Dinner With Lenny: The Last Long Interview with Leonard Bernstein
2013 nonfiction book by Jonathan Cott
Leonard Bernstein was arguably the most highly esteemed, influential, and charismatic American classical music personality of the twentieth century. Conductor, composer, pianist, writer, educator, and human rights activist, Bernstein truly led a life … see full wiki
"I don't want to spend my life as Toscanini did, studying and restudying the same fifty pieces of music. It would bore me to death. I want to conduct. I want to play the piano. I want to write for Hollywood. I want to keep trying to be, in the full sense of that wonderful word, a musician. I also want to teach. I want to write books and poetry. And I think I can still do justice to them all."
Such were the hopes and aspirations of a very young Leonard Bernstein in an interview given to the New York Times in the early 1940's. Less than a year before Mr. Bernstein's death in 1990 Jonathan Cott was able to conduct a lengthy and wide-ranging interview with the renowned maestro for an article planned for Rolling Stone magazine. The pair spent more than twelve hours together on a late November day at Bernstein's residence at The Dakota in New York City. The Rolling Stone article turned out to be a mere 8 pages long. Jonathan Cott had enough material to write a book. Finally in 2013 Oxford University Press is releasing Cott's long overdue book "Dinner with Lenny: The Last Long Interview with Leonard Bernstein. And it will come as no surprise to most that Leonard Bernstein was one of the most fascinating figures of the 20th Century. What a man!
Being a baby-boomer, I became acquainted with Bernstein via his fabled "Young People's Concerts" which were broadcast on Sunday afternoons in the 1960's. Although I never became much of a classical music buff myself I was always interested to hear what was going on with Leonard Bernstein. My dad was always a huge fan. In "Dinner with Lenny I discovered that Bernstein was one of the most productive creative artists of the 20th century. In the course of his extraordinary career Bernstein won 23 Grammy Awards, nabbed 10 Emmy Awards and was the recipient of 22 honorary degrees. Meanwhile, he was also the author of 5 books and as Jonathan Cott points out both "The Joy of Music" and "The Infinite Variety of Music" continue to be regarded as "two of the most popular and illuminating guides to classical music." And aside from his best known role as conductor of the New York Philharmonic Leonard Bernstein was one of the most prolific recording artists of the 20th century. He made more than 400 audio recordings and as such is the owner of the largest discography of any classical artist. He also wrote shows for the Broadway stage including "West Side Story" and a personal favorite "On the Town". During the course of the interview Bernstein talked about the "art of conducting" and I found his commentary to be quite illuminating indeed. Also, at various points the conversation revolves around a particular piece of music and the pros and cons of playing it a certain way. In this regard I would compare Bernstein to Alfred Hitchcock who had a specific reason for just about everything he did when making a film.
At several points during the extended conversation the subject turned to politics. Personally this is where I part company with the maestro. Bernstein was certainly a free spirit who was unabashedly liberal in his views. For instance, he was a supporter of the ACLU and the Black Panthers. In "Dinner with Lenny" Bernstein offers his opinion on everything from politics to sexuality and on to rock and roll. At one point Jonathan Cott mentions that he was astounded at the man's seemingly "photographic" memory. You may not always agree with Leonard Bernstein but no one could ever accuse him of being boring.
All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed "Dinner with Lenny: The Last Long Interview with Leonard Bernstein" though I must admit that I was somewhat handicapped by my woeful lack of knowledge of classical music. "Dinner with Lenny" is a thoughtful and well-written book that can be enjoyed by classical music aficionados, history buffs and general readers alike. This is time well spent. Very highly recommended!
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