Dinner with Lenny: The Last Long Interview with Leonard Bernstein Hardcover – Jan 22 2013
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"'Unlike almost any other classical performer of recent times, Leonard Bernstein adamantly, and sometimes controversially, refused to compartmentalize and separate his emotional, intellectual, political, erotic and spiritual longings from the musical experience,' Jonathan Cott writes in Dinner With Lenny: The Last Long Interview with Leonard Bernstein. Mr. Cott, a contributing editor at Rolling Stone, then delivers exactly what his title promises, though dinner turns out to be an understatement. It is like referring to a chef's tasting menu as fast food."--Sam Roberts, The New York Times
"Perhaps the most memorable tale in this altogether readable book is offered by Cott. After hearing Bernstein conduct Beethoven's Ninth at Carnegie Hall with the Vienna Philharmonic in 1979, the author and a friend walked down to Studio 54, the late-night place to be in those days. Out on the packed dance floor, Cott was bumped from behind. When he turned to see who had crashed into him, it was, yes, Bernstein, 'wildly dancing--bare-chested under a black leather jacket.' No question about it, Lenny was determined to live large. And if you want to know what happened with Alma at the Hotel Pierre, you'll have to read the book."
--Jonathan Rosenberg, The Christian Science Monitor
"If Leonard Bernstein tested the limits of pressing the conductor's own personality into the score, he was, as a musician with a world conscience, Toscanini's successor. The political, free-associating liberated spirit comes through lyrically in Jonathan Cott's Dinner With Lenny: The Last Long Interview With Leonard Bernstein." --Peter Dobrin, Philadelphia Inquirer
"Dinner with Lenny is surprisingly captivating...there is something charming about the dialogue between the two men that makes the reader want to keep reading."
--Amanda Mark, New York Journal of Books
"Jonathan Cott has an extraordinary gift for getting interesting people, especially musicians, to energetically, informatively and entertainingly speak about their personal insights into music and many other matters, near and far. Read this book and see for yourself."
--Steve Reich, composer
"Jonathan Cott captures the ebullience; the enormous brilliance; and the life affirming joy that exuded from Leonard Bernstein. I could feel myself once again at the table with Bernstein, where topics, puns and postulates blazed!"--Marin Alsop, Music Director, Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, and Chief Conductor, São Paolo Symphony Orchestra
About the Author
Jonathan Cott is the author of sixteen previous books, including Conversations with Glenn Gould; Stockhausen: Conversations with the Composer; Dylan (A Biography); and Back To A Shadow In The Night: Music Writings and Interviews - 1968-2001. A contributing editor at Rolling Stone since the magazine's inception, Cott has also written for The New York Times and The New Yorker. He lives in New York City.
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This interview should be required reading for lovers of music as well as anyone who takes pleasure in seeing the mind of a genius at work. Here are some of my favorite of his comments/opinions. Richard Nixon was the greatest crook of all time. During the Reagan years, "we had eight lovely, passive, on-our-backs, status quo, don't make-waves years." The most exciting thing that has happened in Bernstein's lifetime is the fall of the Berlin Wall. "Unless you have an enemy, there's no way to live. We must have a war economy or we have no economy."
We must have active rather than passive listeners of music. Bernstein tells of the composer Virgil Thomson falling asleep and snoring audibly during a performance and then writing a review of-- what he didn't hear I suppose-- the next day.
Finally in what has to be the most moving section of the interview Mr. Bernstein gives his views on life after death, saying that the "you-ness goes on. I will swear that Felicia [his deceased wife] is with me a lot. . . though not in her shape. I am frequently visited by a white moth or a white butterfly. . . And I know it's Felicia. I remember that when she died, her coffin was in our living room in East Hampton. . .and just a few of us were there. . . Everyone was absolutely silent. And then this white butterfly flew in from God knows where--it just appeared from under the coffin and flew around, alighting on everybody in the room--on each of the children, on the rabbi, on the priest, on her brother-in-law and two of her sisters, on me. . . and then it was gone. . . through there was nothing open."
It is worth reading this interview for the above paragraph alone.
A great part of the interview is devoted to Mahler (of course), and this is fitting since Bernstein was enamored of Mahler, even being buried with a copy of Mahler's 5th Symphony on his breast. Here Bernstein offers food for thought for even the most unschooled of listeners, and even as one who is no expert in Mahler, I found his reflections and interpretations compelling. (There is a compelling performance of Mahler's Fifth on Youtube, conducted by Leonard Bernstein.)
Bernstein was nothing if not opinionated, and as a teacher, I especially found his educational philosophy appealing. Bernstein was interested in the democratization of classical music, making it accessible to all, and seemed to hold a special interest in educating the underprivileged. I have no doubt that, were Bernstein alive today, he would smile at the notion of inner-city youth invited to fill the empty seats of the Minnesota Orchestra Hall (conducted by Osmo Vänskä, renowned for his interpretations of Beethoven), or poor Midwesterners invited to experience a superb performance by the Philadelphia Orchestra (my own introduction to the world of classical music.)
This book is but a brief taste of the richness of a great composer, but its brevity lends to its digestibility. Cott interviews Bernstein for twelve hours, and when he requests one more question at two-thirty in the morning, Bernstein responds with, "You're sure it's just one more?" Bernstein senses the end of the interview just as the reader senses the end of the book. Like a Christmas pudding, the book is best as a small portion. Thankfully, Cott realizes this, and the end result is a readable, enriching interview with one whose name will be remembered as a great conductor and composer. Long live the memory of 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.
I will highlight some of the conversations that I found more interesting (spoiler alert!): the book stresses Bernstein's facet as a teacher, at all levels. "Teaching, he once said in his lecture 'A Tribute to Teachers,' is probably the noblest profession in the world - the most unselfish, difficult, and honorable profession. It is also the most unappreciated, underrated, underpaid, and underpraised profession in the world." Interesting comments (and so current!) considering how teaches are unfairly bashed left and right today. The book has also a lot of Jewish culture. I am an ignorant of it, so I won't comment much, but I actually learned a great deal of it, and became more interested. It is actually very interesting to read about his experiences with the Vienna Philharomic, and his trip to Israel with them, for example. The book talks also Bernstein's pacifist side: "we were living under the thumb of Richard Nixon, one of the greatest crooks of all time." Then he talks about his relationship with Mahler (or Mahler's wife), with Boulez (not that good), with Stravinsky, with Karajan, who asked him to take over his leadership of the Berliner PHilarmoniker, although he refused.
The book is filled with great moments, where the conversation takes off and takes us the reader to great places. It is clear again that Cott was very well prepared, but it is not unsurprising that Leonard Bernstein spell is beyond imagination. He knows practically about anything. I was absolutely amazed by the end of the book to read his knowledge of Cadaqués, Dali's town, the Catalan sardanes, Girona, showing a profound knowledge of the musics and people of the world, with an analytical eye that only the top can provide.
I strongly recommend this book to anybody who is fond of music in general, but especially of those who are classic music fans, and particularly those who enjoy Bernstein¡s art. You will find many threads to follow, and much more music to discover.
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