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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Attention millennials: we have reached Peak Unicorn

There is a strong current of Nineties nostalgia that blends the ironic celebration of childhood kitsch with wilful self-infantilisation.

If you have been on the internet recently, you may have noticed the unicorns. Social media has become saturated with pastel pinks and blues, sprinkled with glitter and transformed into a land of magical rainbows and prancing, mystical creatures. For adults.

Young women post pictures of themselves with lilac-and-turquoise-tinted “unicorn hair”, or holographic “unicorn nails”, and put up photographs of rainbow-coloured and gold-leafed “unicorn toast”. The beauty industry has something of a unicorn problem, with brands issuing identikit ranges of shimmery, unicorn-themed cosmetics and perfumes with names such as “I Heart Unicorns”. When it comes to millennial commodity capitalism, no depth of unicorn-related paraphernalia has been left unplumbed. You can buy sparkle-laced gin advertised as “Unicorn Tears”, body glitter branded as “Unicorn Snot”, and even a lipstick tinted with “unicorn blood” – which is presumably aimed at the niche market for Goth unicorns.

In the past few weeks, the world has officially reached peak unicorn, following Starbucks’s limited-edition release of the selfie-friendly, Instagram-baiting “Unicorn Frappuccino”. Despite being described by tasters as “the worst drink I have ever purchased in my life”, and “like a combination of the topical fluoride used by dental hygienists and metallic sludge”, pictures of it were shared on Instagram more than 150,000 times in the single week it was available.

But why do unicorns have such seemingly inexhaustible popularity among millennials – many of whom, despite entering their thirties, show no signs of slowing their appetite for a pre-teen aesthetic of prancing ponies and mythical fantasy? Certainly, there is a strong current of Nineties nostalgia at play here – though it seems to be a nostalgia that blends the ironic celebration of childhood kitsch with wilful self-infantilisation. There is something terribly earnest about the language of unicorns; its vocabulary of rainbows and smiles is too embarrassing to sustain genuine irony.

The sickly-sweet copy issued by brands starts to feel unhinged, after a while. (A £28 body “Wish Wash” that tells you “Unicorns are awesome. I am awesome. Therefore I am a unicorn”, anyone? That’s not how logic works and you know it.)

God knows there’s room for a bit of crayon-coloured twee in our dark geopolitical times. And if my generation is to be denied any conventional markers of adulthood, in the absence of affordable homes or secure employment, I’ll cover myself in glitter and subsist on a diet of pink lattes and sugar sprinkles as much as I please. But in our post-truth age of Trump, Brexit, Twitter trolls and the rise of the alt right, advertising that maniacally shouts that “UNICORNS ARE REAL! UNICORNS ARE REAL!” has a flavour of deranged escapism.

Yet maybe there is an element of knowingness in countering the rising tide of global hate and uncertainty with a pretend sparkly magic horse. Perhaps unicorns are a particularly fitting spirit animal for Generation Snowflake – the epithet given to young people who have failed to grow out of their instincts for sensitivity and niceness. Eighties and Nineties kids were raised on cartoons such as My Little Pony, which offered anti-bullying messages and a model of female strength based on empathy and collaboration. By identifying with creatures such as horses, dolphins and unicorns, young girls can express their own power and explore ideas of femininity and fantasy away from the male gaze.

And perhaps these childhood associations have shaped the collective millennial psyche. For the generation that is progressively dismantling the old gender boundaries, unicorn aesthetics aren’t just for women. On Instagram, lumbersexual hipsters show off their glitter beards, while celebrities such as Justin Bieber and Jared Leto rock pastel-tinted dye jobs. Increasingly, young people of all genders are reclaiming styles once dismissed as irretrievably girly – as seen in the present media obsession with “millennial pink”. Pink is now performing the double feat of being both the unabashedly female colour of fourth-wave feminism and the androgynous shade of modern gender fluidity.

Let’s be frank: there are limits to this kind of ideological utopianism. The popularity of unicorn aesthetics and millennial pink is due in no small part to one simple thing: they are eye-catchingly appealing on social media. In an age dominated by visual media, bubblegum shades have the power to catch our attention.

Starbucks knows this. The company has explicitly acknowledged that the Unicorn Frappuccino was “inspired” by social media, knowing well that Instagram users would rush to capture images of the drink and thus giving a spike to their publicity free of charge.

But predictably, with the vagaries of the fashion cycle, Starbucks has killed the unicorn’s cool. The moment that corporate chains latch on to a trend is the moment that trend begins its spiral towards the end – or towards the bargain basement from which it will be redeemed only once it has reached peak naff. Unicorns are now “basic” – the term the internet has given to the rung on the cultural capital ladder that sits between hipster and ignominy.

Yet already the next mythical creature is waiting in the wings for us to pass the time until the inevitable heat death of the universe. If Instagram hashtags are anything to go by, the trend-setters are all about mermaids now.

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Lies

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