"Let me entertain you," Lorin Maazel said in his grandest manner as he sat down at the Steinway upright in his dressing room and began The Man I Love. It was the old Gershwin tune all right, note-perfect and sob-ridden from front to back, just the way it sounds at dawn in the lounges of Las Vegas. But this was Cleveland. It was barely past noon. And the man pressing the keys to the last funky chord is a distinguished conductor.

"When I'm in shape I'm a really good violinist," he said. But his violin was back at the house in suburban Shaker Heights so he could not play the clown with that instrument, too.

What the former prodigy turned self-assured 45-year-old is always serious about—and masterful at—is what he had just come from doing on the stage of Severance Hall. Maazel had led the Cleveland Orchestra through Beethoven's Eroica symphony while 2,000 women hung on every move he made.

The experience, and many others equally satisfying, has helped convince Maazel of one thing. He would succeed in keeping the Cleveland Orchestra, which the late Czech martinet George Szell developed and polished for 25 years, at the top of American classical music. And Maazel would do so although he is the first to admit that, unlike Szell, he is not a fearsome man.

Four years ago the orchestra and the new maestro got off to the worst possible start. When its 105 musicians sized up all of Szell's possible successors, the last name on their preference list was Maazel. The trustees nonetheless gave him a five-year contract. Mass defections were predicted.

Today the names in the orchestra are almost the same as in 1970, when Szell died. Maazel's contract has had four years added to it. And the snapping and cracking at rehearsal are as good-tempered as they can ever be when top-rank instrumentalists and a confident conductor are intent on drawing out the best in one another.

Lesser musicians have every reason to feel threatened by the trim, flashy Maazel. "Too many concerts are given by too many orchestras," he told a crowd of college students recently. "You get the professionalism of mediocrity, and it grinds on like some kind of dreadful machine that never stops. I'd like to see the day when there is much more music made, but on a much less pretentious level. I think it's better when a lot of young people get together in city-block orchestras, or duets or trios. But getting together 50 rather poor musicians, calling them the Someplace Philharmonic with a women's committee, a junior committee, a fund-raising program and a Ford Foundation grant—that consecrates them forever. They all join the union so nobody can be fired, and for 45 years the oboe tries to play what he cannot. That's the in-between world I would like to see us do away with by withholding our patronage."

Maazel is quick to add that he wants any available local patronage to go to his Cleveland Orchestra. It has been a favorite since 1944 when he first conducted it in concert as a child of 13 years, one week and a day. At the time, he was a high-class carnival act, traveling the country and leading big orchestras before curious audiences—the way the child Mozart was summoned two centuries ago to give clavier recitals for the crowned heads of Europe.

Maazel was born in Paris in 1930 when his parents, both American musicians, were enrolled at the Sorbonne. When he was 4 they moved to Los Angeles. He began his life's work there as just another 8-year-old taking violin lessons. Then one day he came upon a full orchestral score of the Haydn Surprise symphony on the piano. He studied it closely and announced that it all made sense. His parents rushed him off to Vladimir Bakaleinikoff, a conducting teacher, who found Lorin so apt that a big-time debut was arranged.

At the New York World's Fair in 1939, Maazel was a chubby 9-year-old in short pants who led the Interlochen Youth Orchestra with a baton somewhat longer than his arm. He went from that triumph back to Los Angeles to share a conducting date in the Hollywood Bowl with the 57-year-old Leopold Stokowski.

For the next six years, Lorin's parents saw to it that he stayed in school and near the top of his class. Still, during vacations, they had him hopping onto a series of podiums to boss professional musicians and risk abuse. An amazed cellist in Eugene Ormandy's Philadelphia Orchestra commented that young Lorin's manner was the imperious Ormandy's in exact miniature. Self-assurance of that scope was what anyone—man or child—needed to face the NBC Symphony (some horn players sucked lollipops at the boy's first rehearsal) or the New York Philharmonic. Their players thought Toscanini the only conductor worth their full attention.

Maazel, at 13, led the Philharmonic at New York's Lewisohn Stadium four months before Leonard Bernstein, almost twice Lorin's age, made his debut with the same orchestra in Carnegie Hall. Neither was on hand for the other's big moment, but they are friends now.

By the time he was 15, grown into long pants and as tall as most adult conductors, Maazel was no longer a juvenile novelty. He retired temporarily. "I was dropped flat as soon as I lost my market value," he says now with amusement. "With the exception of this peculiar thing of my conducting orchestras, I grew up quite normally. I'm not your typical child prodigy. I'm not a Heifetz who at the age of 4 was removed from normal contact with human beings and was not reintroduced into society until he was 65. No child can survive that. A child has to have a childhood—and I had mine."

