Eugene Istomin, one of the leading pianists on the international scene, has become the artistic director of the University of Maryland International Piano Festival and Competition. Stewart Gordon, founder and director of the event, which celebrated its 15th anniversary this year, will leave the university Nov. 1 to become executive vice president of Queens College in New York.

Istomin, who will be 60 Nov. 26, has been recognized as a major talent since winning the Leventritt Award in 1943. He also won the only other competition he ever entered, for the Philadelphia Orchestra Youth Award, which won him an orchestral debut with Eugene Ormandy conducting.

In an interview yesterday, Istomin said he hopes to make the Maryland competition as prestigious as the Leventritt, which launched him on a major career while he was still in his teens. Other international competitions he mentioned as setting the standard he hopes to match were the Van Cliburn, the Chopin Competition in Poland and the Queen Elizabeth Competition in Belgium.

"It will depend on the quality of the competitors," Istomin said. "We have to get the very best young pianists all over the world to feel greedy about this competition. I think I will be able to do that if I establish the right conditions, and so far the university has agreed to everything that I thought was important."

One of his requests was that the competition should be named in honor of his friend and associate William Kapell, a brilliant young American pianist who died in an airplane crash in 1953 at age 31.

"He was the first great American pianist of this century," Istomin said. "He was an inspiration to his colleagues. He was a great model; he still is the kind of model for young artists. He embodied an ideal for me and for my whole generation."

Other changes:

*Each of the finalists will be allowed two rehearsals with orchestra, instead of just one, before playing a concerto for the competition's last round.

*The prizes will include "a major New York appearance" -- next year, a performance in Carnegie Hall.

*The panel of judges will be divided into two sections. Preliminary judges will score the contestants on a point system, and a special panel for the finals will simply pick first-, second- and third-prize winners. The final panel will comprise six internationally known musicians who will give recitals at the festival, plus the conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra, who will conduct the finalists in the last round of the competition.

Istomin said the caliber of the judges he recruits for the finals should draw promising young musicians even more than the top cash prize, which is currently a substantial $15,000.

"The prize could be nothing but a laurel wreath," he said, "and the best young musicians would enter just for the chance of getting the endorsement of these people."

Like all musicians who have been involved with competitions, Istomin admitted to mixed feelings on the subject. "I guess my philosophical attitude on competitions is 'Alas' -- a great, cosmic 'Alas,' " he said. "But music competitions are not new in our time; they had them in the time of Mozart and Haydn -- there was a sort of competition between Mozart and Salieri. And sometimes competitions are unfair; very often the best people come in second or third or sometimes seventh.

"There was the time in Brussels when Michelangeli came in seventh and Gilels won. Not that Gilels is inferior to Michelangeli, but there's a long spread between first and seventh. I don't know who took the second through sixth prizes. I'm sure they were good, but what are they doing now?

"But competitions give youngsters something to shoot for -- a point of reference in their study and career goals," he said. "A competition gives them a message; call it an oracular opportunity . . . If you don't get through to the finals or semifinals, that's a message. If you win a prize, that's another kind of message; life decides who is the ultimate winner."