Q: Having started out as a young whippersnapper, do you get some inse curity when you see somebody as young as Andrew Litton (a 23-year-old Exxon/Arts Endowment conductor) and other young conductors coming up through the ranks? Do you look back and say, "God, I'm 29 now, look at them?"

A: (Laughter) Right. I'm over the hill. As you get older in this business, there is really no comparison to the feeling you have at this age when you approach a work that you've known as a musician for so long but you've never conducted. There's nothing quite like the feeling of conducting for the first time a work that you love.

I wonder sometimes how the older conductors can sustain themselves into their 70s. Sometimes they start focusing in on smaller and smaller repertoires, conducting the same pieces over and over again. What's so exciting for me now is how big the repertoire is and how -- just like a kid in a candy store -- you can just kind of go wild for years.

Q: How valid is the notion of conductor burnout for those who start out so young?

A: I think that burnout is something that applies a lot more to prodigies -- people who, because they have freak gifts of mind and musical ear and muscular control, can be complete, mature-sounding musicians at the age of 12. There have only been a couple of conductor prodigies because conducting is a job that doesn't just involve you playing all the notes on your fiddle correctly. It involves being able to deal with adults -- being able to draw them together into a cohesive performance.

Lorin Maazel was the famous conducting prodigy at the age of 9. He conducted Toscanini's orchestra in New York. That's a freak show -- and I'm sure he would admit it himself -- because what's involved in conducting has to do with leadership and inspiration. You can't honestly expect a 48-year-old member of an orchestra to turn to a 9-year- old kid for the kind of musical leadership needed to conduct a symphony orchestra.

What you can find is an astonishing thing -- the 9-year-old has the score completely memorized, knows exactly what to do with his hands and which instruments to cue. However, no orchestra in its right mind would hire a prodigy to conduct its musicians on a regular basis, the way you would hire a prodigy violinist to present him to the public.

Q: But isn't your starting at age 20 -- isn't that quite young?

A: No. I think that most conductors knew that they were going to be conductors by the time that they were 20. You can't say, "I'm a conductor." It requires the consent of 100 people to allow you to be a conductor. (Laughter) I thought I was a conductor at age 22, but I wasn't a professional conductor until I was 25, when I came here. Obviously, you don't have a chance to practice the way a violinist can. Take the violin home, make all sorts of embarrassing mistakes and figure out how he's going to play it. A conductor has to do that while imagining the sound of an orchestra in his head -- which is a difficult task.

Q: You've been described as a "red-haired Prince Valiant" who makes the older women sigh. Do you have many groupies as a result of your appearance?

A: (Laughter) "Groupies" is not the word that springs immediately to mind. There certainly seems to be the perception in the public that the conductor works magic. And there is no question that sometimes we feel as though we're working magic. It may look like it's effortless and it's real magic and the rabbit is coming out of a hat. But it's like piloting a 747. It's a great big complicated machine that can come crashing to a catastrophic halt. You have to feel the complexities of the machine, too. You have to have at least one half of your personality focused on that. It's a schizophrenic occupation in that sense. You're doing two things at once.

Q: Today your appearance is probably your greatest asset. But when you were growing up did you have any difficulty having vibrant red hair and being a musician to boot?

A: Well, I used to get a lot of teasing. The red hair never was an issue. It was more that I was kind of quiet and somewhat bizarre and a studious little kid in the back as I was growing up. I was not the kind of person that took command of groups of people as a young kid. That's why I am sometimes surprised that I ever became a conductor.

I still consider myself introverted and sometimes very shy. But as a conductor, you are expected to take command. As a person I don't feel that I'm the kind who likes to take command of people or manipulate them. As a conductor I have to. I'm expected to.

Q: Women -- where do they fit into your life?

