Dinner with Lenny: the Last Long Interview with Leonard Bernstein
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