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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Counting the ways: what Virgin and Other Stories teaches us about want

April Ayers Lawson’s debut collection is both forensic and mysterious.

The title story of April Ayers Lawson’s debut collection, which won the Paris Review’s Plimpton Prize for Fiction in 2011, begins with a man staring at a woman’s breasts. The breasts belong to Rachel, a recent survivor of breast cancer and a wealthy donor to the hospital where Jake works. His attraction to Rachel grows in tandem with his suspicions about his wife, Sheila, who was a virgin when they married. Jake “thought . . . that she couldn’t wait to lose her virginity to him”. It didn’t turn out like that. Sheila was first horrified by, and then indifferent to, sex. But why does she smile at strange men in the street? Why does she come home so late from orchestra practice? The story ends on the brink of infidelity – but the infidelity is Jake’s own.

“Virgin” is a fitting introduction to the animating question of Lawson’s fiction: who feels what and for whom? The narrator of the second story lists the similarities between her and the two women with whom, at a summer party, she sits in a hammock. “All three of us were divorced or about to be legally so. All three of us were artists . . . All three of us were attractive but insecure and attracted to each other,” she begins. A couple of pages later, this accounting becomes more like a maths puzzle that seems to promise, if only it could be solved, a complete account of each woman and her relation to the others. “Two of us were pale with freckles. Two of us had dark hair and green eyes . . . One of us didn’t talk to her mother and one of our fathers had left and one of our sets of parents had not divorced. . . Two of us had at some point had agoraphobia and all of us had problems with depression . . .” It goes on.

Reading the five stories of Virgin and Other Stories, trying to catch the echoes that bounce between them, I caught myself performing the same move. One story is fewer than ten pages and one more than 60. Two are narrated in the first person and one in a mix of first and third. Two have teenage protagonists and two have young, married protagonists. Two protagonists steal works from a public library. Two stories mention Zelda Fitzgerald. Four contain women who have experienced sexual abuse, or experience it in the course of the story. Four are set partly or wholly in the American South. All five feature characters struggling with powerful and inconvenient desire.

Evangelical Christianity skirts the edges of Lawson’s stories. Her characters are seldom devout but they are raised in an atmosphere of fanatical devotion. The 16-year-old Conner narrates the collection’s funniest story, “The Negative Effects of Homeschooling”. “I saw women only at church,” he says. “Though . . . we went to a progressive church, our women looked the opposite of progressive to me: big glasses and no make-up, long skirts and cropped haircuts. You couldn’t imagine any of them posing naked.” He has “hard-ons ten or 12 times a day”, pores over Andrew Wyeth’s Helga Pictures, is furious about his mother’s intense friendship with a transgender woman and obsesses over a pretty, aloof girl from church. In another story, the 13-year-old Gretchen is fascinated by her piano teacher’s sick brother. Surrounded by people talking in religious platitudes, the two teenagers lack a language for their complicated feelings, re-narrating them as love.

The collection’s last and longest story, “Vulnerability”, suggests that this lasts beyond adolescence. The brutal, joyless sex that takes place near the story’s end is all the more disturbing because of the long, complicated sentences of the 60 preceding pages, in which the narrator tries to make sense of her interactions with two men. By turns she desires them, feels nothing for them and wants them to desire her. Yet brutal though the sex is, its aftermath brings a moment of peace that makes the reader wonder whether she should reconsider her interpretation of what came before. Lawson’s stories, at once forensic and mysterious, show how insistent our wants can be and how hard they are to understand.

Hannah Rosefield is a writer and a doctoral candidate in English at Harvard University.

Virgin and Other Stories by April Ayers Lawson is published by Granta Books, (192pp, £12.99​)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge