Reviewed: Dinner with Lenny - the Last Long Interview with Leonard Bernstein by Jonathan Cott

There is a place for us.

Dinner with Lenny: the Last Long Interview with Leonard Bernstein
Jonathan Cott
Oxford University Press, 208pp, £16.99

Leonard Bernstein was possibly conservative America’s least likely classical music poster boy. The son of Ukrainian Jews, he was promiscuous, a heavy drinker and a chainsmoker. Lenny, as he was always known, burst on to the music scene in the 1940s seemingly ready-made – a formidable composer and conductor. His timing was perfect, for he was to become an influential voice in a period of conflict and calamity, busily convincing the world of music’s powers of salvation. He was there at the fall of the Berlin Wall to conduct Beethoven; there in the concert halls premiering his astounding orchestral music; there on Broadway composing modern classics such as West Side Story. Bernstein was a man unbounded by the stuffy traditions of the orchestra, possessed of a keen mind and a proselytiser’s zeal.

Bernstein’s orchestral debut in 1943 has gone down in musical history. The young conductor stood in at the last moment for the indisposed Bruno Walter. After Bernstein strode on to the platform to conduct the New York Philharmonic, one of the world’s orchestral behemoths, something magical happened. Long-toothed players in their fifties and sixties, who saw him as a “snotnose”, stood to applaud their conductor at the end of the concert – a gig that, Bernstein later confessed, he had no memory of, from the opening notes until he heard the audience going wild at the close.

Immediately, Bernstein became a force of nature, dominating the American music scene and giving televised lectures that electrified audiences in the English-speaking world and beyond, screened in more than 40 countries. No one had ever talked so passionately about orchestral music. Thanks to Bernstein, a generation of kids raised on pop and rock began to talk about and love the work of Stravinsky and Beethoven.

Jonathan Cott’s new book captures a wonderfully atmospheric dinner à deux that took place in 1989, a year before Lenny’s death. By then, the old warhorse, in his seventies, had retired but he still burned with fire in his belly and a desire to argue and expound.

Cott, a contributing editor at Rolling Stone magazine and author of more than 16 books, mostly on the 20th century’s great musicians, was given the once-over by the maestro and approved. The 12-hour conversation that followed at Bernstein’s home in Fairfield, Connecticut, is a revelation. Through predinner drinks, a meal served by Bernstein’s assistant and manyvodkas drunk late into the night, Lenny talks with astonishing directness about music, politics, life after death, education and not a little about sex.

He smokes and sings as he plays a selection of his beloved records, getting hot under the collar while talking of the sudden close of Sibelius’s First Symphony: “Two Chords. That’s it . . . as if to say, ‘Fuck you, if you don’t like it, go home’ . . . Very 20th century.” In Beethoven’s musical surprises and shocks, he hears: “A left to the jaw, a right hook to the body!” On Wagner, he is characteristically pithy: he was “always in a psychotic frenzy . . . a madman, a megalomaniac.”

The erotic power of art was always what drove Bernstein and one of the reasons many criticised his highly emotional and theatrical performances. Bernstein’s hyper-personal style was regarded in some quarters as unseemly and in bad taste, not least by the arch-modernist conductor and composer Pierre Boulez, who unsurprisingly comes under fire here. He is dismissed by Bernstein as “trivial and not to be discussed”. Boulez, he declares, “is just intellectualising”.

For Lenny, art was personal and music and sex were always utterly inseparable. He tells Cott of the love affair that was ignited when he first played the keyboard, saying: “I was ten when I touched those piano keys . . . That was before I could get a hard-on.” Mahler is “impregnating” his audience; Michael Jackson was such an exciting musician that Bernstein felt he must kiss him fully on the lips; writing music is “as if the composer were being made love to by a divine essence”.

It was the same life force that sent Bernstein off to Studio 54, dancing to Donna Summer, bare-chested under his black biker jacket, immediately after performing Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony with the New York Philharmonic.

What Cott has achieved, through this final interview, is to make all of this come vividly to life – to make Lenny speak and sing again. It’s not always a book for the general reader and there is, unapologetically, a lot of learned talk about music here. But Bernstein wanted to reach out to people by celebrating his subject and he expected his audience to rise up and meet him there, together scaling the heights of music and culture.

It’s been said that if you remember an evening with Lenny, you weren’t really there. The genius of Cott’s book is not only to remember but to recall with pinpoint accuracy and sympathy the flame of Leonard Bernstein that burned so brightly and so true.

Suzy Klein is a presenter on BBC Radio 3

Leonard Bernstein in 1975. Photograph: Getty Images

This article first appeared in the 01 April 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Special Issue

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Britain's diversity crisis starts with its writers. Here's why

What happens on the casting couch draws the headline, but the problem starts on the page, says James Graham. 

I’m a playwright and screenwriter, which – pertinent to the issues we’ll be discussing in this enquiry – still feels weird to say. I get embarrassed, still, saying that, in a taxi or hairdressers. I don’t know why I still carry that insecurity about saying I’m a writer, but I do, because it sounds like I’m lying, even in my own head.

Obviously I’m completely biased, and probably overstating the influence and importance of my own profession, but I think so many of the problems surrounding lack of representation in the performing arts start with writers.

