Los Angeles Times (c) 1995 Los Angeles Times. All rts. reserv.

They feared him. They treasured him. They abided him. They adored him. They bowed down to him. And if, because he left them awe-struck, Jascha Heifetz is beginning to sound like God, that's how his students regarded the late, great violinist.

For while the public could certainly behold the wonder of his gifts in their generalized aspect, Nathan Milstein once said it took fellow fiddlers "to know how good he really is."

So powerful a force was Heifetz for the chosen few who trekked to the USC School of Music that "only now am I mature enough to value what he gave me," says Yukiko Kamei. (Heifetz joined his fellow emigre Gregor Piatigorsky and William Primrose on the school's faculty in 1961.)

In tribute to the man who set the standard for violin virtuosity of our time, Kamei and other former pupils are dedicating the 1988 installment of their Chamber Music/LA Festival--which opens today at the Japan America Theatre--to Heifetz, who left an indelible imprint on their collective musical unconscious.

Little wonder that he did. For more than half a century (he died at 86 on Dec. 10, 1987), in live performances and on 500 recordings, Heifetz "was and will remain No. 1 of violin players," said Erich Leinsdorf. "There is no other branch of music in which one person is as clearly recognized as being nonpareil."

And such celebrity practitioners as Itzhak Perlman, Isaac Stern, Yehudi Menuhin concur.

Not only did he occupy the throne imperiously, but the prospect of facing Heifetz the teacher was a daunting one. To the public his countenance was stern. He stood aloof when performing and indulged no physical manifestations of heroism or passion. Cool concentration telegraphed his persona. Neither did he bask in adulation, refusing to give autographs or to encourage applause. He was a notoriously private man, thus he avoided the press as well.

Once, for a rarely granted interview, a journalist showed up two minutes before the appointed time. Heifetz opened the door long enough to remark on the objectionably early arrival and then closed it on the reporter's face. He granted the interview as scheduled.

Presenting oneself to the master as a prospective student or accompanist required, understandably, no small amount of bravery. Polite parlance was not his gambit. What displeased or disinterested him he communicated directly, but by the same token he was an egalitarian who asked not for special accommodation.

Auditioning for Heifetz literally made a wreck out of Martin Katz.

"I ran my car into a brick wall on the way," recalls the pianist, who now partners celebrated singers in recitals. "That's how nervous I was. And so, as not to be late, I knocked on the wall owner's door to explain my important rendezvous and that I'd return to settle the damages afterward."

As it turned out, Katz's worst fears were realized. Heifetz indeed tested the pianist to the limit.

They played through parts of the "Kreutzer" Sonata and then the pre- eminent violinist pulled out Richard Strauss' fiendishly difficult Sonata.

"I told him I didn't know it," says Katz, "but he opened to the densest, blackest page. All 32nd and 64th notes. It looked like an anthill, and he wanted me to do the impossible--sight-read."

In fairness, Katz admits that Heifetz did this only after establishing that the pianist "could take it" and was worthy of the master-class-accompanist post--one he occupied from 1964 to 1966.

"But it still told a lot about the perverse joy he took in inflicting torture. This was his way of dealing with the intimidation factor. Everyone was scared to death of him. That fear distanced him from people and he used it. There was a lesson to be learned--if you could survive Heifetz you could survive anything."

But Paul Rosenthal, who had already studied with such noted teachers as the late Ivan Galamian, Dorothy DeLay and Josef Gingold--the ones responsible for celebrity violinists like Perlman, Zukerman and Mintz--came to Los Angeles with "an already thick skin." He wasn't inclined to wither under Heifetz's brand of pedagogy.

In fact the violinist/music director of the Sitka Festival holds that Heifetz "after one's parents and possibly before them, was the most important influence in our lives."

"I used to think of the violin as an unsolved riddle," Rosenthal says. "For me it was chimerical to try to master the instrument. But Heifetz, who had transcended every conceivable problem it posed and who was hors concours (out of the competition), redirected me from such a technical focus. I let him engage me on his level, which had everything to do with the art of playing. 'Touch my heart,' he used to say. 'Make me cry.'

"And he was right. How to get a vibrato on the G-string is not what music is about, although there was nothing violinistic he couldn't do to perfection. A great teacher helps you capture the ecstasy, not the craft. I would never say that he was less valuable than the ones who geared themselves to helping their students' careers."

On the other hand, there were those--Yukiko Kamei among them--who longed for a little more career orientation. It was during her first year in this country, 1967, while the Japanese-born violinist had stopped off at Scripps College to learn English before going on to Juilliard, that a musical sponsor brought her to play for Heifetz. She didn't know he was giving master classes and thought the audition would end with perhaps an evaluation of the performance. But when he accepted her as a student she grabbed the opportunity.

"Being foreign-born and used to the old-master style of handing out unsoftened criticism, I found Heifetz's teaching easy to take," she says, explaining how American students somehow expected to be shown a greater interpersonal diplomacy and even a kid-gloves treatment.

"Actually, I was surprised--considering that this god even bothered to hear me--that he spoke so directly and simply, as if I were an equal.