HE'S THEIR father.

They watch him constantly, alert to his every slight gesture. Somethimes the ones in back kid around and giggle when he's not looking. Sometimes they argue with him.

"Mr. Ormandy," they say (always Mr. Ormandy, though he refers to himself as Gene), "can we go back six bars . . ."

"No," he says. "Four bars,"

". . . so I can pick up the violin entrance?"

"Five," he says, and immediately raises the weighted baton and sets them off.

Always, he is in a rush to plunge into the music again. None of your "and-a one, and-a tow" stuff, just the little wand flashing upwards -- even while he's still telling them where to start from - and bang! They're going.

It's not haste. It's concentration. It's the artist's headlong, desparate, ruthless, joyous race to make real the miracle he hears in his head. d

Eugene Ormandy is 80 years old, and he has been condoctor of the Philadelphia Orchestra 44 years, a world record, whatever that may mean, and he has picked a highly acclaimed young successor, Riccaardo Muti, and some poeple are saying how wonderful it is, how lucky.

And on his side, Ormancy talks animatedly of his plans: the guest appearances in New York and Hamburg, the invitations from all over the world, the gala finale this summer at Saratoga. "What a challenge," he says, "to see how long it takes me to make another orchestra play like the Philadelphia. I've never been so busy in my life."

Good news and smiling faces everywhere you look.

But just so that none of us forgets, in all this happy excitement: When Eugene Ormandy retires from The Philadelphia this summer, it will leave, as the poet said, a lonesome place against the sky.

Precisely one day before the orchestra is to play Rachmaninoff's Third Symphony for the first time in 15 years, he rehearses it with them. Many of the 106 musicians -- every one of them handpicked by him -- have never played it.

The first time, through, they take over an hour. The second time, they've got it already. He'll run it by them one more time the next morning.

"They're amazing," he says. "And they're tired. We recorded last night."

Short and stocky but not fat, still amost supple, he is far more expressive in rehearsal than he is on concert. Body English: For a marchlike passage he struts on the podium, chin tucked in; leaning forward like a diver over the woodwinds, he suddenly seems about to sail through the air.So the orchestra gives him a wonderful sailing sound, airy and swooping.

His left hand, cupped like a bear paw in a honey jar, appears to control the whole violin section. Scything forward in the air, the hand creates a grand excruciating crescendo; curling backwards, it makes two dozen violins gradually subside.

Every player's socre is heavily marked with special instructions. It is part of his technique. Though it has been said that he is "more concerned with managing a performance than with conveying a message," he is rather more than a mere manager. Obsessed with clarity, with logic, with accuracy, he can make you hear notes and connections you never heard beofe, even in a familiar work. He gives you the reassuring impression that he refuses to stand between the composer and you.

"How much should one interpret?" He shrugs. "Toscanini used to say, 'I conduct what the composer wrote,' and leave it at that. But of course some composers put in more instructions than others. I trust my conscience. I think tempi are terribly important."

Over the years his interpretations have changed, but not much. Mostly different tempi.

Balance, he says. He is alwasy talking about balance.

Taking over from Leopold Stokowski, who since 1912 had put his very special mark on the orchestra (moving the various sections around, letting the violinists blow as they pleased and not in unison), Ormandy continued its development into what one writer called "the solid gold Cadillaac of orchestras," celebrated for its rich, burnished sound.

Under Stokowski it had pioneered in recordings; now Ormandy became the most recorded conductor in history. The list of its first, both in performing and recording is almost beyond measure. Rachmaninoff, in fact, dedicated his Third Symphoney (the only record Rachmaninoff ever made as a conductor) to the Philadelphia and dedicated other works to his friend Gene Ormandy.

So when Ormancy plays Rachmaninoff, he can say, "I know how he wanted it," and in a period of cult-figure conductors and bravura interpretations, one appreciates the modesty and honesty and purity of Ormandy's attempt to bring us face to face with the composer.

Practically from his birth in Budapest (one year before the Philadelphia Orchestra gave its first concert), he had talent coming out of his ears. Literalaly. Perfect pitch. Hum a note and he could tell you: D flat. Even Toscanini, whom he admired and loved, only had relative pitch, "but it was the best I ever heard."

When he was 3, his father, a prosperous dentist, gave him a one-eighth-size violin.

"My father lived for my being the greatest violinist in the world. I wasn't. I was, oh, a distant third behind Kreisler and Heifetz."