Yet, none of his children will follow in his path if he can keep them off it. "I wouldn't allow a child of mine to be on the stage at all," the father of three says now. "I don't think it provides incentives."

At 18 Maazel found work at the last stand of second violins in the Pittsburgh Symphony. "It was very good training for a conductor to spend some time on the other side of the baton," he points out. Between rehearsals, he was a mathematics, history and philosophy student at the city's university. "I took a long, cool look at conducting as a profession for me," he remembers. "I liked the power and prestige, but was it worth other peoples' time to go to concerts to hear me?"

Maazel thought about it carefully for a while before deciding that it was—or would be. Then he set out to give people the chance. The Tanglewood Festival in the Berkshires was his first hurdle. He conducted Igor Stravinsky's Symphony of Psalms there to headmaster Serge Koussevitzky's clear satisfaction. After that Maazel was looking for a job as a ship's pianist on a transatlantic run when he landed a Fulbright Fellowship. That paid his way to Rome where he lived skimpily while looking around for conducting jobs. What he liked about living in Europe was that nobody knew he had been a child conductor in the U.S., and Maazel never mentioned it. "That was a closed chapter in my life." (When he was asked recently whether the prodigy experience had really left him undamaged, he replied, "Just visibly undamaged.")

By 1955 Maazel was leading operas at La Scala; the only American the Milanese had engaged before him was Bernstein. But no American of any age had led Wagner performances in Bayreuth before Maazel took over for six Lohengrins in 1960. Since then he has served six year terms as artistic director of the West Berlin Opera and as music director of the Berlin Radio Symphony.

Maazel was an American with a conducting career made in Europe, while all the major orchestras in the U.S., except New York's, were headed by Europeans: the French Charles Munch in Boston, the Hungarian Eugene Ormandy in Philadelphia, the Hungarian Georg Solti in Chicago and Szell in Cleveland. A native Asian named Zubin Mehta took over in Los Angeles.

As busy as he was, Maazel's problem was to find the time to go home again. He managed to fit in short spells of work at the Metropolitan Opera and the Philharmonic in New York, and with a half-dozen U.S. orchestras that wanted a return engagement from the conductor-violinist their audiences had last seen as a child.

In the past 20 years, by Maazel's approximation, he has led 3,500 concerts and operas and made more than 100 recordings. One of those features his wife, Israela Margalit, 34, as pianist in Prokofiev's Third Concerto. A particular favorite of his is the English Chamber Orchestra playing the second and fourth Mozart violin concertos with Maazel both conducting and playing solo violin. In Salzburg, it was named the best Mozart recording of 1974, but Maazel now says it would have been better if he had had the help of another conductor.

Forthrightness of that sort often pops out of Maazel. And the life he has led frequently gives him a strange sense of reality. He cannot, for example, conceive of anybody without perfect pitch. He remembers phone numbers by the motifs they form on major scales (nine is re an octave up, and zero is a staccato Bronx cheer). Maazel's idea of a fairly good comic scene took place in London's Albert Hall when his orchestra played there a few months back. About 8,000 people were perfectly silent on the main floor as the musicians took their places on the stage. When the Cleveland's principal oboe sounded the A the orchestra tunes to, the audience responded with a loud, clear and enduring B flat a half-note off as proof of their musical sophistication.

With ears so sensitive, a major problem is finding some quiet. North beyond Canada? A mountaintop in Peru? Madras? "Wherever I go somebody's going to be there before me with some bloody noise machine. I don't know why people allow themselves to have their senses blunted—aural, visual, every other kind. They don't think they are alive unless their ear drums are being bent. Most people can't hear anything anymore. Anything less than a shout doesn't register."

For the time being Maazel likes staying around his big house in Shaker Heights and playing with his 4-year-old son Ilann Sean. Maazel cannot detect in the boy a trace of interest in music, which does not disturb the father in the least. "I'm a life lover, and I just reject anything that's not organic," says Maazel. "I find all these psychological and religious and professional hang-ups a great bore. I have a beautiful profession, and I am involved with things of beauty every day of my life. But I'm not even hung up on these things. Anyone who gets hung up on them, or on a pair of rubies, or on a pair of breasts and can't see the rest that is beautiful around him, isn't functioning. But I'm functioning." He paused, pleased about that and then went on to ornament it. "Look," he said, "I'm not even hung up about not being hung up."