Seymour Bernstein, left, and Ethan Hawke. (photo from Ramsey Fendall/Risk Love LLC)
Two kinds of people will fall under the spell of Seymour: An Introduction, Ethan Hawke’s respectful and affectionate study of virtuoso pianist, composer and teacher Seymour Bernstein. Fans of classical music, of course, who will savor this ode to the beauty and craft of solo piano as 81 minutes of heaven. The other audience is anyone who ever wrestled with the pursuit of ambition, the hollowness of material success and the double-edged sword of uncommon talent.
Bernstein had all those things, but commercial pressures and the anxiety of going on stage whittled away the pleasure of playing concerts. At 50, he retired from public performance to compose and teach.
He had been aware for awhile, however, that he was unable to harmonize his career with the experience. After his celebrated 1969 performance at Alice Tully Hall in New York, he told the friend hosting the reception, “If you love me, you’ll never let me play in public again.”
To his friends, Bernstein is a mentor, philosopher and guru of how to attain satisfaction amid the vicissitudes of a life spent creating ephemeral art. Presumably that’s why Hawke, an actor and novelist, was moved to expose Bernstein’s hard-earned wisdom to a wider audience (without adding much in the way of inspired and/or distracting artistic flourishes).
Seymour: An Introduction opened March 20 for what will likely be a short run. That shouldn’t be interpreted as further evidence of the death of civilization, mind you, for classical compositions haven’t been America’s popular music since Elvis left Memphis.
Most of the film’s running time is devoted to the longtime Manhattan resident working with students and engaged in conversation, notably with the New York Times architecture critic and pianist Michael Kimmelman.
Bernstein is an astute teacher, and he’s exceedingly articulate on the subjects of music, discipline and education. But somewhere past the midpoint of the film he begins to seem less avuncular and more pedantic.
That stems, in part, from his willingness to talk about certain things – that we sense he’s expounded on countless times – while avoiding other subjects. There’s a clear limit to how much he’s going to reveal about himself, and how vulnerable he’ll be in front of the camera. He likes being revered, but on his terms.
All Bernstein says about his New Jersey upbringing is that there was no music in the house, and that his family didn’t own any records. He still bridles at the memory of his father’s perennial joke – “I have three daughters and a pianist” – as evidence that his old man couldn’t relate to him.
Perhaps it is this separateness, imposed on great talents by mere mortals, that pained Bernstein throughout his decades as a concert pianist. If so, why doesn’t this lifelong bachelor mention a single romantic relationship? Isn’t that an important element of living a satisfying life?
The one person who does merit his affection is the late, great English-Jewish pianist Sir Clifford Curzon, with whom Bernstein studied. That recollection has a self-serving coda, though, namely that Bernstein wrote a letter out of the blue to Queen Elizabeth that presumably contributed to Curzon receiving a knighthood.
That said, Bernstein is the teacher that everyone covets – knowledgeable, experienced, appreciative, precise, encouraging and invested. If you’re still recovering from the bark and bite of J.K. Simmons’ Oscar-winning turn in Whiplash, Seymour: An Introduction is the perfect balm.
Seymour: An Introduction is rated PG for some mild thematic elements.
Michael Fox is a writer and film critic living in San Francisco.