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

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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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Putting the “savage” back in Sauvignon Blanc

This grape is so easily recognised that it might as well wear a name tag, but many varieties are brasher and bolder than you'd expect.

I was once the life’s companion of a man who was incapable of remembering names. This should have bothered him but he’d grown used to it, while I never could. At gatherings, I would launch myself at strangers, piercing the chatter with monikers to pre-empt his failure to introduce me. I was fairly sure that it was the other person’s name he couldn’t remember but I couldn’t discount the possibility that he had forgotten mine, too.

In wine, the equivalent of my bellowing is Sauvignon Blanc. This grape is so easily recognised that it might as well wear a name tag: it tastes of grass, gooseberry, asparagus and, occasionally, cats’ pee. The popularity of its New Zealand incarnation is probably partly a result of that cosy familiarity – which is ironic, given that “Sauvignon”, harking back to its evolution from wild grapes in France, comes from the French for “savage”. Never mind: evolved it has. “Wine is the most civilised thing we have in this world,” wrote the 16th-century author Rabelais, and he was born in the Touraine, where the gently citrusy Sauvignon makes an excellent aperitif, so he should know.

New World Sauvignons are often brasher and bolshier. It is likely that Rabelais’s two best-known heroes – Gargantua, who is born yelling, “Drink! Drink! Drink!” and whose name means “What a big gullet you have”, and Pantagruel, or “thirsting for everything” – would have preferred them to the Touraines. They work well with spice and aromatics, as Asian-fusion chefs have noticed, while the most elegant Loire Sauvignons, Sancerre or Pouilly-Fumé, make fine matches for grilled white fish or guacamole – in fact, almost anything enhanced by lemon. In Bordeaux, where whites principally blend Sauvignon and Sémillon, the excellent Dourthe is entirely the former; 9,000 miles away in Western Australia, Larry Cherubino makes a rounded Sauvignon in a similar style.

Many variations but one distinctive flavour profile – so I thought I was safe asking my best friend, an unrepentant wine ignoramus, whether she liked Sauvignon. Her shrug spurred an impromptu tasting: Guy Allion’s quaffable Le Haut Perron Thésée 2014, from Rabelais’s Touraine; a Henri Bourgeois Pouilly-Fumé Jeunes Vignes; and Greywacke Wild Sauvignon from Kevin Judd. Judd, who was largely responsible for making New Zealand whites famous when he worked for Cloudy Bay, is now putting the savage back in Sauvignon using naturally occurring (“wild”) yeasts that make the wine rich and slightly smoky but are not, by his own admission, terribly easy to control. This was the most expensive wine (£28, although the Wine Society sells it for £21.50) and my friend loved it.

She had expected to prefer the French wines, on the slightly dubious basis that she is Old World: of Anglo-Danish stock, with a passion for Italy. Yet only familiarity will tell you what you like. This is why bars with long lists of wines by the glass provide the best introduction. A favourite of mine is Compagnie des Vins Surnaturels, a Covent Garden joint run by two women, the sommelier Julia Oudill and the chef Ilaria Zamperlin. If the menu – scallops with Worcestershire sauce, croque-madame with truffled ham and quail egg – is delicious, the wine list is fabulous, with at least ten whites and ten reds at 125ml, with prices ascending into the stratosphere but starting at £6.

There are usually a couple of French Sauvignons, although many bottles still don’t name the grapes and the winemaker Didier Dagueneau (the “wild man of Pouilly”), whose wines feature here, preferred the old Sauvignon name Blanc Fumé. Thank goodness Sauvignon, despite its reputed savagery, has the manners to introduce itself so promptly: one sip, and you can move on to the congenial task of getting to know one another.

Next week: Felicity Cloake on food

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war