She was considered the greatest female pianist in the world- and she hated that label. She just liked to make music. No, that’s not quite correct…she loved to make music. No, that not quite right either…she had to make music. Yes, that is closer to the truth. Why in the world her gender made any difference was always just out of reach, like a bowl on a top shelf, or that cookie in the bottom of the jar.
She never worried about being the greatest pianist in the world, what she wanted really, was just to get the music out of her. Out into the world where it belonged, music, as it were, to your ears. And what music she made. Secretly, the males who claimed to be the greatest pianists in the world, or the media that proclaimed it for them, knew that where those men might be technically better trained, or went to premier conservatories that she couldn’t afford, they all knew that her music was sweeter, more emotional, and brought imagination, creativity, and genius along for the ride.
For all 26 years she had lived on the planet, and all twenty years of her professional career (that is correct, she had been a paid professional since the age of six. Take that Mozart.) not once had the music of another pianist moved her anywhere close to her own experience of listening to her self. It wasn’t that it wasn’t good music they were putting out, it just wasn’t grand. She wanted more from music than mere technical expertise, or insightful interpretation, or clever rifts- she wanted the soul of the artists to dwell in the music they made. Few wanted to meet that standard.
That is why she was caught off guard when the tall boy got up from his seat and approached her piano. Everyone in Carnegie Hall, yes, the Hallowed Hall itself, sold out, as all her concerts were- gasped. The boldness, the arrogance, the sheer effrontery of someone to walk right on to stage - and in the middle of a concerto…mind boggling. No one, not even the two security men, knew what to do.
The tall boy didn’t have an ounce of aggression in his manner or walk. He looked like someone in a trance, or stunned by the glimpse of his first true love, or unable to articulate the emotions threatening to spill over as tears of joy- perhaps a bit of all three. She sat quietly watching him, not an ounce of fear in her patient stare. She was gently curious as to why he had that look on his face, like he was approaching an angel, an altar, or witnessing a miracle. Later, she suspected it a bit of all that…and more.
“May I play with you?”
It wasn’t an awkward double entendre - and the thousands of people listening caught the innocence, hope, and eager anticipation in that question. (It was Carnegie Hall after all, and the acoustics are perfect for playing, or listening).
She was never able to explain later to the Press, her Manager, or herself why she smiled, slid over on the bench, and with a flowing graceful water running over a pebbled brook gesture, indicated he should sit next to her.
She held his eyes for a minute with her own open gaze, found her voice, pointed to the piano and said:
“You begin, I will follow in a bit.”
There was no prelude. No warm up. No warning.
His hands leaping into action with the certainty of unconscious power, grace, and control - freeing his fingers to fly, soaring, floating, then settling onto the keys with concentrated force, but the kind of force that forges masterpieces, not the kind that hammers listeners into submissive awe.
He played with frantic, frenzied, furious, fun filled flings of barely contained passion, fingers finding the right key, at the right moment, with the right touch to rise above the music people hear to the kind of music people feel.
Like everyone else, she was left breathless, taken for a ride from a dead stop to light speed in mere moments. Moments colored with the music of love, of life, of loss, of longing, of all that humans can feel, if they are lucky. Rainbows, cherry ice cream, the smell of your Mom as you slept on her shoulder, the comfort of friends, the welcome smell of morning coffee, the soft muted sounds and light of a winters stroll, or the crackling of a campfire, all these and more were released and contained by the music in a seeming contradiction.
Her music burst from her fingers as they too, found the keyboard. Where his fingers pummeled the keys to bring out the striking edges of the tone, hers caressed them to respond with strength, not force. For the first time in her life, she felt the music of maleness- good maleness: strong, supple, supportive, caring, and kind. She gave back the harmony of female music: gentle, forceful, inclusive, sharing, giving, sweet, and like all good things- kind.
The sum of the parts is greater than the whole when you have two people bonding as one, neither erased, but neither one in front either. People in the audience broke down, their senses unable to absorb the onslaught of music. Music that exposed the flaws of life, without malice or judgment. Music that brought back innocence, innocence lost, and innocence regained. Music the relegated the past to memory, the future to perhaps, and the present to infinity.
Not a soul in that Hall was left untouched. The staid critic from Variety said it best:
“I left there a changed man. The world is brighter, clearer, prettier than I thought, and I want to help keep it that way."
The New York Times was just as moved but said it a bit differently:
“I don’t know if there is a heaven or not. I do know there is heavenly music, for I heard it last night. For all I know, it was two angels playing or at least two supernatural beings."
Mrs. Bernstein and her husband Leonard spoke for the whole audience when they remarked: “If I am glad for anything as much as I am glad that I had children, it is that I was here for this tonight.”
No one knows how long they played that first night. Time was a lost concept, lost in the realms of music that moved up into the aeries of glorious appreciation. They simply played until they stopped, and when they stopped, it took a few moments for hearts to start beating, for reason to return, and awareness to dawn on everyone that they were mortal…again.
He turned towards her, both his strong hands taking her softer, but no less firm hands in his. She smiled at his shyness as he said: