'Seymour: An Introduction'

'Seymour: An Introduction' tells of a long and well-spent life
A LIFE IN MUSIC: The Ethan Hawke-directs documentary, 'Seymour: An Introduction,' is an intimate portrait of pianist Seymour Bernstein.

Says the 88 year old piano teacher and composer Seymour Bernstein: "Let us shed our guilt about using the soft pedal." He's talking about specific technique, but the actor Ethan Hawke's winning and wise documentary Seymour: An Introduction has implications beyond the realm of teaching, learning or appreciating music.

The soft pedal is suspect, and not just in classical music. We live in a society that values the fortissimo in the arts—though why pick on the USA? It's always been like that. According to Bernstein, Beethoven rebuked the men at the audience at the debut performance of "Moonlight Sonata" for weeping at what they heard: "Men don't cry!," Beethoven snarled.

Bernstein played classical music internationally. When he was 50, he finally, and gratefully, quit the concert halls in favor of teaching. Hawke's study shows Bernstein preparing for a first recital in decades. Bernstein is physically shaped a little like John Houseman, the producer/actor who used to play New England tyrants. Bernstein is different, though—he demonstrates that artistic firmness doesn't have to be condescending or savage. He handles the students kindly but with insistence—he literally, if apologetically, handles them, feeling their diaphragms to see how they breathe. When this teacher corrects his students, he shows them why he does it. Bernstein is a good story teller; temperate instead of temperamental, watchful of a listener's reactions.

In a kind of sidebar, Bernstein discusses the various personalities of the grand pianos he plays—no two are alike, apparently. This performer, who never got used to performing, has some interesting anecdotes about how other musicians approach the piano. Glenn Gould required a keyboard so elevated that they had to put bricks under the piano's legs. Bernstein has some gossip about Gould: how that odd character was self-aware of the eccentricities that polished his own legend ("I wowed them last night!," Gould allegedly told a pal, after a show where Gould played with crossed feet on the pedals.)

What Bernstein's personal life was, or is, like is something Hawke keeps off the table. The teacher has been living by himself in the same apartment for more almost 60 years. Though he professes solitude, you wonder how a man so able to convey romanticism handled real life romance. Bernstein tells an anecdote of a wealthy female patron smothering him with affection, and how he had to get away, even though she put a Scarsdale mansion at his disposal. Professing serenity in his old age, Bernstein leaves himself some mystery—how did such a prodigy grow up in a household without music of any sort?

To be sure, it's a tender counterpoint to Whiplash, which was all about a veiny, throbbing, tumescent jazz instructor bullying his students bloody. Anyone in any field of artistic endeavor could learn something about their struggles from watching Bernstein's patience, and by listening to his arguments against the importance of fame. The recital scenes are very affecting. Bernstein explains Schumann's Fantasie in C to his listeners, the history of the piece as a gift between a composer and his young wife, and the lack of instructions on how the coda should be played. Fixed on the page, the music is still ready for infinite variation.

I think people weep when they hear this kind of performance, not just from sympathetic emotions but from a bit of frustration from having been denied such a gift. It's a solace, then, to see how well Bernstein handled his own talent.

Sometimes Hawke talks when he ought to listen, and he includes a montage of different kinds of non-classical musicians, from Mahalia Jackson to some unidentified folkies.

Hawke is trying to show the universal quality of song: in the folkies' case, it's available to almost all. That chance to express ourselves and please others, just waiting for us at the ukulele racks at the Guitar Center? It's not quite the same thing as what Bernstein does. Still, from the evidence of an hour and a half in his company, Bernstein is a very unusual man, the kind you rarely encounter—a whole man, with no fissures between his art and his life.


81 MIN, PG

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