the Feltsman family exodus by calling these needs directly to Gorbachev's attention. So it was appropriate that Mrs. Reagan conducted the "Happy Birthday to You" that climaxed Rostropovich's birthday celebration at the Kennedy Center. And by her invitation, when Vladimir Feltsman finally made his American debut, it was in the East Room of the White House.

For Gorbachev's state visit to the White House, another pianist with special Russian connections performed in the East Room. Van Cliburn, who electrified the world in 1958 by winning the Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow, came out of retirement to perform on this occasion. He enjoyed the experience so much and was so well-received that he is reportedly thinking of resuming his career.

His timing (or Gorbachev's) could hardly have been better. His big concerto recordings (Tchaikovsky's First, Rachmaninoff's Second and Third, Prokofiev's Third) have been hardy perennials for decades. Record stores that carried no other classical recording would usually have at least one copy of Cliburn's Tchaikovsky. Now, this material is being given a new lease on life with its reissue in the compact disc format, just as Cliburn is being encouraged to get back into concert life.

Feltsman did not play for Gorbachev's visit, but he is cautiously optimistic about the new Soviet leader. "He is serious, frank and honest" about glasnost, Feltsman said in an interview, "and I like him as a person. But the other question is if he really can do what he wants. That's a great question: Will the Soviet system, this huge monstrosity, let him do what he wants."

Rostropovich was in Europe when Gorbachev came to the White House, but he and his wife, soprano Galina Vishnevskaya, accepted the invitation to the state dinner, packed their formal evening wear and flew into Washington for the occasion. Rostropovich is never at a loss for words, though they sometimes come tunbling out in more than one language. But he has resolutely turned aside all efforts to wring from him an opinion on Gorbachev. For this unwilling emigre' (the Rostropovich family did not defect or ask for exit visas; it was exiled), Gorbachev may look promising, but evidently he is still on probation.

The Rostropovich birthday celebration splashed across three continents; he is a citizen of the world, and he does things lavishly. For a month before his 60th birthday, Rostropovich dazzled New York with a series of 18 concerts, conducting the National Symphony and the New York Philharmonic, playing concertos with the Boston Symphony and the Philadelphia Orchestra and performing the complete cycle of Bach's six suites for unaccompanied cello.

As a prelude to the New York marathon, Rostropovich gave a series of concerts at the Kennedy Center, with Hugh Wolff conducting the National Symphony, in which he performed three cello concertos in a single program. And on the actual date of the birthday, March 27, he was in the presidential box at the Kennedy Center with Nancy Reagan and Veronika, while the stage was occupied by the National Symphony and some of his musical friends -- Leonard Bernstein, Yehudi Menuhin, Isaac Stern and Jean-Pierre Rampal, among others.

Next to that of Rostropovich, the most interesting musical name in Washington this year may be that of Eisenhower -- not the general and president, but the theater named after him. Until now, this theater has been limited to spoken drama, but last night, with a performance of Mascagni's "L'Amico Fritz," it made its debut as an opera house.

How well it will fare in this new role, only time can tell, but the prognostications are positive. As a replacement for the Terrace, it lacks some of that theater's intimacy -- though it is quite intimate compared to the Kennedy Center Opera House, and it feels like a telephone booth compared to the Metropolitan Opera. Otherwise, the acoustics have proven excellent for spoken theater and a couple of special chamber music programs.

For the Washington Opera, the economic advantages are obvious: the Eisenhower holds about 1,000 patrons as compared to 500 for the Terrace, allowing the company to sell twice as many tickets per performance. It is also technically possible to project surtitles in the Eisenhower, as it is not in the Terrace. And the Eisenhower's excellent backstage facilities will make it possible for the company to keep three operas alternating in active repertoire (as opposed to two in the Terrace or the Opera House) -- also to have matinee and evening performances of two different operas on the same day.

The use of the Eisenhower as an opera house will freeze out spoken theater there for a substantial part of the winter, and the phasing out of operatic productions in the Terrace remains a serious artistic loss. But the conversion of the Eisenhower to this new use remains a historic development and, on the whole, a positive one.

The best music books of the year were also the most controversial. "Understanding Toscanini," by Joseph Horowitz, puts one of America's most respected musical ikons (and the star system that gave him that status) in sharp, enlightening critical perspective. "Bernstein," by Joan Peyser, is an impressive effort to present a living artist in toto, without the kind of comfortable blank spots and distortions that are usually kept until the subject is safely in the grave. Both establish high standards of frankness and perception.

Recording trends: The compact disc, already established as the standard format for classical recordings, solidified its position. There is no prospect that it will eliminate tape cassettes, but the analog audio disc ("19th-century technology," as some CD fans sniff) is becoming hard to find. Many companies no longer produce them and a growing number of stores will not stock them.

Video recording has also become an established part of the classical music scene -- on tape for the mass market and on the high-tech LaserDisc format for uncompromising conoisseurs. Arguably the most satisfying opera recordings issued this year were in video formats: on tape, the Glyndebourne production of "The Barber of Seville," distributed by Home Vision and on LaserDisc the Covent Garden "Rosenkavalier" (starring Kiri Te Kanawa and in many ways superior to the old Schwarzkopf/Von Karajan film), issued by Pioneer Artists.

Notable job-changes on the local music scene in 1987 included: the departure of Eugene Istomin as director of the University of Maryland International Piano Festival and Competition and his replacement by pianist Seymour Lipkin; the choice of Edward Purrington, director of Opera Tulsa, as successor to Francis Rizzo in the Washington Opera, and Rizzo's appointment to a three-year term as artistic advisor to the Wolf Trap Foundation.

Istomin's departure from the administrative position at Maryland reflected his primary commitment to performing, he said. His next project, beginning next month, will be a motorized barnstorming tour of the South, including the kind of small and medium-size cities where his career began 40-odd years ago -- places that are now usually bypassed by jet-set performers because they lack the right sort of airport.

The $5,000 first prize in the 1987 Kennedy Center Friedheim Awards went to Gunther Schuller, but (unlike second prize winner Barbara Kolb and third prize winner Steven Mackey) he had an unbreakable conducting assignment and was not on hand to pick it up.

Musical activity may be near some sort of saturation point downtown, but it continues to expand in the suburbs. One site where music has grown significantly in the past year is Strathmore Hall, a small but excellent performing arts center on the Rockville Pike. Whatever other kinds of life there may be outside the Beltway, Strathmore Hall has plenty of musical vitality -- enhanced by rolling green lawns, abundant free parking and a fine, wood-paneled room in an attractive old mansion. It is one institution among many embodying a trend that may be one of the most significant musical developments of the 1980s

Some of the year's most notable musical experiences:

Two of the National Symphony's performances: Britten's "War Requiem" in June and Mussorgsky's "Boris Godunov" in July. The American premier are John Tavener's striking religious work: "Ikon of Light," brilliantly and reverently presented last summer in the Washington Cathedral. The Washington Opera's scintillating production of Donizetti's "Don Pasquale." A memorable performance of Messiaen's "Quartet for the End of Time," last January at Dumbarton Oaks.

A Kennedy Center concert in January, featuring Joan Sutherland -- still, at 60, one of the most remarkable singers of our time. An unusual duet program in the Terrace Theater in March featuring the sisters Kristine and Katherine Ciesinski, both singers of international caliber. The Baltimore Opera's production of Puccini's "Turandot" -- an outstanding effort by a medium-size company, with more visual impact than many higher-budgeted productions.