Seymour: An Introduction
Seymour: An Introduction , music documentary, rated PG, The Screen, 4 chiles
The name Seymour Bernstein will not ring a bell for most concertgoers, though back in the 1950s and ’60s the musician gained considerable acclaim as a pianist on the rise. But when he was about fifty, as he recounts in the beguiling film Seymour: An Introduction , he arranged a recital at New York’s 92nd Street Y and told nobody — not even his mother — that it would be his farewell concert. “The horror I felt before and during a concert!” he recalls. “I had terrible blocks, physical blocks in my playing, fear of memory slips.” Appalled by the commercial aspect of the music industry, he decided to live his life differently, dedicating himself to pondering music, performing only occasionally — and then away from the spotlight — and teaching students who were interested in becoming something other than the next whiz-bang virtuoso. He is now eighty-eight years old and apparently a very happy man. “I’m not so sure that a major career is a healthy thing to embark upon,” he observes.
The actor Ethan Hawke found himself in Bernstein’s company at a friend’s dinner party. Smitten with this kind, honest, and intriguing gentleman — how could he not be? — he decided to direct this documentary. Hawke predictably inserts himself into the film a few times, confessing that he, too, suffers from stage fright and introducing the pianist at a private recital at Steinway Hall in New York, where one wishes he had pronounced the man’s name correctly: Bern-“stine,” like the conductor (no relation), rather than Bern-“steen.” But mostly this is about Bernstein talking and teaching, sometimes in the one-room apartment he has occupied for 57 years on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, sometimes in the basement of Steinway Hall, where he becomes ecstatic upon discovering a newly completed instrument he finds to be well-nigh perfect — and Bernstein is a man of very high standards. With his pupils he is respectful and compassionate, directing their attention to overlooked details, sharing his enthusiasm for the piano’s una corda pedal (which most players use less than he does), and helping them achieve things they never imagined.
He plays wonderfully, thoughtfully shaping the phrases of the sort of works that become more essential as one grows older: Beethoven’s Op. 110 Sonata, Schumann’s Op. 17 Phantasie, a late Brahms Intermezzo. His life seems inseparable from his music. “The real essence of who we are resides in our talent,” he insists. He projects childlike charm, yet his observations, articulated with logical perfection, are filled with wisdom. “When you reach my age,” he says, “you stop playing games … you just say what is in your heart.”
In tune: Seymour Bernstein and Ethan Hawke