Nov 23, 1998, Vol. 4, No. 11 • By JAY NORDLINGER
I must've been 12 when I first heard Leontyne Price. I didn't like vocal music much -- young people seldom do. But she was on the concert series, sandwiched between the likes of Horowitz and Milstein, so I went.
It was a revelation, to bow to the cliche. Price was not only a singer, but a real musician. Then, as now, she sang Handel and Strauss and Poulenc and Barber -- all with total authority.
Ever since, I haven't been able to shake her. Oh, hang on a second: She hasn't been able to shake me. I wanted to hear her again and again, and she wasn't getting any younger, so I kept a close eye on her schedule. Would this be her last year? Better get to Boston. How about this year? Better drive to Columbus.
I craved the high of a Price recital the way a heroin addict does his needle. (Was I a heroine addict? Sorry.) My friends started to refer to me as a "Price-head." One of them warned, as I headed off to New Haven, "Remember, Jay, there's a fine line between a fan and a stalker." Yeah, but rarely has a pastime been so joyous, so pure, so justifiable.
Funny thing is, I never wanted to meet the woman. Her public always thronged the greenroom after a recital, proffering flowers and hugs and tears. I spat on that. Personality is usually a gross intrusion into music. And I hadn't been in a greenroom since I was a boy.
The first time I went backstage, it was to meet Eugene Ormandy. People were lined up for miles, waiting for their programs to be autographed. Ormandy was sitting at a table, signing, barely looking up. No one was talking to him, which I thought was strange.
When I got there, I said, "Mr. Ormandy, I just wanted to tell you I thought you did a very good job." The maestro was startled. I had nothing for him to write on. "Huh?" he said. I repeated myself. He then stood up (all four-foot-ten of him), embraced me, and thanked me as though he'd never been complimented in his life.
The next time, I guess, was for Horowitz, who sat on a couch, sphinx-like. The boy ahead of me was Asian. Horowitz said, "Japanese?" The boy nodded. Horowitz beamed as though he had just formulated the theory of relativity. To me he said nothing.
Then there was Mstislav Rostropovich, perhaps the most ebullient spirit in music, a man who kisses everyone he encounters without restraint. His nickname, in the Russian fashion, is "Slava." Some call him "Saliva."
But mainly I remember Alicia de Larrocha, my pianist hero, who turned out to be a shrew and a half. I adored her. She came to town one year with another Spaniard, the soprano Victoria de los Angeles, for a duo recital. About the singer -- and her art -- I cared nothing. In fact, I resented her very participation in the evening.
After the final encore, I hurried back, excited to greet de Larrocha. She was standing between two men -- management, probably -- with a highball in her hand. I stood before her for what seemed an eternity. It took a tremendous act of will for her to ignore me.
As I made for the door, stung and angry, I heard an Eh! from the other end of the room. It was, of course, de los Angeles, who had witnessed the entire scene. This enchanting woman -- redolent of sweet sweat and makeup and perfume -- beckoned me, murmured something tender, and stroked my face. I floated out (still ticked, though).
It was in Newark -- which, don't laugh, has a superb hall and a lively musical life -- that I first met Leontyne Price. I had been sitting down in the front left, and, as I was exiting, I found that I was practically at the greenroom door. Why not?
The room, as always, was presided over by Price's manager, her brother, the retired Army general George Price. Gen. Price is a remarkable man: a rough-talking, rigid-backed soldier with a golden heart and an ample knowledge of music. He once commanded divisions; now he commands -- with equal dignity -- his sister's Kleenex, bottled water, and lipstick.
My brief conversation with the diva was . . . well, sublime. Since then, I have accosted her whenever possible. Particularly nice was Chapel Hill, where Price performed shortly after I'd gotten married. When I introduced her to my wife, her eyes widened, and she said -- with Mississippi heavy in her voice -- "Why, hello, pumpkin!" I've been saying, "Hello, pumpkin," to my wife ever since (which, needless to say, is making her homicidal).
Price is in her seventies now -- fulfilled, laureled, triumphant. She can't go on forever (as I've been saying for at least 15 years). Last week, she gave a master class at Howard University. She was, simply, everything she is: smart, haughty, sly, grand, impossibly musical.