"I don't really like competitions," said Boris Slutsky -- remarkably shy when he is not playing the piano and very soft-spoken even when he is dropping verbal bombshells. "I don't think anybody can judge anybody else. Everybody has different personalities. Sometimes it is so different and so personal that you just can't say who is the best."

Slutsky ran a hand through his shockingly bright red hair, stroked the thin, lighter colored beard that he had probably grown to make his 19-year-old face look more mature. "I just reject the idea of being compared," he said.

That was during the long wait Saturday night, after three concertos had been played by the finalists in the University of Maryland Piano Competition. The judges were still deliberating. The ballots from the audience, which this year also awards a prize, were being sorted into three large boxes (one for each contestant) to be counted. It took more than an hour, and the audience seemed less patient than the competitors. Some members of the audience milled about in the arcade outside the Tawes Theatre, buying drinks, smoking, chatting with one another and with the finalists who looked remarkably unconcerned -- perhaps because the worst any of them could do would be a $1,500 third prize.

Slutsky was also a shoo-in for the $250 Wilhelm Backhaus Prize for the highest ranking semifinalist 22 years old or under. He was the only finalist under 25. As the only finalist born in the Western Hemisphere, Nina Tichman 31, of Rockville Centre, N.Y., was assured of the Organization of American States prize -- $1,000 plus concert engagements in Ecuador, Costa Rica, Colombia, Brazil and Washington, D.C. Vladimir Levtov, 25, of Israel, could congratulate himself on making the finals at all, after injuring his wrist in a bathtub accident during the week of competition. His wrist "gave me a bad time," he complained. "I am going straight to a doctor tomorrow." But he was lucky his concerto was Beethoven's First, which does not give a wrist the kind of jolts it can get from Liszt, Prokofiev or Rachmaninoff. The finalists could afford to be patient.

Inside the sold-out auditorium, the audience was drifiting back into their seats. Once in a while, a small group would try a bit of rhythmic clapping to speed up the process. It didn't work.

What will be the first thing you do if you win, someone asked Slutsky. "First," he said, "I will get drunk, and then I will go to sleep. I haven't had much sleep lately."

Proud parents are a standard feature at young artists' competitions, but Slutsky's had an unusual position; both were on stage with him, playing in their first season with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, while he soloed in Sbeethoven's Third Concerto. His father, Leri, was in the second violin section; his mother, Genia, among the violas. They had never played with him orchestrally before, though they have often played chamber music together.

"I tried to play equally well for all three soloists," said Genia Slutsky, "but I was more nervous when I was playing with Boris. All our lives, his father and I have dreamed of playing in an orchestra with him. In Russia, it was never possible." Unlike her son, whose English is letter-perfct, she speaks with a strong Russian accent. The family (which includes a younger sister who also plays the piano) lived in Moscow, where the parents played with the Moscow State Symphony Orchestra, until 1977, when they managed to get an emigration visa.

"All three of the finalists are Jews of Russian orgin," Nina Tichman remarked while the soloists were waiting for the final verdict.Tichman's father, a clarinetist, was born in Philadelphia, but her mother, a pianist, was born in Manchuria during an earlier Jewish exodus from Russia. Levtov and his parents emigrated from the Ukraine to Israel several years ago. He began a concert career in Europe with an agent in London, then it was interrupted by two years' service in the Israeli army on the Jordan frontier. iNow, he is beginning again with piano competitions. "If I do not win this one," he said, "I hope it will help me prepare for the Busoni next month in Itlay."

All three finalists also come from musical families. "Boris is a third-generation pianist," said Leri Slutsky, who plays piano as well as violin. Levtov's father, a piano teacher, began young Vladmir's training when he was about 6, he recalls. "But I was much more interested in football -- what you call soccer -- until I was almost 16. Then I began to be serious about the piano."

All three finalists are serious about the piano now, and all three have won other competitions -- you don't get to the finals in Maryland without that kind of background. But Nina Tichman, who began the piano at 4, says she wanted to become an actress. "I was also interested in accompanying and in chamber music, but I didn't really think of myself as a soloist until I won the Busoni Competition," she says. "Then I said to myself, 'Gee, I guess I'm a pianist.'" Since then she has been performing about 30 times a year -- mostly in Europe where she lives with her husband, a psychiatrist. Eventually, she may double her number of annual engagements, but at the moment her career is exactly where she wants it.

At 19, Boris Slutsky has not yet made any firm career plans. "Recitals, chamber music, concertos -- I like it all," he says, "though I do not have much experience playing with orchestras. Maybe later, I will specialize in a particular area." He also has a bewildering variety of non-musical enthusiasms: "I like Chinese cooking, hockey, chess and reading," he says.

He may also develop a taste for piano competitions -- he does them so well. After more than an hour, when all the votes are counted, the audience ballots and the judges agree: First place -- including a $5,000 prize, a long list of concert engagements and a recording countract, goes to Boris Slutsky. Nina Tichman takes the $3,000 second prize, and Vladimir Levtov takes $1,500 for third.

What will Slutsky do -- after getting drunk and going to sleep? He is sure of only one thing: "I just have to work and work -- the work never stops. The more I achieve, the more I have to achieve."