"THE FIRST ACTUAL downbeat is--Well, you never forget that. You never forget the actual beat that you give for the first time and the sound comes . . . It's like a flash of hot blood that comes into your head. It's just extraordinary."

About seven years ago, Pinchas Zukerman's career could hardly have looked more like a sure thing. In his late twenties, he already had been one of the world's major violinists for a decade, a prote'ge' of both Stern and Casals. On top of that, he was equally skilled as a violist. He toured widely, playing anywhere he wished.

Now he is about to turn 35, and much has changed. He is absorbed in a discipline he had not initially set out to master: conducting. This is the end of his second season as music director of the highly regarded St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, which he will conduct Thursday at the Kennedy Center, for the second time in two months. Two more programs follow the next week, plus a chamber music concert and the taping of a "Kennedy Center Tonight" television show.

Not that Zukerman has forsaken the fiddle. But he has given up life as an itinerant virtuoso. He limits his orchestra appearances to four or five of the major groups, plays fewer recitals but still does lots of chamber music.

Watching Zukerman play his violin, you may think, it looks easy. Seeing him conduct, it may seem that the talent sprang naturally, fully formed. But that was not the case. It was determination and discipline; it was overcoming a powerful ego; it was a line of influences, from his childhood violin teacher in Israel to Pablo Casals to his wife; it was, in his words, "painstaking work."

In a sense, he sees his interaction with music as a struggle between intuition and knowledge. He is still working it out in his mind. He is still working it out on the podium.

"I hope I never stop exploring, let's put it that way."subhead: The Prodigy

At the age of 12, Zukerman played for a delegation of musicians in Tel Aviv. Isaac Stern recalls the audition:

"In walked this self-confident gamin--and I'm trying to be discreet--he put his feet down, spread his legs wide, took a stand like a linebacker, stuck out his chin, raised his violin and dared us not to like him. But there is a certain talent that just cannot be ignored, and he had it. Everybody agreed.

"I forget what he was playing. I think it may have been the Khachaturian Concerto, a work I disliked then, and that with the passage of time I find that I dislike even more. It could have been the Kabalevsky, but pick one, you can pick the other.

"Anyway, we got to work on the scholarship."

The plan was to get the American-Israel Cultural Foundation to bring Zukerman to this country to attend Juilliard. There were, however, dissenters. Pablo Casals was one.

Eugene Istomin remembers it this way: "Casals said, 'Well, he doesn't need to know anything. With that kind of talent he should just go out and play.'

"But we said, 'Wait a minute, maestro, how can the boy do that?' And others, including Isaac, had considerable trepidation about that whole proposal. But there were a few little things he needed to learn how to do."

The scholarship was arranged.

Things did not go smoothly.

"It might as well be said," added Stern, "that during the first couple of years here he was not a model student. He didn't work that hard, though he became very good at pool.

"I decided one day to get him to come by and we would work on the Beethoven Concerto. I wanted a composition that he hadn't been taught and that he didn't know well. We started out and 2 1/2 hours later we hadn't gotten beyond the first five lines.

"I was trying to get him to think and to listen. He had such a natural talent that he was getting away with murder. I wanted him to find out what in music is possible. And I would have threatened to hit him in the head if he had said he played a passage a certain way simply because 'I like it.' At the end of the five lines I said 'That's enough' and I expected him either to hit me or to cry.

"Then I told him, 'You are ready to do the rest for yourself.'

"That is the way Pinky learned. And over the years he became, for me, a completely individual artist in his own right. And more and more he developed a growing awareness of what he did not know, and his respect for it and a curiosity to learn.

"He is what all the best musicians are; he is interested in music as music."

The Process

Zukerman describes his musical metamorphosis.

"Music is not something you just pick up and say, 'I'm going to do it.' Over the years obviously it has been developed by influences--from Isaac Stern, from my father, from my teacher in Israel, from Galamian his teacher at Juillard , the Budapest Quartet, from Casals . . . And, it's not a secret, I have good coordination. Eye-to-hand coordination. I can play the instrument, relatively speaking, with an easy fashion. Because it was a God-given talent, I suppose. But nevertheless that talent has to be nurtured, through a lot of painstaking work that you do not necessarily see when you step on stage, especially with me where I am so--I look so--nonchalant on stage. That really comes from a whole feeling of being disciplined; it doesn't come from the air."

