Remembering Leonard Bernstein

LEONARD Bernstein died two weeks ago.

"We mourn the passing of a great man," Deutsche Grammophone proclaimed on a full-page ad in the Arts and Leisure section of the New York Times. It was all they needed to say.

As an alumna of Tanglewood, the summer music festival where Bernstein was "discovered" and where many of his greatest performances took place, I harbor a deep respect and reverence for this truly "great man." But my earliest encounter with Bernstein came long before my summer as a Tanglewood student.

When I was seven or eight years old, I went to a New York Philharmonic concert which Bernstein conducted in Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center. The all-Tchaikovsky program included, among other works, the Marche Slave and the Pathetique Symphony--a pretty heavy agenda for a man in his early 60s, and for a child whose attention span never even lasted to the end of a single episode of "Mr. Roger's Neighborhood."

Nevertheless, I remember being completely entranced by the music (my parents kept looking over to see if I was asleep) and deciding then and there that I would never live without this glorious sound.

After it was all over, I was taken backstage to catch a closer glimpse of the maestro and perhaps, if I behaved (my mom told me that the long line would somehow magically disappear if I was good), to get an autograph. I can still feel the crush of bodies pushing in closer and closer to view, touch or speak to the conductor.

When I finally reached the front of the line, a tall, burly man who smelled like the burned-out ends of cheap cigars stepped quickly in front of me, offered his hand to the maestro and requested an autograph. I was completely overwhelmed; a mere three and a half feet tall, I was hardly a match (in fact, I'm still not) for aggressive paparazzi.

I will never forget the voice that I heard next. "Excuse me," Leonard Bernstein said softly, "I think this young lady was next in line."

With that, he gently urged the man aside and stooped down to ask my name. He was an awesome figure in his black tuxedo, perspiring and visibly fatigued as he was. He took the blue pen I offered and proceeded to sign my program book "To Rachel--Best wishes, Leonard Bernstein."

The moment he handed back the program and pen to me the crowd began to press forward again, and I was shoved aside. In the commotion, I dropped the pen that I had been clutching in my right hand. I debated for an instant whether to bend down and pick it up, fearing that I would be crushed by the mob.

Before I could act, Bernstein stooped down again to snatch it up, then handed it back to me and favored me with a benevolent wink before moving on the next adoring fan.

I never even got to thank him.

I DIDN'T see Bernstein in person again until about 10 years later, when I was a student this past summer at Tanglewood. It was, in fact, to be his last Tanglewood performance ever.

There was again a long, shoving line after the concert to see the great maestro. He had aged tremendously in those ten years, and the effects of his various illnesses were beginning to show. he looked extremely tired.

Being now accustomed to such things as post-concert aggression, I quickly told him how much I had enjoyed the concerts and asked again for his autograph. As always, he complied, and I turned to make my exit.

The next person in line had forgotten to bring a pen, and strangely enough, this caused a slight commotion. "Does anyone have a pen I can keep?" Bernstein asked above the noise.

I turned back and handed him mine. It was a cheap, blue Bic ballpoint, the kind that comes in a package of 10 for $1.98--hardly fit to be tucked into his pocket after all the autographs had been signed. He looked at me and smiled.

"Thank you," he said. "Thank you very much."