Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev called on intellectuals yesterday to "light a fire" under politicians in the United States and the Soviet Union and for leaders of both countries to keep step with "the profound sentiments among the people" to improve Soviet-American relations.

Appearing at the Soviet Embassy before an eclectic audience of American authors, statesmen, actors, activists, clerics and academics, Gorbachev spoke with great candor and vitality about the Soviet Union's economic stagnation and the failure in the past of the two countries to create a "new relationship."

Although he seems to have established a constructive relationship with President Reagan, Gorbachev said, "I feel we should really ponder whether we might not be lagging behind the sentiments, the feelings of our peoples, because those sentiments are certainly in favor of the two countries and peoples drawing closer together."

Before the summit began, the word in Moscow was that the general secretary would try to appeal to the American people "over the head" of Reagan. His energetic performance at the embassy appeared to embody those promises.

With enthusiasm and approval, Gorbachev read a letter from an American teen-ager asking world leaders to "build a world of responsibility as if our lives depended on it. And as if we are indeed one human family."

Gorbachev seemed to want to emphasize a populist image, saying, "What we need now is a policy that could express the mood of the people." He asked intellectuals -- the "yeast" of society -- to give voice to sentiments of interdependence.

Gorbachev called the letter by 17-year-old Emily Holder the work of a "young budding philosopher" and said it represented "something very serious afoot, something very profound."

In a less formal speech than his joint appearances with Reagan earlier in the day, Gorbachev tried to appeal on personal and intellectual levels to influential figures in the room and to the American public. Cable News Network carried most of Gorbachev's speech.

Speaking without notes and using gestures to emphasize points, Gorbachev's manner was reminiscent of several American politicians and orators.

"What were we engaged in up until now?" he said on the subject of U.S.-Soviet relations. "The only thing we were thinking about is how to uphold our own interests, and whoever did it badly was replaced. But it turns out the whole thing should be posed in a different manner. Today, you can only uphold, usefully uphold, your interests if you heed other people's interests, if there is a balance of interests.

"I said to the president today, 'We have begun a very big thing. We are doing a very big thing.' And it's not just a question of the percentages of the weapons we'll be destroying . . . . It's a totally new situation -- that is important. It is the first step towards the elimination of nuclear weapons."

Among the Americans in the audience were former secretaries of state Henry A. Kissinger and Cyrus R. Vance, former secretary of defense Robert S. McNamara, former secretary of commerce Peter Peterson, scientist Carl Sagan, novelists Joyce Carol Oates, Norman Mailer and William Styron, actors Robert DeNiro and Paul Newman, singer John Denver, sovietologist Stephen Cohen, physician and Nobel laureate Bernard Lown, former ambassador to the Soviet Union George Kennan, economist John Kenneth Galbraith and musician and activist Yoko Ono.

Before the speech, Gorbachev told Galbraith that he had read two of his books on economics and told Cohen that he had read with "serious interest" his biography of Nikolai Bukharin, a Bolshevik leader who was executed during Stalin's purges. At one point, the Soviet leader turned to Denver and said, "It's nice to see you talking for a change."

"The thing that impressed me most," Cohen said, "is that he's a man with a great belief in his own power of persuasion."

After the reception, Vance said that Gorbachev "made a good impression." But, he added, "on some things he doesn't understand the United States. I don't think he really understands the United States on the issue of human rights."

According to some of the guests, no one asked Gorbachev a contentious question.

Former Carter administration official Marshall Shulman said after leaving the embassy, "The people I talked to were attracted by his vitality and passion. If he had conducted himself during his NBC interview with Tom Brokaw with the same sense of passion and common-sense argument, he would have been more convincing."

Raisa Gorbachev, who was sitting in the audience with other Soviet dignitaries, also had a chance to charm the American guests. During her husband's appearance, she corrected him on a date. Staff writer David S. Hilzenrath contributed to this report.