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Review: Dinner with Lenny, By Jonathan Cott

Interview with a maestro

Flamboyant, Zeus-like Leonard Bernstein, the composer, conductor, educator and charismatic polymath who wrote West Side Story and conducted all the world's great orchestras with eloquence and verve, pioneered "crossover" before the term was invented.

He famously disliked press interviews and gave few. But he must have mellowed in the last few months of his life because, in 1989, he agreed to be interviewed by the music journalist Jonathan Cott. In fact, he invited Cott for dinner at his home in Connecticut, where they talked for an astonishing 12 hours. Inevitably, Cott could use only a fraction of the material in the magazine article he was working on. But now, 23 years after Bernstein's death, Dinner with Lenny gives a full account of that conversation, which ranged over Bernstein's life, ideas and opinions.

Bernstein refused adamantly, as Cott puts it, "to compartmentalise and separate his emotional, intellectual, political, erotic and spiritual longings from the musical experience." He argues that tonality is the root of all music, and relates that view to the work of various composers and their working methods: Wagner "always in a psychotic frenzy"; Stravinsky timetabling his day around short sessions of composition; Brahms, Beethoven and Britten composing as they walked. And Mozart's genius, according to Bernstein, lies not in being able to "hear" a whole piece but in being able to foresee the transitional passages within the work.

The son of Ukrainian Jewish parents, Bernstein was born in Massachusetts in 1918. His father ran a successful hair and beauty salon. His precocious musical talent took Bernstein through school and college. A few years of musical odd-jobbing followed before his lucky break: an offer to conduct the New York Philharmonic in Carnegie Hall, at very short notice, because Bruno Walter was ill. The concert was a triumph and the orchestra, who hadn't expected to be led in new, daring directions by a young unknown, stood up and cheered at the end.

Bernstein, who had Hassidic rabbis in his family, thought teaching, explaining and verbalising was in his blood – hence the ground-breaking music education TV programmes he developed from the already established New York Philharmonic Young People's concerts, and his mentoring of young musicians such as Marin Alsop, now a respected international conductor.

Jonathan Cott is gifted at making a discussion – presented in the formatting of a play script, with occasional stage directions – feel like a live recording, while we wander from fascinating reflections about languages, the mystic number seven, and Hitler's effect on 20th-century music, to lovely anecdotes such as the one about Bernstein's late wife washing the eccentric Glenn Gould's hair.