As a young court musician, Nicolo` Paganini once made an entrance with only the top and bottom (E and G) strings on his violin, then proceeded to woo the audience with a 10-movement "scena amoroso" depicting a te~te-a`-te~te between lovers. This stunt went over well and fueled the legend that would precede Paganini in his later European tours.

Young violin virtuoso Midori also attained legendary status, thanks to missing strings. As a 14-year-old prodigy she was performing Leonard Bernstein's "Serenade" with Bernstein and the Boston Symphony at Tanglewood in July 1986. In the heated finale, her E string snapped. Nonplused, Midori turned to the concertmaster,who relinquished his Stradivarius. Chin rest in place, she continued. Zing went the Strad's E string. Again, Midori calmly reached for what she thought was her restrung Guarnerius del Ges`u' (a model, coincidentally, used by Paganini and Heifetz among many others). It wasn't. Fiddle No. 3 belonged to the associate concertmaster. Like the wounded Strad, it was larger than her own instrument. She reattached the chin rest, finishing splendidly without further incident and without missing a note.

Audience, orchestra and conductor went crazy over the poise of this slip of a lass. Bernstein, never one to conceal his emotions, applauded, hugged and kissed her, and dropped to his knees as if overwhelmed. Midori seemed perplexed by the commotion. "I didn't want to stop," she said matter-of-factly. "I love that piece."

Modesty becomes Midori, but listeners have raved about this extraordinary Japanese violinist ever since she made her international debut at the Aspen Summer Festival in 1981. Midori makes her official Washington solo debut this Friday at the Kennedy Center, playing the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto with Leonard Slatkin and the St. Louis Symphony. But she has played here before. Last December she and Pinchas Zukerman offered a Mozart duo to salute violinist Nathan Milstein at the Kennedy Center Honors gala.

The violin has been a central part of Midori's life for 12 of her 16 years. Prior to that, she would clamber aboard the piano bench in her Osaka home, a curious 2-year-old stretching cookie-stained fingers to touch her mother's prized violin. Setsu Goto, a professional musician, knew her daughter had an exceptional ear when she started humming a Bach concerto Setsu had been rehearsing several days earlier. Midori received a pint-sized fiddle for her third birthday; lessons with Mom followed within a year. At 6 she went public -- not with some cute little bonbon, but with a rigorous Paganini caprice.

Years of practice refined her technique. An American colleague of Setsu's urged her daughter to make a tape, which eventually arrived in the hands of Dorothy DeLay, a distinguished Juilliard teacher whose prote'ge's had included Itzhak Perlman, Shlomo Mintz and Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, to name a few. The recording was living-room-quality primitive, yet amid the occasional din of dogs barking, DeLay heard Bach, Paganini and Saint-Sae ns played in a manner far too sophisticated for a girl of 8.

In 1981, DeLay invited her to Aspen, where she chose an audition piece that still intimidates many concert veterans -- Bach's Chaconne from his Violin Partita No. 2 in D Minor. Midori, perhaps remembering mother's advice, let the music carry her away, sweeping DeLay along in the process. By 1982, Setsu and Midori were relocated in New York, Setsu having abandoned her performing career to teach and guide her Juilliard-enrolled daughter.

The past five years have seen her blossom into a prominent artist taking a repertoire ranging from Bach to Barto'k throughout this country, Europe and Asia. She's shortened her name from Mi Dori Goto to a more compact Midori.

Name a major orchestra (Philadelphia, Cleveland, Berlin Philharmonic) or festival (Mostly Mozart, Ravinia, Hollywood Bowl) and she's probably played with or in it. She's appeared on the "Today" and "Tonight" shows. She dazzled the Reagans and assorted celebrities with a Paganini caprice as part of the 1983 "Christmas in Washington" TV special.

The once-bespectacled girl of 11 with a pudding-bowl haircut, ankle socks and patent leather shoes so charmed Zubin Mehta that he invited her to join the New York Philharmonic as a surprise guest soloist on New Year's Eve. She has matured greatly since. She puts little stock in the prodigy label. No doubt Midori's upbringing and careful handling -- manager Lee Lamont saw that she gradually acquiredNo doubt Midori's upbringing and careful handling account for her acting like a normal teen-ager. That is, until bow meets strings. concert experience without being pushed into the spotlight too soon -- account for her acting like a normal teen-ager. That is, until bow meets strings.

Speaking from her Upper West Side apartment, Midori weighs her thoughts carefully and seems most comfortable when the questions move away from violin-specific matters. She listens to records by the leading virtuosos, but doesn't cite anyone in particular as an influence. "I respect many people in many different ways," she says. "It's hard to name only a few."

She brightens audibly when the topic turns to Zukerman. "It's always a joy playing with him. We've done recordings together and play concertos, once a season or so. I did my Ravinia debut with him just this past September. We played Mostly Mozart together and we've been on TV, things like that."

The feeling is mutual. Zukerman wept with joy after hearing Midori perform Barto'k's Second Violin Concerto at Aspen back in 1981. His comment: "A Midori comes along once in 50 or 75 years."

Zukerman describes Midori's sound as instantly recognizable. Recorded evidence supports this claim. On her first recording, which features Zukerman with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, Midori projects a broad, sweet tone, firmly under control, yet possessing an animated spirit, especially in the solo portions of the Bach Concerto in E. She and Zukerman blend their voices tellingly in the Bach and Vivaldi double concertos. Midori's next recording will contain a bit more fireworks in the form of Paganini's First Violin Concerto and Tchaikovsky's "Se're'nade Me'lancolique" and Valse-scherzo for violin and orchestra, namely, the London Symphony conducted by Leonard Slatkin.

With a busy schedule that should swell to 60 engagements next season, Midori the star must budget her time to accommodate Midori the high school student. Though she's presently on a leave of absence from Juilliard, she has a substantial course load at the Professional Children's School in New York. At home, four or five hours of practice lead to several more of homework. She's a voracious reader, with developing interests in archaeology and anthropology. She rattles off classics by Austen, Dickens, Bronte , Hardy and Forster, all part of her British literature course. Then there are the "little" books as she calls them, "The Little Prince," "Call of the Wild" and an occasional picture book written in French. Midori likes to sleep on a good story. "My pillow is pretty hard," she laughs. "I have about four books under it always, including at least one textbook."

What little time Midori has for hobbies she spends window-shopping and taking karate. And more reading -- though apparently not her own press notices. She apparently never heard a testimonial from the former secretary of defense for her Paganini Caprice No. 1 performance in 1983. "Absolutely magnificent" chimed Caspar Weinberger after hearing her. .

"Oh, he did?" Midori asks in disbelief. "That's nice!"