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Dinner with Lenny: The Last Long Interview with Leonard Bernstein

Jonathan Cott's story of a day spent with Bernstein shows an energetic, gifted musician who was determined not to limit himself.

By Jonathan Rosenberg / January 22, 2013

Dinner with Lenny By Jonathan Cott Oxford University Press 192 pp.

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"Don't expect miracles and don't get depressed if nothing happens for a while. That's NY." The advice was offered by composer Aaron Copland to a young Leonard Bernstein soon after Bernstein moved to New York in 1942. Within a year, Artur Rodzińkski, the music director of the New York Philharmonic, had chosen Bernstein to become his assistant. "I have gone through all the conductors I know... and I finally asked God whom I should take, and God said, `Take Bernstein.'"

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Apparently, the Lord knew a thing or two about music. Three months after his appointment in November 1943, Bernstein made his conducting debut with the Philharmonic, replacing the ailing Bruno Walter, a celebrated maestro, on a few hours' notice. There was no time to rehearse for the Sunday afternoon performance, and Bernstein was hung over, anyway – the result, he recalled, of "carrying on like mad" at a reception the previous night. 

Bernstein's enormously successful debut with the Philharmonic is now legendary as his colossal talent carried him through the afternoon concert, which was broadcast across the country. Later, Bernstein claimed to remember none of it, from the time he strode onto the stage until he walked off. "It was all a dream." But one of the orchestra's violinists remembered the performance, calling him "the most extraordinary musician" he'd ever met. Even the orchestra cheered. 

More than 40 years later, in 1989, toward the end of Bernstein's illustrious career, Jonathan Cott, a contributing editor at Rolling Stone and the author of numerous books, had the opportunity to interview the maestro at Bernstein's country house in Connecticut. And make no mistake: the conductor did not squeeze him in for 15 minutes on a busy day. Cott was there for 12 hours, listening, drinking, eating, and, by the sound of it, having a heck of a time. As one might imagine, Bernstein was good company, whether he was singing along to one of his old recordings, filling your vodka glass, profanely slamming Richard Nixon, or discussing music.

Beyond his extraordinary skill as a conductor, what was always most compelling about Bernstein – and Cott's volume vividly conveys it – was a boundless energy and a resolute unwillingness to limit himself to leading the world's great orchestras. He would not be like Toscanini, he declared, "studying and restudying the same fifty pieces of music. It would bore me to death."

There was more to life than standing on a podium interpreting Beethoven and Brahms. Despite his gifts as a conductor, Bernstein wanted to compose for Hollywood, play the piano, teach, and write books and poetry. "I want to keep on trying to be, in the full sense of that wonderful word, a musician," he said.

And the 12 hours Cott spent with the aging artist reveal the fullness of Bernstein's life. Cott's volume is no recounting of "my favorite pieces" or "great violinists I have known." Instead, Bernstein hops from subject to subject, reflecting on matters large and small. We hear about child psychology, the bomb's impact on our collective psyche, religious faith, and even a bit on Lenny and love.

Musing on a recent breakup after he had met someone new, Bernstein tells Cott that the "reaction was so beautiful and so understanding. And when I love somebody, I love them forever." And then there was the time Alma Mahler, the composer's elderly widow, tried to seduce Bernstein at New York's Hotel Pierre. "She tried to get me in bed," he recalled.

Most rewarding, of course, are Bernstein's reflections on music. Composers, he tells Cott, steal from each other all the time. It's unconscious, of course, but it means that "all music is tied up together!" It is fascinating to hear Bernstein discuss how Mozart approached his craft, melding the musical formulas of the classical period with a remarkable creative imagination. As for conducting, when a concert went well, that, too, was a creative act. In leading an orchestra in another composer's work, Bernstein explains, "I have the feeling that I'm inventing it for the very first time."

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 teaches American history at Hunter College and the CUNY Graduate Center.

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