WHEN Lorin Maazel steps on stage at the Kennedy Center tonight to lead his celebrated Cleveland Orchestra, Washington audiences will have an opportunity to see once again the "secure, precise and explicit baton," as Post music critic Paul Hume recently described it, that has made Maazel at 49 one of the topranking conductors in the world, even more popular in Europe than at home. He has not always, however, been as popular with musicians and critics in Cleveland, in part because of the differences in personality and conducting style between Maazel and his predecessor, George Szell, who led the Cleveland Orchestra to acclaim in his 25 years as its conductor. Maazel has sometimes been criticized for supposedly eroding musical standards, for his temperamental tirades and for his need to stamp his own personality on the music itself.

"Even Maazel's worst enemy couldn't deny this man's wonderful natural musical ability and talent," comments Cleveland Plain Dealer music editor Robert Finn. "He has a marvelous ear, a good stick technique, a good memory, a varied repertoire. The natural equipment is second to none. Where the problems come in are in the areas of taste and musical integrity.

"It's harder to cover his speeches than to review his concerts," Finn chuckles. "In my more frank moments I say he's a bulls --- artist."

Currently devoting six months of the year to Cleveland, Maazel also manages to be principal guest conductor of both the French National Orchestra and the Philharmonia of London, in addition to a heavy recording schedule and involvement in other special projects. His latest is a new production of Mozart's Don Giovanni , a multimillion-dollar effort which will result in a motion picture directed by Joseph Losey to be premiered next Nov. 4 at the Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theater.

No stranger to Washington audiences with over 50 appearances in a dozen years with various orchestras -- including one as violin soloist with the New York Philharmonic -- Maazel's most dramatic coup occurred three years ago when he stepped in, on one day's notice, for the ailing Sir George Solti to conduct the Paris Opera Orchestra in Otello at the Kennedy Center."I got a call from Lorin shortly after I heard the disastrous Solti news," recalls Kennedy Center director Martin Feinstein. "'Ah, Martin, I have a night off and thought I might pop down to Washington to catch the Otello ,' he said. 'Never mind catching it, how about conducting it?' I pleaded. 'I need your help.'" Maazel, with no time for rehearsal, came, conducted and conquered the critics.

Undoubtedly Washington will be seeing more of Lorin Maazel in the future.Earlier this year there were persistent rumors that the Kennedy Center would form a resident opera company for the 1981 season with Maazel at the helm, but, says Feinstein, "unfortunately nothing has jelled." Nevertheless, Feinstein makes no secret of the fact that one of his long-range goals is such a company and "should it be formed," he says, "hopefully Lorin will share the artistic direction of it. He and I are old friends; we've been talking about this project for years."

Should Feinstein's dream become a reality, Maazel's reputation, though made as a conductor rather than as an artistic director, would undoubtedly lend weight to a newly formed opera company in Washington.

Downstairs in the lounge of Cleveland's Severance Hall, several orchestra members mill around during intermission. "Did Maazel show you his one side?" quips one. "Do a society story on him, he'll be tickled pink," says another. "Look, lady, no offense," offers a third, "but it would be suicide for us to be quoted in The Washington Post criticizing our conductor. You keep your dirty wash in the locker room, to quote Reggie Jackson. All of us are immensely proud of our orchestra."

It is a Saturday evening. Women ushers in black skirts and white blouses hurry to and fro, presided over by Lawrence Kiplinger, fondly referred to as "Kip." Head usher for 57 years, Kiplinger speaks slowly and peers through eyeglasses, "I'd like to say Dr. Szell was a perfectionist; it was always hard to know him real well. Mr. Maazel is more democratic. He is willing to talk to most anybody even if you don't know him."

But obviously Lorin Maazel won't win a popularity contest with a segment of his orchestra personnel. For an assortment of reasons. Says one of the principal players, "His face is impossible for us to read. And what's worse, he often wears sunglasses to rehearsals like he's making a statement or something. It took me a long time to realize when he would get a sour expression or throw a temper tantrum it was not directed at someone in particular but at himself."

"I never know where I stand with him," echoes another first chair player. "He does not give compliments. George Szell would drive us as hard as he could, often past what we considered our breaking point, and many of us feared him. Yet we had great respect for the man. And when we reached the point musically where Szell felt we should be, he would acknowledge it in some way as we played -- a glance, a nod, a wink. I only hear from the grapevine that Maazel thinks highly of my work."

The gripes of the Cleveland Orchestra poured out in a 1978 issue of Cleveland Magazine. "There is a Cleveland Orchestra you don't hear much about," reported editor Dennis Dooley, "it is angry, proud, tired, frustrated."