The Teen Years

Once it became clear that Zukerman was going to move to New York, the next task was to find a place for him to live. He was barely into his teens. The eventual solution was for him to move in with Eugene Istomin's parents. Istomin, an only child, remarks that Zukerman became "the replacement in the Oedipal scene in my family. I was old enough to have moved out, and he actually came and occupied my room; he lived there for years. My parents simply adored him, especially my father. You know, usually prodigal children are not candidates for replacement, but that's what happened there.

"My father was very permissive with him. It was a very difficult period for Pinky the Istomins gave him that nickname, Zukerman recalled, "because they had trouble pronouncing Pinchas" .

"Pinky was headstrong and high-strung and all those things that happen to the young. But my father was so fond of him, there was almost no authority. If socks had to be darned for him, by God they were darned."

Asked if life for the young Zukerman might not have been a real mess without the Istomins, Eugene Istomin replied, "It certainly could have been. I very consciously stayed out of it. I didn't want to interfere."

The Transition

Zukerman's dual career of the violin and conducting is a fairly rare one. Only Yehudi Menhuin, among modern violinists, has combined the two on a considerable scale, and he has slacked off.

Zukerman's serious invlvement in conducting started with another performing virtuoso who had taken up the baton--his friend, conductor/pianist Daniel Barenboim, music director since 1975 of the Orchestre de Paris.

"I met Daniel in 1967, and of course he had studied formal conducting, if there is such a thing. He was working with the English Chamber Orchestra in London and he was then beginning to guest-conduct in a number of places around the world. And I happened to be around at the time and we Zukerman and his wife Eugenia, the noted flutist were playing trios and sonatas with Daniel and Jackie Barenboim's wife, cellist Jacqueline Du Pre . And I remember sitting around many, many days on airplanes and trains and at home, looking at scores, looking at parts, learning the orchestration, and so on.

"So therefore I got very much involved in Daniel's ability as a conductor . . . We talked a lot about this one and that one. We listened to records. We went to rehearsals. So I was becoming attuned to the conducting element. And one day at the English Chamber Orchestra [ECO], someone said to me, 'Why don't you do some work with the strings . . . some Baroque music?' It was late '69 or early '70. And I said, 'Well, I'll try' . . .

"About a year later, I decided to do a Mozart serenade that included a violin concerto--to see if I could do it. I analyzed the score and went through the parts and it seemed to work. Of course, it was also a horrifying experience.

"The results at the beginning were not what they are today, obviously, because 10 or 12 years later you have the feeling you are accomplishing what you want musically. I had a lot of help at the time. The ECO people--we were friends if nothing else. It wasn't like I was going into the lion's den there. They said, 'Pinky, I think we need a beat here or we need a little signal there' . . . And I learned from all that . . .

Fantasy on Beethoven

Zukerman, meditating on Beethoven's Second Symphony, which he will conduct here Thursday, imagines the composer considering its effect on his teacher, Haydn. In Zukerman's version, Beethoven thought, "Well, I know Haydn, and if I showed him the score, maybe he wouldn't like it so I think I'd better do something about it."

"Well, he couldn't resist," says Zukerman, "and so he made this introduction monumental. I mean that introduction is by far the most experimental in Beethoven's life. He takes a very Haydnesque kind of pah-pah opening statement neither here nor there.

"It's just a D. But he goes right away from it. After eight bars he's gone. He states it, in fact, again, just in case Haydn would say to him, if they had a telephone then, 'Hey, Ludwig, cut that crap out. You've got to make it 16 bars and go right into the allegro, because people will walk right out of the hall.'

"Well, he had that in the back of his mind, there's no question in my mind about that . . . And he's made Haydn look like a little baby, as far as I'm concerned."

Why Conduct?

Zukerman: "One thing conducting has made me do is realize psychological implications of a work of a music) that I think I was very much on the periphery of. How does a conductor deal with deep-rooted ingrained misunderstandings? To interact with people--that's part of being a conductor . . . There has to be a person who is the commandant, the person who leads the forces.

"Nobody's ever criticized the fact that I am conducting; they've criticized, or made observations of, why am I conducting? Because I'm such a fiddle player. But no one has said, in a review at least, that I shouldn't be conducting."

Stern's analysis: "He does not want to become a conductor in order to have power over other people. To be there just to make people jump. Nor is he like a few of us who have dabbled at it by wiggling a stick spasmodically in a Baroque piece while trying to keep our distance when playing our solo passages. This is a serious effort to master what it is to become a conductor."

