There is an old legend about the late conductor Herbert von Karajan. Seems he jumped into a taxicab in Berlin (or Vienna, or Salzburg, or . . . ) and told the driver he was in a hurry. "Yes, sir," came the response. "Where to?" "It doesn't matter," Karajan supposedly replied. "I am in demand everywhere."

The story might be amended and updated for James Levine -- the artistic director of New York's Metropolitan Opera, the chief conductor of the Munich Philharmonic and now the music director-designate of the Boston Symphony Orchestra (he takes over in 2004). This weekend the peripatetic Levine, 59, is in Washington as one of the 2002 Kennedy Center Honors recipients -- and in his case, this seems not merely an acknowledgment of past achievements but a sort of nationally recognized cheering on to prepare him for the challenge ahead.

Challenge there will be, for the Boston Symphony has been in trouble for some time. Seiji Ozawa, such a vital, energizing force when he took over the directorship in 1973, stayed much too long. By the time Ozawa left this year, the orchestra was living off what was left of its burnished reputation -- and even that was dwindling fast. "Rarely had I heard such coarse, unmotivated playing from such a celebrated group," Greg Sandow wrote in the Wall Street Journal after a Carnegie Hall appearance in 1998. "I've heard most of the important American orchestras. If I ranked them -- and especially if I compared them to what they could achieve -- the BSO would place near the bottom."

Sandow spoke for many listeners. Worse yet, he spoke for much of the orchestra. As far back as 1995, Malcolm Lowe, the BSO's concertmaster, and Jules Eskin, the principal cellist, wrote an article for Counterpoint, an in-house publication, that claimed Ozawa gave "no specific leadership in matters of tempo and rhythms," offered no "expression of care about sound quality" and didn't even bother to share any "distinctly conveyed conception of the character of each piece the BSO plays." Lowe and Eskin concluded with an all-but-unprecedented public demand that the orchestra's management and trustees "address and redress these problems."

They did, but it took some time. It wasn't until 1999 that Ozawa announced his forthcoming departure for the Vienna State Opera. Finally, late last year, by a unanimous vote of the trustees, and with the enthusiastic approval of the players, Levine was named the Boston Symphony's next music director -- and, incidentally, the first music director in the symphony's 120-year history who isn't foreign-born.

He will be a busy man. Although the Munich association will be allowed to lapse, Levine recently renewed his Met contract through the 2008 season. Indeed, he has spent most of his career -- three decades and counting -- at the Met. He made his company debut in 1971, became principal conductor in 1973, was appointed music director in 1976 and was elevated to artistic director in 1986. During his tenure, he has vastly improved the orchestra, transforming it from a passable "house band" into a gleaming ensemble that some critics think is the best in New York (and no, I am not forgetting the New York Philharmonic). Levine spends more than seven months a year with the Met and has led numerous first performances there -- ranging from the company premieres of Mozart's "Idomeneo" and Berg's "Lulu" through the world premiere of John Corigliano's "The Ghosts of Versailles" in 1991.

In a recent interview in his subterranean office deep within the Met's maze of whitewashed hallways, Levine played down any difficulties he might face "running the show" in two different cities. "New York and Boston are only an hour apart," he said. "There is no time change, there will be no jet lag, and I can easily work in both places on the same day. I'm convinced that I can give Boston what it needs while continuing on at the Met."

Levine, wearing his trademark white polo shirt with a towel draped over his shoulder, looked healthy, relaxed and happy as he spoke of his future. With the new appointment, he joins Leonard Slatkin in Washington and Michael Tilson Thomas in San Francisco as one of the few Americans privileged to shape the course of a major symphony orchestra in their native land. (Indeed, Levine is the first American-born conductor since Leonard Bernstein to run any of the traditional "Big Five" -- New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago and Cleveland.)

"I've always loved Boston," Levine said, "and I always had a fantasy that I might take over the orchestra there someday. Symphony Hall is a magnificent auditorium, one of the best in the world, and the city itself is a place that cares deeply about music, literature, culture of all kinds. The Boston audience won't settle for just another performance of the Tchaikovsky Fifth Symphony. They need challenge, exploration."

Levine obliquely acknowledged that some rebuilding might be in order.

"It stands to reason, it makes sense, that whenever somebody has done a long residency, somebody new will have to do some work," he said.

"I'm glad that I don't start until 2004, because this gives me some time to hear the orchestra in a lot of different material before I jump in. I'm especially glad that there was no lengthy negotiating process -- I've known for some time that I wanted to come to Boston, and I was excited that the orchestra wanted me. We only needed to work out the details, and now we can focus on what we want to do together."

In the first season, Levine wants to offer what he calls "prototypes" for future programming. "I don't like the sort of concert that includes one piece by a million different composers. And yet I don't like trying to fit everything into some sort of theoretical format, either. What I do like are programs with a certain organic unity.

"If I were doing some very important and radical new piece, I might want to put Stravinsky's 'Rite of Spring' on the program to give that radicalism some perspective. Some pieces demand an entire concert -- Mahler's second, third, and eighth symphonies, for example. But I paired the Mahler Ninth, another long symphony, with Alban Berg's Violin Concerto in Munich, and it worked beautifully. It all depends on how the pieces fit together, and on a conductor's relationship with the orchestra.

"It's funny how times change," he continued. "Back in the 1950s, you could hear terrific performances of Puccini operas practically any night of the week. Nowadays, not so much. But back then you never heard Mahler, and now you can find good Mahler all over the place. Today I believe there are a number of composers over 60 -- Elliott Carter, Milton Babbitt, Charles Wuorinen, John Harbison -- who are not heard so much as they should be, and I am sure that the audience will come to know and love this music."

He laughed. "Of course we'll still play Tchaikovsky, too."

Levine was born in Cincinnati on June 23, 1943, the son of Lawrence Levine (who worked for a time conducting a dance band under the name Larry Lee) and his wife, Helen Goldstein Levine, an actress who appeared on Broadway in the late 1930s as Helen Golden. Levine started picking out melodies on the piano when he was 3 years old and began formal studies the following year. At 10 he made his debut with the Cincinnati Symphony as the soloist in a performance of Mendelssohn's Piano Concerto No. 2.

He began his operatic career at 13, when he helped prepare the chorus for a production of Mozart's "Cosi fan Tutte" at the Marlboro Festival in Vermont; he conducted his first opera -- Bizet's "Pearl Fishers" -- at the Aspen Festival in Colorado when he was 18. About that time he gave an interview to Life magazine. "A conductor," he said, "must know everything -- languages, style, repertory, theory, technique. I hate a lazy approach to anything."

After three years of study at the Juilliard School in New York, Levine returned to Ohio under the tutelage of the late George Szell. "You're already a very good conductor and maybe we can make you a great one," Szell told Levine when he appointed the young man, barely 21, as his assistant at the Cleveland Orchestra. In 1966, during his tenure with Szell, Levine started his own group, the University Circle Orchestra, with students from the Cleveland Institute of Music.

He led his first performance at the Met on June 5, 1971: Grace Bumbry sang the title role in Puccini's "Tosca." Violinist Raymond Gniewek, who was the orchestra's concertmaster, went backstage to see Levine afterward and told him it was the most exciting performance he'd played since Karajan himself had been a guest conductor a few years earlier. From then on, Levine appeared regularly at the Met.

Gniewek has left a detailed portrait of the young Levine, one he shared with the late Robert C. Marsh for a book called "Dialogues and Discoveries: James Levine -- His Life and His Music." "As the weeks passed into months, a lingering thought kept recurring," Gniewek recalled. "Can he be this talented and also so gentle, considerate and patient? But the day of the old-school autocratic conductors has indeed ended. Here was a young man who could coax, cajole, inspire, yet never compromise the discipline or concentration so essential to unifying a hundred instrumentalists into a powerful musical force.

"Jimmy's formidable intelligence and awesome memory, enviable as they are, do not necessarily ensure greatness as a conductor," Gniewek continued. "For me the special ingredient in that recipe for success is Jim's uncanny knack of personal communication and the incredible support he gives even under conditions of enormous stress. He radiates a feeling of warmth, integrity and purpose that inspires our team to play more gloriously and eloquently than we ever believed possible."

Levine quickly won over the singers he worked with at the Met, earning a reputation as the most supportive conductor and accompanist in the field. "I could go where they pay four or five times what I get at the Met," Placido Domingo once said. "But the other places do not offer the opportunity to work with Jim." In 1996, Levine conducted the so-called "Three Tenors" -- Domingo, Luciano Pavarotti and Jose Carreras, all of whom had sung with him at the Met -- in a multi-city tour that became the basis of a best-selling recording.

His other albums include complete performances of Wagner's "Ring" cycle, the complete Brahms symphonies and most of those by Mozart and Mahler, operas by Rossini, Bellini, Puccini, Verdi and Richard Strauss, among others, and a disc of spirituals with Kathleen Battle and Jessye Norman. In recent years he has been touring and making recordings with the Met orchestra, performances that have nothing to do with opera.

"When we started doing that sort of extracurricular work, the Met musicians had played all sorts of different operas but had never done a Beethoven symphony together." He grinned. "We've changed that. And I plan to do some opera with the Boston Symphony, too. Everything will work together."

Levine said he was "delighted" to receive the Kennedy Center Honors -- "I think it is terribly important to have such an honor for the arts in this country" -- yet acknowledged that it had been a very long time since he performed at the Kennedy Center. "I think it must have been during one of the Met's tours -- when would that have been?" Informed that the now-defunct traveling company had paid its last trip to Washington in 1985, Levine shook his head.

"I don't want to do a lot of touring right away," he said, "but I'll come to New York and Washington with the Boston Symphony every year. Watch out for us."

"A conductor must know everything -- languages, style, repertory, theory, technique," Levine said at age 18. By all accounts, he fits the job description. Levine, coaxing greatness from his performers.