Resentments include a lower pay scale than that of many top symphony orchestras, and there have been additional gripes about retirement benefits, traveling conditions on tour, inadequate rehearsal time, and a grueling schedule of performances and recording dates. But more often than not it is Maazel himself who is under fire. To be objective one must put these attacks in perspective. Whether or not other major orchestras are equally harsh on their conductors is only open to speculation, but the fact is that the entire Maestro Lorin Maazel recording part of his Beethoven cycle at Cleveland's Masonic Auditorium in early 1978 . Cleveland Orchestra still lives with the ghost of George Szell. An indomitable Austro-Hungarian from the old school, Szell was a literalist conductor who fiercely believed in conveying only what was in the printed score, in using his orchestra as a vessel through which the music passed.

Maazel's theories -- equally valid -- are the opposite. "Very few people realize that the score in music," he says, "is as vague as the script of a play. I mark scores dynamically, knowing there are certain balances which cannot be achieved simply by observing a specific indication given by the composer; it must be adjusted. Composers expect that. Performing musicians know as much about the performance as the composer."

At the heart of the issue in Cleveland -- a touchy subject even to this day -- is a vote, an informal one taken by the musicians themselves when the search was on for a new music director. At that time both ticket sales and morale were at an all-time low. The Cleveland Orchestra was rated 13th in the nation by Time magazine. There were neigher recording contracts nor European tours. And despite the efforts of guest conductor Pierre Boulez and resident assistant conductor Louis Lane, there were two years of essential leaderlessness following Szell's death.

The vote was overwhelmingly in favor of now-deceased Istvan Kertesz. Of the 98 who voted only two voted for Maazel. There were various nods for Claudio Abbado, Fruebeck de Burgos and Erich Leinsdorf. Hurt and annoyed that the administration paid no attention to their wishes, many orchestra members proceeded to twist the voting out of proportion, claiming it was a vote directly against Maazel.

"Many players will insist to this day that there was never a search," says Robert Finn, "that the decision was cut and dry. There is a certain amount of circumstantial evidence to back this up. Within a month of Szell's death the rumors became thick that Lorin Maazel would be the next conductor. Every visiting conductor who got off the plane in Cleveland commented that he thought the news had been already announced."

Other gossip bounced around Cleveland, too: that the U.S. Steel Company in Pittsburgh, where Maazel grew up, had "bought" Maazel his appointment. "That is totally unfounded," insists Herbert Strawbridge, vice president of Cleveland's Musical Arts Association. "It was a coincidence that when Maazel was appointed U.S. Steel sponsored about $40,000 worth of radio broadcasts of the orchestra. We chose Maazel because he was young, dynamic, had a large varied repertoire, and he was eager to be active in the community."

"There was a lot of flak," comments Maazel, "I didn't even want the job. I was far away, happily ensconced as guest conductor. I found myself in a battlefield I had nothing to do with. It was a big decision to take the job but my reasons were valid. Unfortunately, the orchestra didn't come to know me as a musician until I had been with them for four to five years, after 25 programs or so. It took me three years just to get the momentum going. It didn't devastate me, though; I rather enjoyed it... because I knew this day would come."

It has. "The Cleveland Orchestra today is playing as well as it did under George Szell," concludes Finn.

On a chilly summer day in Paris strollers outside the Eglise de Liban on Rue d'Ulm, behind the Pantheon, can hear the Mozart. Inside the sanctuary of the hundred-year-old neo-Gothic church with its saffron-hued stained glass windows, a mini-studio has been devised for the recording of the CBS Records soundtrack of the new Don Giovanni . Religious artifacts are haphazardly pushed aside to make space for wood and wicker chairs seating a 70-piece orchestra.

Conductor Lorin Maazel stands on the wooden podium. Fastidiously tailored in a European-cut gray doublebreasted suit and deep blue shirt, he leafs through a score of Mozart's opera in deep concentration. While others around him chat amiably, he remains aloof. He glances at his watch. His job is an artistic race against time in a business where wasted minutes could cost many thousands of dollars.

Soprano Teresa Berganza, black chignon framing a sensual face, fiddles impatiently with gold chains around her neck. Soprano Kiri TeKanawa, appearing as unruffled as she seems in her Rolex ads, attempts to console basso Ruggiero Raimondi, who frets over the absence of his beard and mustache -- razored at the insistence of director Losey.

A red light on the tripod signals. The recording is to begin.

"Take 56," says CBS producer Paul Myers over a sound system, his voice calm but firm.

Maazel briskly raises his baton. Through black-rimmed glasses he makes eye contact with his singers and his orchestra. His movements are deft and graceful as the music flows. One can feel him listening. All eyes and all ears are on Lorin Maazel. His left hand gestures expressively. He does not glance at the score.

When the passage ends there is silence. And tension. "Perfect," announces Myers.

Having completed his work with split-second timing, Lorin Maazel, who left London for Paris only a few hours before, hurries to catch a plane. He must be back in London in time to conduct an evening performance of Luisa Miller at Covent Garden.

A few days later, Maazel is back in Paris. Seated at a table in an Italian restaurant around the corner from his hotel, the elegant Plaza Athenee, Maazel is coldly polite. Now and then he rambles as he speaks, his sentences convoluted, his inflection revealing a trace of hauteur. His face -- lean, wellboned and handsome -- is inscrutable; his manner, some might say, borders on arrogance.