If we aren’t encouraging and generating writers from certain communities, classes or backgrounds to tell their stories, to write those roles, then there’s not going to be a demand for actors from those communities to play them. For casting agents or drama schools to prioritise getting diverse actors on stage. We need to create those plays and TV dramas –like the ones that I grew up with. I didn’t have any access to much theatre until I was fifteen, but I did have Boys From the Black Stuff, and I did have Cracker, and I did have Band of Gold. I think the loss of those regional producing bodies – Central, Granada – now all completely centralised into London, means that we just tell less of those stories. I remember a TV show called Boon – anyone? – which was set in Nottingham, and I would see on the TV streets I’d walked down, and think, Oh my God, that actor is walking down a street I’ve walked down. That sounds like it’s insignificant. If you’re from a town that is deprived, that feels ignored, it isn’t.

I was very lucky that at my school (which was, at the time, the largest comprehensive school in the country), from the headmaster down to the drama teachers, everyone just believed that working class kids should do plays. Be in plays, read plays, perform plays to the community. Both inside the curriculum of the school day, and outside it – drama teachers dedicating their time to staying behind. Our head of drama identified a group of us who clearly had a passion for it. We weren’t likely thesps. One lad’s entire family were made unemployed when the pit closed. Many lived on the big council estate. My parents and step-parents worked respectively in warehouses, the local council, or as the local window cleaner (incidentally, my first real job. Which I was terrible at).

Our drama teacher was encouraged and determined enough to launch the first ever Drama A-Level in our school. Based on that, about 10 or 12 of us got the confidence – or arrogance – to take our own show to the Edinburgh Festival. We were 16 or 17, and the first people in our community to ever go to visit the festival. We did a play up there, and after that, a psychological unlocking happened, where I thought: maybe I could do a degree in drama (it was the first time I had ever thought to do so) at university (the first in my family to go. Well, joint-first. My twin sister went on the same day, but I walked into my digs first).

I enrolled in drama at Hull University. A high proportion of my peers were middle class. A higher proportion from London or the South East. They talked often about institutions I had never heard of. They were talking about the National Theatre: I didn’t know we had a national theatre that my parents had been paying tax for that I had never been to. Many had performed with the (again, apparently) ‘National’ Youth Theatre, also in London. Paul Roseby, also on this panel, has made such leaps forward in getting the NYT producing in regional venues, and making auditions possible for people across the UK, but unfortunately, at the time, that wasn’t the case for me – and I was the ideal candidate to be in the National Youth Theatre.

I started writing because I had the confidence after I read texts by people like Jim Cartwright, Alan Bennett, John Godber, Alan Ayckbourn: Northern writers, working class writers that made me think it wasn’t just something that other people do.

After returning home, and working at local theatres, I moved down to London. I had to. The major new writing producers are there. All the TV companies are there. The agents are there. I was lucky to find support in a pub fringe theatre – though the economics meant there was no money to commission, so I wrote plays for free for about four years, that would get produced, and reviewed in the national press, while I worked various jobs in the day and slept for a time on a mate's floor. The first person to ever pay to commission me to write a play was Paul Roseby of the National Youth Theatre. I’m now very lucky to be earning a living doing something I love. In a way, compared to actors, or directors, it’s easier for writers who don’t come from a background that can sustain them, financially, in those early years. Your hours can be more flexible. Yes, it was annoying to miss rehearsals because I had a shift in a call centre, but it was still possible to do it. If you’re an actor or director, you’re fully committed. And if you’re doing that for nothing, there starts to be cut-off point for those from backgrounds who can’t.

I’m sure that local and regional theatres are the key to drawing in talent from less privileged backgrounds. But the range of national arts journalism that cover work outside London has been so significantly reduced. In our little echo chamber a few weeks ago, we theatre types talked about Lyn Gardner at the Guardian. Her coverage has been cut, which is very directly going to affect her ability to cover theatre shows outside of London – and so the self-fulfilling cycle of artists leaving their communities to work exclusively in London takes another, inevitable, turn.

I am culpable in this cycle. I have never done a play at the Nottingham Playhouse, my local producing house growing up – why? Because I’ve never submitted one, because I know that it will get less national press attention. So I just open it in London instead. That’s terrible of me. And I should just bite the bullet and say it doesn’t matter about the attention it gets, I should just go and do a story for my community. And if I, and others, started doing that more, maybe they will come.

I also want to blame myself for not contributing back to the state schools that I come from. I really really enjoy going to do writing workshops with kids in schools, but I would say 90 per cent of those that I get invited to are private schools, or boarding schools, or in the South of England. Either because they’re the ones that ask me, because they’re the ones who come and see my shows in London and see me afterwards backstage, or because they have the confidence to email my agent, or they have the budget to pay for my train ticket. Either way, I should do more. It would have helped the younger me so much to meet a real person, from my background, doing what I wanted to do.

I don’t know how to facilitate that. I take inspiration from Act for Change, creating a grassroots organisation. I know that there is a wealth of industry professionals like me who would, if there was a joined-up structure in place that got us out there into less privileged communities, we would on a regular basis go to schools who don’t get to meet industry professionals and don’t unlock that cultural and psychological block that working class kids have that says, that is not for me, that is something that other people do, I would dedicate so much of my time to it. That’s just one idea of hopefully better ones from other people that might come out of this enquiry.

James Graham is a playwright and screenwriter. This piece is adapted from evidence given by James Graham at an inquiry, Acting Up – Breaking the Class Ceiling in the Performing Arts, looking into the problem of a lack of diversity and a class divide in acting in the UK, led by MPs Gloria De Piero and Tracy Brabin.