My Dinner With Leonard Bernstein

At Home in Connecticut, Legendary Conductor Was Also a Maestro of Table Talk

Viva Las Bernstein Unlike some of today’s conductors, Leonard Bernstein refused to shill in commercials.
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Viva Las Bernstein Unlike some of today’s conductors, Leonard Bernstein refused to shill in commercials.

By Benjamin Ivry

Published November 20, 2013, issue of November 22, 2013.
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Although marred by unexplained omissions and bowdlerizations, the publication of “The Leonard Bernstein Letters” brought to mind a dinner I attended at Bernstein’s Fairfield, Conn., home around 30 years ago. Unlike the interviewer, Jonathan Cott, author of “Dinner With Lenny: The Last Long Interview With Leonard Bernstein,” I did not ask the maestro any portentous metaphysical questions. I did not ask any questions at all — I was there as a friend of a friend, to look and listen.

Early in the evening, Bernstein told me that I looked exactly like a physician he knew, and that I even smiled the same way as his doctor friend. This cast me in the somewhat uneasy role of diagnostic observer for the rest of the get-together. There was plenty to listen to, since Bernstein verbalized everything in life, never letting anything speak for itself, least of all music. His personality and music-making encompassed all the apparent contradictions, from the intellectual refinement of his performances of orchestral versions of Beethoven string quartets and Haydn symphonies to pugilistic performances with New York aggressivity of symphonies by Albert Roussel and Carl Nielsen.

After such performances, as in his much-publicized renditions of Mahler, Bernstein would be drenched in sweat, breathless and staggering, like John Garfield at the end of a boxing movie.

Bernstein was rather more relaxed at the dinner in question, which occurred right after the Houston premiere of his opera “A Quiet Place” and his recording of Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde.” Bernstein seemed ultra-aware of every critical slight to his musicianship. Some derided his self-identification with compositions as an insertion of his own ego into musical pieces, even claiming that when Bernstein conducted Mahler’s Eighth Symphony, and the chorus sang “Veni Creator Spiritus” (“Come, Creator Spirit”), it sounded like “Lenny, Creator Spiritus.”

On that night, despite copious food and drink — Bernstein continuously smoked and drank whiskey — he remained in a seemingly vulnerable mood, although the spectacle of him voraciously and noisily devouring corn on the cob did at least divert the other guests. After the meal, which included a variety of wines and a rich dessert, Bernstein continued the conversation while standing next to his chair; he leaned on it for support as he did a series of balletic pliés, perhaps to aid digestion.


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