o other classical musician is more of a star. Almost all his life the man has been reputed to be remote, brilliant, autocratic, intensely serious, arrogant, inspiring and rather spiritual. He has played the role of the solitary icon up there on the podium.

This morning in his suite overlooking Central Park, and way above it, Herbert von Karajan raises his baton arm and points out into the park. "I can see the birds flying past, especially this time of the year. And I can endlessly watch them, what they do, and think about what is the soul of what moves them. Nobody collides with the other. And that is exactly what you do with music.

"Sometimes I think to myself what a wonderful invention it was to form a body of people where they do the same thing, where they make a statement. A community in every way."

Karajan, in conversation, proves to be not only approachable, but even cordial -- and, as the conversation develops, jovial.

Midway through the interview, he is asked at what point in his 68 years of making music he became famous. Karajan, who has been talking away almost without interruption for about an hour, falls silent. He rolls those hypnotic gray-blue eyes, tosses his head back and seems to be searching for an answer.

Finally he cracks, "Am I famous?" And then he dissolves into a belly laugh at his joke.

This, remember, is Herbert von Karajan, he of the grim visage and the Teutonic discipline, the man who stands transfixed before orchestra and audience and with his hands molds magnificent musical forms through the air -- eyes closed as if in contact with sublime and distant voices. All determination. All concentration. All business.

One doesn't like to say that there is any single greatest conductor, and certainly Bernstein and Solti could be quite as fervently and rightly invested with that honor. But just as there is only one Horowitz, there is only one Karajan.

He and the Berlin Philharmonic -- his orchestra for almost 30 years now -- are in the United States for the first time since 1976. It is the orchestra's centenary.

Last week's four Carnegie Hall programs were major musical events, as will be the ones starting tonight in Pasadena, Calif. But they were more than that. They were cultural rites. It wasn't just Zubin Mehta and Seiji Ozawa and Wanda Toscanini Horowitz who flocked to them. Frank Sinatra was there, too, on opening night.

After introductions and courtesies, Karajan takes a seat, grins and declares with utter authority as well as what sounds like relish, "I am all ready."

What about that sometimes forbidding image, he is asked. Karajan replies that the trance-like state that he assumes in deep concentration during performances is not a pose, not an affectation. "It has to do with the gap between what you want and what you hear and how it becomes narrower.

"When I was very young and started conducting, I had to train myself to listen to music as it came out because the orchestra of a provincial town was simply noncompetitive with what I had in my ear . . . Now, this is the point where you begin. And then you take one step and then another, and the gap begins to narrow.

"And then later when a day came that I had a performance that was even better than what I had thought, I knew that I had made it. It was very, very, very rewarding and filled me with an enormous joy. These two factors are linked together."

But through intense concentration, he suggests, one must keep the two sounds separate in the mind. His way on the podium is how he does it. "I can concentrate in a fraction of a second," he says matter-of-factly.

But when one conducts many different orchestras, he observes, "the language is in the head and only the horses change."

These days Karajan conducts only the Berlin and Vienna philharmonics. The latter was part of one of his jobs before Berlin ("I was lifetime director of the Vienna Musikverein, which was a post Brahms held before me").

After having conducted just about every major orchestra in the world, Karajan is now disinterested in them. "Frankly, I have not the time. With my orchestra we can take three or four years to refine a performance. And, to be frank again, working with other orchestras bores me."

At another point he asserts that he has no desire to spend his life "teaching violinists how to hold a bow in their hands" or become involved "in a level of physical engagement where we see people appear to cut with their bows through a plate of spaghetti."

In fact, the Berlin Philharmonic was what he wanted from the beginning, and under him it has been just about consistently as fine an orchestra as there is (Zubin Mehta once commented, "I conduct the Orchestre de Paris as a favor to Danny Barenboim, its conductor , and I conduct the Berlin Philharmonic as a favor to myself").

Karajan recalls his early memories about the Philharmonic.

"To begin with, I had this orchestra in mind from the first moment I made music with them. That was 1937. You see, it hit me like a stroke, because after three minutes I had the feeling they are all old friends. We really speak the same language. This is a thing of contact, the same as with singers."

His predecessor, the great Wilhelm Furtwa ngler, was not friendly toward Karajan. Furtwa ngler had refused to join the Nazi Party and Karajan had joined. Furtwa ngler died suddenly in 1954, as the Philharmonic was on the verge of its first American tour. Karajan had just returned from the United States on tour with London's Philharmonia Orchestra, and was in Rome.

He recalls that "they contacted me and asked me if I would take over the tour. And I started on the premise that I would take over only as the appointed conductor conductor "for life," it is called . Otherwise I wouldn't do it. And I told them that that is something that only the people of Berlin can decide. And that is what happened. And I tell you frankly the mode of appointment gave me a feeling that a wall was built behind my back on which I could lean and be safe. It was the first time I had a feeling of something exactly stable."

The Philharmonic, he continues, "is an entity of 120 players suddenly becoming one, one great being. And this is a wonderful feeling because you know that you are in the innermost feeling of what music should express. Certainly it is a form of love . . ."

Karajan is a precisionist by nature, whether in conducting the Beethoven Ninth, or in piloting his twin-engine Falcon-10 jet, driving his Lancia or racing in his 76-foot sloop, the Helisara (which takes a crew of 22). He maintains homes in Vienna, Salzburg, St. Moritz and St. Tropez -- where he lives with his wife and two daughters. He is fascinated by new technology, and will cap off his visit to the United States with a trip to Silicon Valley, "just to get in touch with those people."