Istomin's view: "If he could become a conductor with anywhere near the ability he has as a fiddler, I would say he should go ahead. But that's the real question, whether he can be that kind of conductor. He hasn't shown that level yet, but given his experience there's no reason that he should.

"What I mean by comparison is that his friend, Daniel Barenboim, has become a master conductor as well as pianist. He has conducted all over the world. He conducted last summer at Bayreuth. That's what I mean.

"But to me, given the choice, it's more important to be a master at one level than to be almost so at two or three."

Eugenia Zukerman

The maid knocked on the door, holding a tray. "Excuse me, Mr. Zukerman, shall I bring in some coffee?" Zukerman reached for his customary three saccharine tablets.

The saccharine is part of a new regimen in Zukerman's life. He has always been a large, physically robust man. But in the last year he has dispensed with his heavy black beard and the slight paunch that gave the young Pinky the look of a rabbinical scholar. Now, if anything, he looks younger than he is.

Right after the maid brought the coffee, Eugenia Zukerman returned from escorting their 6-year-old, Natalia, to a violin lesson. Zukerman met Eugenia when they were both students at Juilliard, and they married young. Eugenia, who is arts reporter for CBS's "Sunday Morning" as well as being a flutist, is credited with bringing peace and order to her husband's once-turbulent existence.

Zukerman had asked her to pick up a pack of Marlboros. As she walked in, she handed him two cigarettes "from the doorman. The cigarette machine is out of order."

"One for today and one for tomorrow," she cracked. "I don't know what kind they are but maybe they are the kind that are really going to make you enjoy yourself in about 10 minutes." And she departed convulsed in laughter.

Symphony on St. Paul

Given the good life he lives in New York, Zukerman is asked, why did he adopt an orchestra in St. Paul?

One answer is "because I wanted to conduct the orchestra," a 31-member group with a long tradition of excellence: "There was always a good orchestra out there," Zukerman observed.

"And second, I have always liked the place. The Twin Cities are one of those rare places where the culture is a part of life. They go to the concert halls because that is where they want to be. Oh, when I took the job, some people told me it would be a good place to get experience, because it was so far out of the way. They just didn't know where the hell or what the hell it was.

"It is sophisticated. But at the same time it is low-key. There's great wealth, but there's no need to show off the Rolls-Royces. The attitude is more that we'll give you the money if what you are doing is part of what you believe in."

Zukerman has just contracted for three more years directing the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra.

The Guru

Latest in the line of musical influences on Zukerman is the legendary and enigmatic Rumanian-born conductor, Sergiu Celibidache. Widely regarded as one of the finest of conductors, Celibidache is more familiar as a musical philosopher than as a performer--both because of his disdain for recordings and also for his refusal to work under American rehearsal arrangements. One of his philosophical premises is a duality: that reason should predominate over intuition in the performance of music--a doctrine Zukerman does not entirely share, for all his admiration of the man.

Zukerman is fascinated by the ideas of Celibidache. "The other day in Zurich he bothered me so much, in the right sense, that I can't help thinking about him. I mean, Celibidache is in the front of my head all the time. He has 10 to 12 rehearsals with an orchestra because of all the knowledge he has that he must convey to the orchestra. He truly believes that there is no compromise for him, because there is a specific reason for every notation that is put down on the printed page of a piece of music."

In their conversation in Zurich, Zukerman discussed with Celibidache the problems involved in conducting Mozart's 39th symphony. "I told him that it's a really difficult piece, and he said, 'No, it's not difficult. You mustn't think that way.' And I said, 'Wait a minute, it's the least amount of notes with the most amount of content that you can have in eight bars.' And he laughed and said, 'Oh, that is very, very good. That's knowledge. You are not doing it by intuition.'"

Ultimately, Celibidache is one of those rare musical figures who addresses himself to the issue of philosophic truth as a guide to the significance of a piece of music. "I think that there comes the real problem in music," said Zukerman. "And I don't have the answer for it. I'm looking for it, but I don't know if I'll ever find it. Do we do things by intuition only or do we do things by reason? Where one combines the two I don't know. I do a lot of work and thinking about what I want to achieve within a given piece, a given movement, or even a given bar or phrase. And then comes the moment, and I do think intuition does play a great role in it. How much on a scale of 1 to 10 I couldn't tell you. But nonetheless I think the two are intertwined, and should be."

The Art of the Possible

It is suggested to Zukerman that almost anyone who knows anything about music thinks he could be a conductor.

His response is immediate:

"And we all can."