Randall Craig Fleischer made an auspicious debut as associate conductor with the National Symphony Orchestra. Last winter, during the NSO's tour to Japan and the Soviet Union, Fleischer led the symphony in Dvorak's Cello Concerto as special soloist Mstislav Rostropovich took center stage.

"It was exhilarating and frightening at the same time," says the 28-year-old conductor. "And there was this intense sense of being honored, of sharing this experience with Slava in this way, this moment in his life," he says of Rostropovich's triumphant return performance in Moscow.

Today, Fleischer is making his U.S. Capitol debut.

"I spent a couple of summers at Tanglewood," he says, "and I've made my debut at Wolf Trap, so I have performed outside. But never in such a surrounding as this. The thought of leading the national anthem in front of the Capitol sends a patriotic tingle up my spine."

Fleischer has chosen a selection of pop and classical pieces for the program, opening with Aaron Copland's "The Tender Land" and George Gershwin's classic "Rhapsody in Blue," featuring 1987 Kapell Competition-winning pianist William Wolfram, rather than the typical "flag-waving" music usually associated with the holiday lawn concerts. "However, he says, "with the way things are going right now, with the Mideast and so on, if I had planned this concert two weeks ago, it would probably be quite different."

The second half will be a collection of intergalactic show tunes: Gustav Holst's "The Planets," "When You Wish Upon a Star," and the score from "Star Wars."

"It's a little tribute to the stars," he says. "I thought, 'What better place to play planetary, starry music than outside, once the sun goes down.' "

The National Symphony Orchestra performs the free concert tonight at 8 on the west lawn of the Capitol. Rain date is tomorrow.