Karajan's fascination with precision leads him to extol the qualities of a tool recently installed on his jet. "It's a screen on which you give your coordinates and then in a matter of seconds it will give you everything, when you start, where you will arrive, and at which time and with which speed. You know exactly where you are and this machine can do it better than you. I am still able when I am in good training to outwit the auto-pilot in precision. But not this one. It outwits me."

Karajan feels that technology has been the salvation of music in our society, and will continue to be so. And he foresees that the benefits will go beyond mere esthetics. To that end a foundation bearing his name -- the gift of the Vienna Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde -- was set up in 1979 for scientific investigation of, among other things, sound in the neurophysiological field.

The possibilities of recorded sound are the principal advantage that he and his contemporaries have had over the conducting giants of the past, he says. "Think of the difficulties when Toscanini was making records. Just think of what it was like before tape, when five seconds before the end of a wax disc, something goes wrong, and you have to throw the whole thing away."

He recalls one such experience that was particularly excruciating for him. "It was in Vienna soon after the war. Things were so bad that Vienna's electric lines didn't even have the right number of herz for the equipment, but we finally took care of that. It was a three-month recording project. And when we were through the whole thing was loaded on an old Dakota to go to London. But the plane had to go down for refueling in Frankfurt. While that was happening the fog came in, and the pilot couldn't get away. And the next day there was a frost which destroyed 75 percent of our work. Three months for nothing."

He switches to the present. "There are people today, of course, who suspect that our records are made bar by bar. You record one and then you stop and then you record another bar, and that the real performance is not there. That is not true. We often record for very long periods, which we could not do before. The important point is that we now have the assurance that if something needs correction we can do it without the difficulties of before."

Karajan and the Philharmonic have made their first videodisc and Karajan can hardly wait to hear it. "I am sure the sound and picture is not to be compared with anything of today."

It is Karajan himself who directs the video recording of his opera productions at Salzburg, which has a technically fabulous theater built to his specifications. "I can do opera only in Salzburg. I have worked with this crew for years and they seem to work for sheer pleasure."

He created the Salzburg setup for himself after years of accumulating frustration as the head of the Vienna Opera, from which he departed in 1964. "There came a time when I couldn't cope with the imperfections of the house. There was supposed to be a festival-level performance every night and that never can be. If we could do that 50 times a year we were very lucky.

"At Salzburg I can work on a production up to two years ahead. One year before, the scenic things are already finished. Six months before the performance we put the music on tape and send the cassettes to the cast so that they can put it in their beds under their pillows and can listen even when they are asleep. When they come on stage in Salzburg there is musically nothing left to say.

"Certainly it's a luxury. In a normal theater this would be the equivalent of four months' intensive preparations. Nobody could pay that."

Toscanini and Bruno Walter, when they were at Salzburg, did not enjoy the same luxury, and Karajan is aware of his good fortune.

"It is a gift of fate or whatever else. And I think that my duty is to do justice to what has been given me. And sometimes I am doubting that it is good enough."

Things were not always so propitious for Karajan, especially right after the war. As part of the de-Nazification program, he was banned by the Russians from the podium for a while.

The only ground rule that Karajan's management imposed for the interview was that the conductor not be questioned about this part of his past. But in another context, he raised the subject himself.

"Before the war I had a feeling of something cosmic and catastrophic. It was like flying into a thunderstorm. But after it started it was something else. It was like when you are flying inside the storm, and you don't feel anything."

During the period afterward, he said, when he was turning 40, "I was seriously thinking of retiring. I suddenly had the feeling it's finished."

Another problem that has dogged this perfectionist's attempt at the perfect life has been his health. In 1975 there was a nine-hour emergency operation for a spinal disc problem. More recently, there was a serious fall. And three years ago, a "nervous disease of the backbone."

"I had seven very bad years," he says, "but I kept fighting -- fighting for freedom of illness." He adds in a tone that seems just a little short of apologetic, "And of course you see, I have my two cigarettes and two glasses of wine."

But a combination of the best doctors that money can buy and the daily practice of yoga has eased things. He now seems improved, as he sits here in the hotel suite in his black turtleneck, black slacks and black loafers, looking notably fit for a 74-year-old man.

The illness, though, was more than just a reminder to him of his own mortality. His reaction was not to curtail his work but to go on a creative musical binge, especially in the recording studio, where he has probably done more work than any other conductor, including some extraordinary recent accomplishments -- like last year's "Parsifal" and this year's "Turandot."

His illnesses have given inevitable rise to speculation about who might succeed him at the Philharmonic. Karajan doesn't seem to be preparing a successor. As to the possibilities, Mehta is mentioned, and Karajan's sole response is that "he is very attached to the orchestra." Then Karajan himself mentions Ozawa. "He is a very dear friend of mine," Karajan says, adding with a grin, "and certainly he is the conductor with the best character . . . He is so nice and is so willing to do anything to be good. I have never heard a bad word about him, never. I am deeply attached to him. And what I can give to him I have given. And I am always ready to do so ."

A final question: How can a man who can be so engaging, and so open, at least on certain subjects, have allowed the development of such a forbidding public image?

He has an immediate answer. "It is because I am shy and if I am with people who are there just to catch my time, then I close like a shell -- you know, this sort of coffee talk. I think it's much better just to keep away, than to give the wrong impression. A lunch where nothing is said, I tell you, tires me more than a performance of 'Tristan.'

"But I also tell you this. If you talk to people who know me, and who do something better than me, they will tell you something else. My skiing teacher, the pilots, certainly. They know that I am very open with them. With them it is I who am the slave."

Then he says that he must go. He has another engagement. Where is he going? He explains with a broad smile, "We are going to see 'E.T.' "