At 5 he entered the Royal Academy of Music; at 7 he made his public debut, playing a long program from memory. At 9 he played at the palace before Emperor Franz Josef. At 17 he signed as a professor at the academy, teaching there when he wasn't touring Europe as a virtuoso

Then, in 1921, came an offer of a concert tour in the United States. He got as far as New York, discovered that his two would-be managers were in over their heads and didn't even have the fees to pay for that first concert, the one that was supposed to bring the whole music world to its feet -- and to his.

"So one day I am walking the streets with my violin, and I run into a Hungarian opera singer I knew, singing with the Met. Said, "What are you doing here?" I said, 'I'm starving, that's what I'm doing.'"

The friend took him to the Capitol Theater, where the house conductor was Hungarian. He auditioned on the spot: the Kreutzer Sonata, playing as usual from memory. The popeyed conductor muttered, "you don't belong here," but hired him anyway and put him in the last row of the violins, at the last chair at the last desk.

"I didn't speak a word of English. The manager just said, 'You, Blond, over there.' I was blond in those days." He grins, runs a hand over the bald dome with the white Father Christmas fringe.

"Five days later, he beckoned me. 'You, Blond, come up here.' He made me the concertmaster."

And three months later, by which time his English had progressed to the point where the manager could call him, "Hey, Ormandy!" he was told he was to conduct that evening's performance. He had no choice. He conducted the whole performance from memory.

"My first wife was a harpist with the Philharmonic, and when she came to the concert she saw that all the violinists had moved up one seat and someone else was concertmaster. She almost had a heart attack. 'What happened to Gene? Thirty seconds later, the house lights went down and I came onstage." g

He never plays anymore. He gave his valuable violin and three rare bows to the Philadelphia orchestra, where they joined an incredible roster of famous fiddles: two Guarneri, a Stradivarius, two Camilli, an Amati dated 1611 and so forth. They are part of the reason for the orchestra's marvelous luxurious tone.

The crucial moment in his career came in 1931, when Arturo Toscanini, scheduled to guest-conduct the Philadelphia Orchestra, took sick. Would Ormandy step in? Let himself be compared not only to Toscanini but to the regular conductor, Stokowski?

"I had an awful lot of nerve," he said later. "Confidence, if you want to call it that."

He was a sensation, of course. And in the best showbiz tradition, a scout from the Minneapolis Symphony happened to be in the audience, searching for a new conductor to replace ailing Henri Verbruggen.

He held the Minneapolis job until 1936, when he was invited to return permanently to Philadelphia, succeeding Stokowski at age 37. It must have been a shock for the musicians. "Oh, I think Stokowski was one of the greatest. We always saw eye to eye. Be he was, uh, different. I offered to have him as co-conductor, and he stayed on four years."

After that, Ormandy went on by himself to become totally identified with one of the world's greatest musical organizations, touring constantly, everywhere, even China, recording practically everything, ever written, collecting knighthoods from five countries, 20 honorary doctorates, and medals by the bucket.

Someone once remarked that the reason orchestra conductors live so long is that they have their own way all the time.

The beautiful part is that they have to have their way. Some conductors turn imperious, like Stokowski, with his death-ray glance and cutting scorn and his famous two-word motto: 'Watch Conductor!" Ormandy is subtler, directing rehearsal with running comments and gestures without bothering to stop. A 'sssssshush' aimed at the bassoon, a timid beckoning with one finger to bring in the violins just a little, a "bravo" at a cleanly executed transition.

But now and then, a flash of irritation: "It's written that way, all the others played it that way, why can't you? At 39, please."

They pick it up at No. 39 on the score, and after, he says, "Good, very good."

If you have perfect pitch, you have to resign yourself to hearing an awful lot of wrong notes, even notes just a hair off. You get so you don't mind it. lWhen you're a conductor, you can do something about it.

A special problem is the guest soloist, who may be world famous and extremely independent. What do you do when the soloist takes it too fast or loud?

"You say, 'Are you going to play it this way?' He knows you don't like it. You work it out."

In his first year in Minneapolis he was conducting, with Rachmaninoff playing his own Paganini Rhapsody. During a piano solo passage, to his horror, he realized Rachmaninoff had gone off the track, had gotten hopelessly lost and was just nodding around with a bunch of crashing cords.