A: (Laughter) Oh, God! Very important. Women are very important. Well, I'm single. And I don't immediately have plans to get married. I find that relationships are pretty hard to have with someone like me who is running around a lot -- running around in the guest-conducting sense of the word. Who is spending a lot of time out of town. Sometimes the pressure gets pretty intense and I find myself working until 2 in the morning and starting the next morning at 9. If you have an important concert, you have to be with a woman who is extraordinarily tolerant of that kind of behavior. Which is not necessarily the kind of woman you want to be with -- someone who is willing to indulge your every whim of working crazy hours, being depressed, being tense, being filled with anxiety, being filled with great highs and great lows. You have a great performance and you feel terrific. Then you don't have anything to do and you feel lousy. To expect someone to put up with me is something that I have a little trouble with myself.

Some conductors bring their wives around with them and they are just totally subservient and pick up all the pieces after them. I find that pretty abhorrent. I would have to find someone who is equally independent, who is just sort of running around on her own and she could care less about picking up the pieces after me and I'm not going to be able to pick up the pieces after her. Then somehow we'll manage to have a meeting of the minds and have an intense relationship all at the same time.

Q: Are you lonely?

A: I think you have to accept the fact that you are going to be alone a lot. In order to prepare the music in the way I feel I have to prepare the music, I spend literally hundreds of hours studying. And you study alone. You and the music. No distractions. Hundreds of hours go by. If you're not comfortable doing that, then you can't be a conductor. I'm comfortable doing that. That doesn't mean that I'm a recluse. On the other hand, I equally love to put aside the music and go out with friends. There has to be some balance.

Q: Do you have any passions other than music?

A: I like to read. I also like living in Washington because I'm fascinated by government and politics.

Q: When I was a little girl, I used to believe that it was the conductor who created music just by waving his magic wand. What it is that a conductor does when he is before the orchestra?

A: I suppose the public does have an unusual perspective on the profession -- the idea that we are somehow creating the sound with our hands out of thin air. Most people don't realize that a good orchestra can play very well without a conductor.

Really what you have to be is a combination of different things. You have to be a traffic cop, a cheerleader, a scholar, a teacher, a student. You are a traffic cop and a cheerleader because essentially you're dealing with sometimes more than a hundred musicians, all of whom are capable and trained to the level you are.

It's a fallacy to approach the professional musician with, "Well, I know more than these people." I don't think that is either accurate or healthy. What you are is the means by which all 104 can function in harmony. In that sense you are a traffic cop, because although an orchestra can play very well withour a conductor, it can play much better with a conductor.

What the musicians need from a conductor is a sense of where the music is going. They need to be able to ultimately see that without words. They are willing to make the following trade-off -- that we will sacrifice our individual concepts of how the piece should go, what the tempo should be. You sacrifice your individual ideas in exchange for accepting a conductor's leadership in those areas and then knowing that the end product will be so much more unified, integrated and whole.

Q: It seems that Europeans have a better chance of becoming conductors in the U.S.

A: I think that there is a certain feeling that American orchestras are provincial. They're out to hire glamorous Europeans with foreign accents and tempestuous temperments. I don't really believe it. I don't see anything wrong with the fact that the National Symphony is conducted by a Russian. The Boston Symphony is conducted by a Japanese. These orchestras are of top quality. They tour the world. Their records sell throughout the world. They should pick the very best available talent, whether it's American or not.

The problem that does exist deals with young American orchestras that should be more interested in young American conductors -- orchestras in the small- or medium- sized towns of America -- a lot of whom have been seduced by the idea that if Riccardo Muti conducts the Philadelphia Orchestra, then we must get a young, Italian conductor and impress all the wealthy people in our community with his savoir faire. That's a mistake. The young Americans need that step in their training.

Q: Why did you chose Harvard as opposed to going straight into a conservatory?

A: When I graduated from high school -- I can't say that I had no intention of becoming a musician, but I had no clear idea that that was what I wanted to do. I was interested in medicine. I was interested in chemistry. I was interested in mathematics.

Q: What was your turning point?

A: It was very simple. I struggled horribly through medium-advanced physics and mathematics classes that I thought I should be taking if I was going to be a physics or mathematics major. I was surrounded by people who were frighteningly adept at those sorts of things. I was kind of amazed and thought, "Hmm -- I guess I'm out of my depth. This isn't high school anymore."

On the other hand, I felt a little bit like I was on the other side of the coin in my music courses. These were the courses where I was functioning quite smoothly, having a good time, learning a lot. By the end of the first year, I changed from mathematics to music.

Q: Your getting involved with music -- was it more innate or had you worked on it so much before that it came easily to you?

A: I don't feel that I'm the kind of musician that was born fluent in the language of music. Slava Rostropovich was born fluent in the language of music -- the ear, the mind, the fingers. Music is an extension of his personality.

With me, I don't think that's the case. I wasn't picking out tunes on the piano when I was 3 or impressing people at parties. I had no reaction to music until my sister started taking piano lessons when I was about 10. I started peering over her shoulder. I guess I just caught it at the right time in my life and started rather sponge-like to learn very quickly and to work very hard.

Q: Slava raised you up, but he also crushes you in his shadow. Eventually you will have to leave the NSO. What will you do so that you don't sink into oblivion when you are finally gone?

A: (Laughter) Who knows? The past couple of years I've spent about 90-100 days on the road guest conducting. I'm also the music director in northern Pennsylvania. I prefer living in Washington. I use that as my base, but I find that about 50 percent of my time is taken up by guest conducting and preparing music. I've conducted in Europe. I've conducted in South America. I've conducted in a lot of places in this country.

The time will come when the umbilical cord will have to be cut. I started out here in Washington very green and very inexperienced as a professional musician. I have been nurtured along with the kind of loving care that very few people are fortunate to have. I will be sad to leave, for sure, because I feel so at home here. You can't spend the rest of your life as an assistant. Slava's aware of that. Everybody's aware of that. He's been enormously encouraging in finding engagements for me and talking orchestras into engaging me for a concert. Sometimes he will solo.

Q: What about composing?

A: I haven't actually done any composing in about eight years. I miss it more in the abstract than I miss it in reality. Yet, I don't miss the kind of pain and suffering involved in giving birth that it entails. On a purely philosophical level, it requires that you have the kind of mind that says you write a note down on the page and at a certain point you stop questioning it.

It's probably the loneliest of all professions. It's you and a blank sheet of paper at 9 in the morning. If you're writing fiction -- we're all human beings; we all write from human experience. But music is abstract. Words have connotations; notes don't. You can just string notes together in a totally abstract way -- which is really what music is. Sure you have to be guided by your soul and your spirit and something that you have to say. It's very lonely. The conductor, at least, has the tremendous relief of opening the music and the notes are printed there already. All he has to do is come to grips with what they mean and what they are saying. But to put those notes down yourself -- maybe some day I'll go back to it, but at this point, it's not something that I miss.

Q: Once you understand the music, how do you go about conveying it? Do you practice before a mirror?

A: The best analogy would be that of a film or play director. You start out with a script and you're the one who's in charge of putting all the pieces together. In that sense I start out with a score and before I ever get to the first rehearsal, I really have to have a complete mental and emotional picture of what the music is all about. Then I have to translate the music into something that I think will work with my hands, without my mouth, but with my hands and my face.

All this is done in the privacy of my home. I don't have anybody to test the ideas on. So, I have to be willing to realize that some of it might not work. Some of it is going to have to be changed.

What the orchestra needs in rehearsal is someone who has the whole picture at the beginning. It's a common misconception that we all come to the rehearsal and sort of talk about the music and try to figure it out at the rehearsal. There really isn't time to do that anymore.

You have to be two people. Your hands and your face and your body have to be conveying the image of the music that you have in your mind. But at the same time you can't be totally insulated. You have to listen to what is coming back at you from the orchestra. t thinkAnd at the same time you have to be constantly comparing that to the image that you have in your mind.

Q: How do you know that it's going to work?

A: You don't. If you knew that it was going to work, it really wouldn't be any fun would it? No matter how many hours I may spend imagining how I think this chord will blend between brass and strings -- the ideal sound that I think I want -- when I hear it, it's always really ravishing. There's an incredible feeling of the actual sound. It's almost as if you can reach out and touch it or taste it. That's what makes it a great joy and a privilege.