The image of the conductor: Temperamental, high-strung, emotional, European; the picture of ferocious longevity at 72, prone to intimidation and abuse of musicians. As the orchestra plays, his baton slices the air, his silken white hair flies with each slice. He mouths impatient directions -- "Louder!!" -- his free hand chops the air like a policeman directing rush-hour traffic.

The image of the conductor before us: He is Christopher Keene, California-bred, the picture of success at 34, and no, he will not pretend to conduct for the photographer. "Not without a baton," he says, standing with rigid shoulders and amused smile. "I feel so silly."

With his sandy blond hair, light brown eyes, beige suit and brown striped shirt, he is a wonderful tan monochrome in the midday sun outside the white marble of the Kennedy Center. Tonight he will shed that for black tie and tails to conduct the National Symphony Orchestra in Beethoven's only violin concerto and the incidental music to Egmont. It will not be a perfect performance because Keene never thinks any performance is. (And that's just as well, because at that point he would quit.)

But he will not be nervous and he will not have doubts because that's what his job is all about. "The one essential element of a conductor is not to have any doubts about what you're doing," Keene says. And he is also confident about his ability to go the distance. "I have a very large battery and it's easily recharged." He settles in on a Haitian cotton couch in NSO conductor Mstislav Rostropovich's office. On the walls are huge, signed photographs of conductors whose tradition Keene breaks in some ways. They are older, European. He is young, American.

And he is very busy. Keene conducted the John Corigliano score for the film "Altered States." "Have you seen it?" he asks. "It's a great movie." He is the music director of New York State's ARTPARK -- where he just conducted the premiere of Philip Glass' new opera, "Satyagraha," the Syracuse Symphony and the Long Island Philharmonic. He is also a regular guest conductor with the New York City Opera. In his spare time he conducts across the country and probably gives a lot of interviews on what it's like to be a rising star. But he's not alone. Others like him include James Levine, James Conlon . . . "There are some younger than me," he says, grinning, "if you can imagine such an awful thing."

He's also cocky. In a profession that glamorizes theatrics, a European sophistication and white hair, Keene -- at the fledgling age of 24 -- conducted the Metropolitan Opera. "Scary," he says. "But on the other hand, you're too young to know what you don't know."

At the age of 28, as he conducted a new Henze opera in Berlin, somebody pushed the wrong button somewhere and he watched the entire brass section of an orchestra disappear beneath his feet only to return 40 seconds later still playing. His baton never flinched.

In his rise to prominence Keene has failed at few -- just chemistry and physics. "I flunked chemistry four times," he says with a smile. And he just glazed over when looking at those math equations in physics. He never graduated from Berkeley. "I lasted about four years there. The things I knew well, I did well in. With the other things, I just stopped going to class." He shrugs nonchalantly.

"That's what really bothers me about the education system in this country. You spend five years learning geometry and algebra and what will you need it for? You spend five years learning a musical instrument, learning how to dance or to paint and you can use that for the rest of your life."

He started this game young, spurred on by his obsession with music. He played piano and cello from the age of 8 and has at least tried almost every musical instrument since then. He heard the great conductor Leopold Stokowski at that age. "I don't remember what he conducted," Keene says, his voice a whisper, his eyes focused on the far wall conjuring up the image. "He was the great conducting hero of my youth. His imagination was always alive. He was a magician with sound."

At 12, Keene was a rehearsal accompanist for the West Bay Opera Company and the Palo Alto Community Theater. Not quite the Met. "Well, they were great for a 12-year-old," he grins.

He was the assistant conductor of the San Francisco Opera at 16, plucked out of an audition by Kurt Herbert Adler, the artistic director, who was looking for young talent.

At Berkeley, while others were demonstrating, Keene was organizing his friends into an opera. "It was very easy to get money," he says. "The administration was so eager to show an example of student activity other than demonstrating."

And now, at 34, unlike many of his generation, he knows nothing about popular music. He delights in the work of the new symphonic composers and ponders ways to get the American public to listen more often to them. "There are large amounts of beautiful, tranquil music that we can play," he says, "but a symphony orchestra has to present all kinds of music. We're not just an entertainment jukebox. I try to make a balanced diet. I try to offer the work of gifted young composers but also explore the works of little-known composers."

The American ear is not attuned to it yet. "The public is still less used to hearing live Americans than dead Germans," Keene says. It sounds different, too. "Modern music can't sound like Beethoven," Keene says. "It would be wrong to expect people today to speak in Elizabethan English."

In the big West Side Manhattan apartment where Keene lives, his 8- and 10-year-old sons practice piano every day. Their father makes them. "A child should learn something about what his parents do." He frowns, pausing to think over his stance. "They have to take piano lessons. But I told them they could also learn any other instrument they wanted."

His wife, Sara Rhodes, a former opera singer in Europe and a pianist, supervises the children. She doesn't perform. "I have rarely seen a successful marriage between two performers." She had given up her singing career before she married him. Now, she spends her time taking care of him. "She's my most ruthless critic," Keene says. "She tells me the truth when I don't want to hear it."

Keene conducts literally every day, whether it's a rehearsal or a concert. He travels 40 weeks of the year. "Sure, it prevents you from having the kind of family life you think would be ideal, but it wouldn't help my children much if I was home all the time, unemployed and moping," he says.

When he is home, he listens to music he needs to learn. No great stereos in the Keene household. "No recorded music ever sounds like the real thing to me," he says. He goes to concerts, but he fidgets. He wants to be up there. Does he want his kids to be up there?

"I want them to be investment bankers," he says with a grin and a point of the thumb to his chest, "so they can take care of me."