LEONARD Bernstein had just finished conducting the National Symphony Orchestra in Ives' Second Symphony. He looked tired. He was tired, but he still had a few minutes to spend with a young fan. That was the Leonard Bernstein I knew, however briefly, and that is how I will remember him.
After his death Sunday in New York, it is difficult for any musician to know how to remember Leonard Bernstein. His career was so multifaceted -- conductor, composer, teacher, author, celebrity -- that choosing one title seems inadequate. Almost unjust.
"What did you think of the second movement of the Ives?" he asked me, that March night in 1987. "Did you catch the reference to Brahms and Wagner that was buried underneath the hymn tune?"
A long awkward pause. "It certainly was pretty," I replied, embarrassed, as any musical intelligence I thought I had vanished.
He smiled at me. "Yes, it was. It certainly was."
Looking back to that exchange, I am struck by his generosity. Here was one of the greatest musical minds of our time asking some kid what he thought about Ives and then rescuing him from his ignorance with a simple agreement. It was kind. Not many other musicians of his caliber would have been as kind or as patient. I know, I've met some of them.
I met Bernstein in 1984 when I was a student at Gov. Thomas Johnson High School in Frederick. In my music class, we had been studying his underrated "Mass" and I was thoroughly absorbed by it. This was the first time I had encountered music that was so honest. There were so many questions I wanted to ask him about this piece. And then I heard he was was going to be in Washington for the premiere of his new opera, "A Quiet Place." I ordered tickets immediately.
My sister took me and I cried the whole way through thi harrowing work. We nervously made our way backstage afterward, determined to meet him. Actually, we were lost and were determined to find our way out. And then, there he was. Alone, before the throng of admirers could get to him. I can't say who was more surprised.
Mustering all of the nerve I possessed, I went up to him. Short awkward pause. "I can't believe I'm actually talking to you!" I stammered. He looked at me for a minute and asked, "So what did you think?" And he meant it. We talked about the opera while he signed a poster from the lobby for me. It is still hanging, framed, above my piano at home.
After that, I wrote him a letter telling how excited I was to have met him and could I speak to him the next time he was in Washington. I am still amazed that he agreed. Whenever he conducted the National Symphony, I went to the rehearsals and was always able, even if it was just for a few minutes, to talk to him. He always had time.
Bernstein has been described as the "Peter Pan" of music -- the boy who wouldn't grow up. His retirement, only last week, didn't seem possible. He couldn't be getting old. What had happened to the man I remember, only a few years back, leading a performance of the Symphonic Suite from "West Side Story"? He was a wild one-man Mambo king on that podium. When the orchestra, too dignified I suppose, wouldn't shout "Mambo!" like it was supposed to, my friend and I did. I think he smiled.
Bernstein revealed his humanistic spirit in all of his musical activities. I can sense it particularly in his vocal music. That's where it is most intimately expressed. It is always beautiful. Always yearning. Always communicative.
My favorite song is from "Mass." It begins with the words "Sing God a simple song." That, despite his many public excesses, is what he tried to do. I can only be thankful that I was able to hear his music sing.
Peter Krask is a graduate music criticism student at Peabody.