"I had to come in pretty soon with the orchestra, so I leaned over and whispered, 'What do I do?' And he said, 'Play!' "

(John de Lancie, director of the Curtis Institute, was oboist with the Philadelphia for 31 years. On a recent vist to Washington to perform with the Fairfax Symphony, he recalled that Ormandy was particularly good with soloists, was demanding only because he knew what he wanted. "It was a time of great expansion. The season was only 32 weeks when I started. Now it's 52 weeks, and with all the tours and the recording business, which exploded with the invention of the 33 rpm record, you had to have a lot of energy. He gave the orchestra a tremendous stability, a standard of perfection. We had to bat a thousand all the time.")

The other nice thing about being a conductor is that people tend to cosset you, protect you from the terrible stresses -- once he did 44 concerts in 27 cities in 14 different countries, all in eight weeks -- and save you for your work.

When Ormandy has lunch of a chicken sandwich and a peach at a card table in his dressing rooms, his secretary, Mary Krouse, not only makes the lunch but sticks around to see he eats it and takes his pills. Pretty soon his wife, Margaret (Gretel to one and all), drops by, and she too checks on the pills, and then executive director Seymour Rosen pops in to see how things are going.

Ormandy and his wife live in the fine old Barclay Hotel four blocks from the Academy of Music. Aside from his daily swim, he immerses himself in music day and night, playing the radio at home or reading scores, wallking to the hall, performing.

Ormandy says he pays no attention to some recent mutterings in the local press about the slight fading of his hearing and his fabulous memory. He never used to conduct with a score, but now uses one sometimes when performing the rarely played works that he has taken up with a vengeance this year.

Friends say this search for the unusual and difficult is a fist shaken in the face of his critics. He could have stuck to the old warhorses and put off the retirement courtly in the old-world sense.

"He's especially warm in his relations with people he knows," remarked one longtime friend. "He doesn't get out so much to visit anymore, but he phones people a lot. He remembers their birthdays and anniversaires, and he'll surprise you by recalling in detail some special occasion many years later. He's really devoted to his friends."

For years he has kept up with the doctor who in 1971 corrected a limp he had had since his soccer-playing boyhood. And the affection is returned: It was Gretel Ormandy who designed the shortstepped podium he needed after the operation.

A short, wiry, dark man appears in the dressing room and embraces Ormandy, who calls him Vovo. It is the pianist Vladimir Ashkenazy. Just like that. Two minutes later they are onstage rehearsing Bethoven's 4th Piano Concerto: the pianist, at 42, hardly more than half his age.

Ashkenazy faces the piano -- a Hambury-built Steinway, preferred by many artists over American Steinways, much to the irritation of the Steinway people -- and perches on the padded bench, intense, alert, bright-eyed. (His handshake is firm, not like a violinist, who usually shakes hands carefully, carefully.) "One of the greats," Ormandy called him in introducing him, adding the name later in case you didn't know.

He attacks the piano, lips pulled in, mouth open and moving wordlessly. After a solo passage he wipes his fingers on his shirt. A big electic clock, strapped to the back of a chair, stands at Ormandy's feet, and he watches it for a moment.

As the music rushes on, Ashkenzy gets up and looms over Ormandy's score, head to head with him, pointing to some spot.

They stop, go over the spot. The cellos are supposed to come up just as the piano fades out. They can't get it the way 'ashkenazy wants. Five times, six times. "That's it," says Ormandy at last. "A little stronger. Again."

A seventh time. You can hear the difference. Every note is articulated. "Perfect!"

"One more place," says Ashkenazy. "At letter F. For Franz -- Frank."

Then he is playing again, fortissimo, both hands crashing down with such impact that his whole body seems to fly up off the bench. Ormandy, looking back over his left shoulder, watches, waits for his entrance. Brings up the violins. That paw curling through the air. It is beyond precision; it is the sound of one giant violin - the old cliche comes literally true.

They roar through the last movement without a pause, hypnotized by the music, drowned in it, and when they finish there is a slight dazed silence. Then the entire orchestra shouts "Bravo!" Men and women. "Bravo!" they shout to the empty hall. It is clearly for both the pianist and their leader. sAt the concert, they will decorously tap their instruments to applaud, but now in real life, with everyone in sweaters and shirtsleeves and slacks and jeans, they are shouting "Bravo!" and Ashkenazy nods, and Ormandy smiles, and it just lasts for a moment, but it is all the praise you could possibly ask.