Jonathan Cott has made a name for himself as a writer, both with The New York Times and The New Yorker. In addition he's the author of many books, mostly non-fiction. He is a student of music and a serious one; Cott knows his stuff, he can speak intelligently about both music theory and music history and as such, who better to interview Leonard Bernstein?
"Dinner With Lenny" is a long time coming. Originally, Jon Cott was assigned an 8,000 word interview by Rolling Stone Magazine to interview Leonard Bernstein in November of 1989. At that time, no one knew that Cott's interview would be the last. Bernstein was a renowned chain smoker, a liberal drinker and a man who lived a fast energetic life and though common sense said that Bernstein would not live to be as old as Irving Berlin, somehow the man seemed to be as energetic in 1990 as he was in 1935. This energy is captured on the pages of this wonderful new book. Every detail of the twelve hours spent at Bernstein's Connecticut home is documented here so that you feel as though you are there with them.
This is a wonderful read; not a long one, but for many people it's a repeat read: this is not just an interview but a book of philosophy, a book about how to raise children and a book about how to live, love and laugh. There is a Kikuyu saying that when a man dies he takes a library with him. And so is the case with Leonard Bernstein. We must treasure everything he left behind.
Before we go too far into this, it must be clarified that Bernstein rhymes with Burn Mine. This was a serious issue with Leonard Bernstein as many people pronounced it Burn-steen. (in a song Stephen Sondheim wrote for Lenny's 70th birthday, he used his rhyming skills and puzzle skills to make a joke of this. That lyric can be found in Sondheim's "Look, I Made A Hat.")
The first third of Bernstein's brilliance is focused a great deal on children and very young children at that. This makes this book an important document for new parents. The innateness of music in the development of children is critical in allowing them to ease through life transitions. Lenny understands the innate principles in music, art and -subsequently- the baby. Furthermore he had a brilliant grasp of how to ease children through natural traumas of childhood and move toward inner peace. For new parents, this book is critical.
Secondly, anyone who is a Mahler fan or a Mahler hater (there IS no in between) will get a lot more out of this book than someone who doesn't know Mahler. And those who know Mahler and do not care for him will find less in the book- though I by no means discourage the Mahler hater to pass over this book. Bernstein attempted to get into Jonathan Cott's head a great deal; it is a boon to the reader to take the questions Lenny asked of Mr Cott and ponder them for oneself. It is very clear that Mr. Bernstein was entertaining himself at Mr. Cott's expense that day, flexing his mental skills.
Bernstein was a wise man and a brilliant man- two different things. He was verbose, flamboyant and full of love and all of these things come out in this interview and book. I met Bernstein once in the early 80's. As a college pianist at the Berklee College of Music I was hired by Boston Conservatory to play piano for their production of Bernstein's "Mass." This is a highly controversial piece of music for reasons that Bernstein explains in this book. The piece is very difficult (which is why, I hate to say, that the orchestra was comprised largely of Berklee Students.) Bernstein arrived at the first dress rehearsal in a fur coat, patched with different pelts, a pair of jeans high end loafers, no socks while carrying four packs of cigarettes and a flask to appear later. After her was placated by every faculty member in the theatre he took his place to my left at the piano. I mentioned how I preferred a page turner to be to my right and twenty minutes later he told me it was because I failed to utilize the entire stretch of the keyboard. Within two hours, his analysis of me had brought us to the piano on which I learned where most of the notes in the octave above middle C were broken, coupled with my passion for Billy Joel and Beethoven's heavy use of left hand. He refused to move and my introduction to centering myself at middle C would have been better with a less difficult score (Cabaret, South Pacific, Sweet Charity, Funny Girl) but I moved on, catching cues, following singers, accommodating an on sight transposition (for which he said, "good job" with raised eyebrows) dropping beats, adding safety's and making the cast look better than they were while we talked almost constantly. (There was no conductor- I conducted with head cues from the piano and there were only nine of us in the pit.) I learned more in that four hours than in any class I ever took undergrad or grad school. His skill as a teacher of philosophy was as great as his skill as a teacher of music theory. I politely declined, three times over, to join him for a late dinner at his suite at the Sheraton Boston hotel and instead returned to my dorm room, one block closer, at Berklee. I was never certain if his interest in me was as a musician, a nineteen year old boy or an intelligent open mind. If I had to guess, I'd say all three. Everything that I've discussed regarding my own experience comes out in Mr Cott's book with the exception of Mr Cott not being an attractive 19 year old boy.) When Leonard Bernstein died in 1990 I was teaching music for a public school and had to shut my office door to weep in private. Two weeks later, WBUR played a suite from "On The Waterfront" and I cried again.
Jonathan Cott's book brought all of that back to me. I want you all to read this so that you can share what I had. We didn't have dinner, as Cott did (wasted on the vegetarian) but we shared some single malt scotch from his flask, my share poured into my empty cup from Steve's House of Donuts on Boylston street. Bernstein inspired me that day. He inspired me again with "Dinner With Lenny". I hold strong grudges against many of the anti-Semitic composers: Beethoven, Mahler, Wagner (I will not play or listen to Wagner, having read all of his essays including those regarding the "Final Solution" of the Jewish Problems.) Bernstein changed a lyric in Beethoven's Symphony 9 (Freude became Freedom) perhaps to soothe his own issues but I do not need Beethoven or Mahler or Wagner, I have Bernstein, Copland, Randall Thompson, Stephen Sondheim and Adam Guettel. Let Bernstein's recordings of the 9th century be definitive; they sincerely are for the man's passion about life and love, which spilled from the tape recorder of Jonathan Cott onto the pages of "Dinner With Lenny". I left a job interview four yearws later after having answered the question of why I did not conduct using a straight four beat pattern. Years after tendonitis kept my left hand in my pocket and I leanred to conduct with my eyes or a nod and I saw then what Bernstein had learned long before me: the musicians will look for direction, they will transform the passion that you show them and it DOES make a difference in the muysic. Compare recordings of Neville Schuette conducting Samuel Barber's "Adagio For Strings" to Bernstein. It will dispel anything anyone may have told you about Bernstein "showing off" on the podium. After all, many of his recordings didn't show him conducting and absolutely none of his performances showed his front side to his audience. I'm tired of listening to people grouse about this issue.
If Leonard Bernstein brought that much to me in four hours, and this much to Jonathan Cott in twelve hours, I strongly suggest that you buy this book and read it several times over. The man was not just a musician; he was a lover of life. And we need him and this book now more than ever before.
I wish there were more than five stars. Thank you, Jonathan Cott. Thanks Lenny.