ORCHESTRAL conductors are enormously intriguing creatures -- especially, I suspect, to those of us once described by a long-standing music critic as ``unschooled listeners.'' Such noncognoscenti are not all that rare, truth to tell, and we are mainly responsible, surely, for turning conductors into stars. At the close of some favorite symphony or other we tend to direct all our vast enthusiasm at that hand-shaking and bowing maestro on the podium. The composer is forgotten. The orchestra barely glanced at. After all, the conductor looks so much hotter than any of the players.

The conductor is the master painter, the musicians his or her dabs of paint. Through him the music comes, by him it is evoked. His antics do far more than make the beat plain to the orchestra, or alert the patiently waiting (but slightly dozing) celesta player. They are also a deliberate means of communication with the entire hall.

From the back, no less than from the front, the swelling tensions of a piece, its meticulous precisions, its sudden and exacting need for pianissimi, its grand abandonment, its breadth of exultation are visibly expressed by the conductor. To the sound itself (for which he takes such credit) the conductor adds the italics and punctuation of gesture, of strained arms, of startling tautness of the shoulders, of brisk nod, of hands flung apart in some wild appeal to the universe. If you shut you r eyes during such a performance, it's certain that something of the quality of the sound will be missed.

Or that's what we believe at the time.

In an Edinburgh concert the other week we watched a French conductor take his orchestra through the paces of a long stretch of ballet music. As if self-conscious about the missing element of the dance itself, this nimble-fingered, acrobatically inclined musical director saw to it that his own one-man performance came as near to the choreographic as possible.

The reverse philosophy was practiced at a later concert by Daniel Barenboim when, through most of that work of self-perpetuating motion, unwinding like a spring, the Bol'ero by Ravel, he stood stock still: such an unusual posture for a conductor that it had its own electrifying effect.

There is showmanship in conducting, of course, and it is not easy for the unknowledgeable to guess where the performance is a response to the music and where it genuinely inspires it. Perhaps the line is better left blurry. The creative and the appreciative are two sides of the same act when it comes to artmaking.

But the role of the conductor remains mysterious. In other kinetic art forms the director is generally invisible by the time the performance takes place. Even prompters, in the theater, are hidden. The conductor's function, however, embraces both rehearsal and performance. The adopted word itself is suggestive: The ideal orchestral conductor combines traits from other familiar sights of the same name. He is not all musician; he is also part bus-conductor, part lightning-conductor. The first believes him self in charge of a moving vehicle and dutifully hurries people off and onto it at designated intervals. The second is a kind of medium for conveying to earth a vivid, elemental, and even potentially dangerous force.

It is this balance of practical organization and fire-dazzle that marks the visible art of conductors.

And there is little doubt that an orchestra can be subtly or brilliantly transformed by a conductor. Barbirolli, in January 1966, conducted his ``dear Berlin lads'' (the Berlin Philharmonic) playing Beethoven's ``Eroica'' (not for the first time).

A German critic described it as ``a near-ideal balance of tension, intelligence, and emotion. The orchestra was brought to life by Sir John. . . . One could hardly believe it was the same orchestra which recently played this work so particularly badly. . . .''

In fact, as Michael Kennedy's biography of Barbirolli movingly shows, the relationship between the great orchestra and the conductor was one of extraordinary tenderness and regard. He called their playing ``all so beautiful and so generous.'' They ranked him ``among the exceptional, really musical, conductors.''

Kennedy writes that his rehearsals were ``never dull. Humor, anger, white-hot interest, petulant slaps at the score or radiant joy -- any of these might be forthcoming.'' He was endlessly thorough in preparation of a concert, and then, in the evening, he was able to ``inspire the players afresh and to make all his carefully marked detail sound spontaneous.''

And the audiences -- in Barbirolli's case they were not unknown to give him ovations lasting longer than half an hour. They even refused to leave when the hall lights were put out.

Where precisely did the magic lie? His face and hands, we are told, ``could have coaxed music from a slab of concrete.'' His baton was a ``wand.'' He ``had indefinable power of communication.'' He was even said to have ``thought sound.'' But the really telling word of explanation, I think, is to be found in a sharp remark he once fired at a string player ``in whom,'' Kennedy writes, ``he suspected a lack of intensity in Schubert's . . . C Major Symphony.''

``If,'' said Barbirolli, ``you don't love to play this music, you should go out and chop wood.'' The italics were his.

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