In France Lorin Maazel is a household word. The biggest reason is the effect of television: in March 1977 a Eurovision concert of the Beethoven Ninth Symphony with the French National Orchestra drew 64 percent of the television viewers compared with 53 percent for the World Cup Finals. And in succeeding programs the ratings have held somewhere around 29 percent, competing with such events as live boxing championships and the coronation of Bukasa live from Africa.

Perhaps the French perceive Maazel as having a particularly attractive sense of style. Maazel does not disagree.

"You see, the French relate to persons, not personality," he points out. "It may be they recognize a certain quality that I may have. I believe in artistic expression as a kind of extension of the profile of living, what Americans call lifestyle. Art is life to the extent that it is quintessential. It eliminates all extraneous matter and gets to the core of things and I think there's a degree of elegance and refinement which can be brought to artistic expression, especially in performance.

"I believe that every day of one's life should be, and can be, a work of art. I try to fashion my days that way. From the moment I get up to the moment I go to sleep."

And works of art -- musical works, anyway -- are something Lorin Maazel has been involved with since an early age. When he was 9, news of the precocious Lorin conducting the Interlochen Orchestra at the New York World's Fair made New York Times headlines. Engagements with the Los Angeles Philharmonic followed and the boy shared a program with Leopold Stokowski.

In 1941 the chubvy child with long curly hair led Arturo Toscanini's famed NBC Orchestra. The event became an overnight sensation. Although Maazel denies it to this day, press reports describe the orchestra greeting its 11-year-old maestro by sucking lollipops at the first rehearsal.

Maazel is reticent to detail his early years. "Any child who does something exceptionally well," he says slightly defensively, "is very upset to learn that what he considers to be a perfectly normal thing is considered quite extraordinary."

Maazel insists his parents made sure he had a "regular childhood," and that he was never exploited. But he "thanks God" that none of his four children is a prodigy: "It's not an experience one needs. It's only that I had the kind of solid, feet-on-the-ground character to deal with it."

No longer a prodigy but a "stringbean" adolescent, Maazel retreated to the University of Pittsburgh, where he studied languages, mathematics and philosophy, played violin for the Pittsburgh Symphony and served as its apprentice conductor. During a Fulbright Fellowship to study music in Italy, he conducted several concerts and, still in his 20s, became the first American to conduct at Bayreuth.

"I set a challenge for myself," he muses. "I said, 'In five years I will either get to the top of my profession or quit.' I hate mediocrity. I used to get physically ill conducting poor orchestras. I was determined to make documents that would last forever.When I look around at young conductors today I see nothing but careerists with public relations men and letters of recommendation and foundation grants and they say to me, 'I want to conduct.' But nobody ever tells me, 'I want to make music.'

"What is precious to the artist," Maazel believes, "is the very thing he will never discuss with anyone, the absolute total trip he takes during the performance. I remember once getting to the second theme of the Schubert Unfinished Symphony and having tears roll down my cheeks, but I never mentioned it. I never revealed my thoughts to anybody. It never occurred to me."

He is a curious combination, both fatalist and dreamer. "I basically believe we have no control over our lives. I once spent four months escaping in the South Pacific and when I returned home nothing had changed, nothing ever does," he observes. What is important, he says, are "the experiences of love. And of nature."

There is also his music, what Maazel calls "my own built-in record player" -- entire symphonies that he carries around in his head and can turn on at will. "My music is as much part of me as life itself. On stage a performance doesn't go by when I don't feel a chill or the start of tears."

Asked if these emotions ever show, Maazel replies with indignation: "I should hope not! I'm not the type to be breaking down crying in front of 25,000 people. It's my job to make it sound that way, not to show people how I feel."

Back home in the Cleveland suburb of Shaker Heights, Lorin Maazel is not so reticent about showing his emotions, however, and the impression one gets is that of a notably different man. The house where Maazel lives with his second wife, Israela, and their two young children, is informal and cluttered. The conductor who sometimes seems inscrutable and almost arrogant is characterized by his wife, recalling their first meeting, as "the kindest, friendliest man I ever met, and always funny." It is that man who almost shyly plays the violin for guests, apologizing for his inadequacies; who frequently stops to listen to his 3-year-old daughter and to offer a cookie as solace; who confeses his pride in a poem he wrote that was published in a small poetry review. "I'm at a turning point in my life," he says thoughtfully, "I feel middle age around the corner. I have personal goals, to establish a schedule that will give me more space. In the last four years I've been too busy."

Asked if she thinks her husband is vulnerable, Israela Maazel replies softly, "Oh, you can hear it in his music, but he is intelligent enough not to show anybody." CAPTION: Picture 1, Lorin Maazel, a prodigy at age 9, conducting the Interlochen Orchestra. By Lucien Aigner, Copyright (c) 1973 by Lucien Aigner; Picture 2, no caption, By Don Hunstein; Picture 3, Lorin Maazel discusses the Cleveland recording session during the playback. By Don Hunstein;