The great classical pianist Seymour Bernstein is as graceful a speaker as he is a musician, and his voice rings out with wondrous depth and clarity in “Seymour: An Introduction.” Although clearly designed as a reverent tribute from one artist to another, this first documentary directed by Ethan Hawke happily sidesteps any vanity-project pitfalls, granting full expression to Bernstein’s wise and witty commentary on a craft that he’s spent decades honing — as well as the proper application of that craft when the demands of art are often outweighed by the pressures of commerce. Acquired by Sundance Selects on the eve of a prestigious fall festival run, this gently moving portrait should be catnip for music buffs and other artistically minded viewers, but Hawke’s involvement and strong reviews could help expand its audience.
Although he’s only onscreen for a few minutes, Hawke does pop up early on to explain how he met Bernstein by chance at a dinner party in Manhattan, where he found that this gentle-voiced and unfailingly perceptive older gentleman seemed to understand him and his career anxieties better than most actors did. A close friendship was born, as the pianist helped coach Hawke through his crippling bouts of stage fright, something Bernstein himself used to struggle with before and during his onstage performances. Ultimately, he concluded that nerves were a good thing, sure evidence of someone who took their art seriously. “Nervousness is part of what we do,” he says, driving the point home with a snarky anecdote about Sarah Bernhardt that builds to a hilariously insightful punchline: “You will get nervous when you learn how to act.”
Still, Bernstein’s ability to master his anxiety wasn’t enough for him to keep subjecting himself to it, and although his performances earned rapturous reviews (“Seymour Bernstein Triumphs at the Piano,” crowed a New York Times headline after his concert debut), he withdrew from the spotlight at age 50 in order to focus on his deeper calling as a teacher and composer. As the now-octogenarian musician looks back on his career in conversation with one of his former students, the pianist and Times writer Michael Kimmelman, Bernstein continually points out how important it is for talented people to take the time to develop their gifts, and how detrimental the temptations of fame and success can be to one’s growth as an artist. (He holds up the late Glenn Gould, “a total neurotic mess,” as a particularly unhealthy example.)
In an entertainment landscape where creative types are now encouraged to brand themselves into social-media superstars before they’ve even had the chance to cultivate an inner life, this is essential, if radical, advice. Still, all that high-minded talk of artistic integrity might have rung hollow were it not for Hawke’s own highly adventurous track record as an actor and filmmaker, and some of it might have sounded unbearably precious coming from a documentary subject less poised, expressive and in command of his words than Bernstein.
But from the opening shot of him practicing a piece in his cozy, book-lined Upper West Side apartment to the touching self-reflection that closes the film, the man is a fount of eloquent wisdom and self-effacing humor (“You’re not allowed to play better than I do,” he tells a student who has just mastered a tricky bit of phrasing). And while “Seymour: An Introduction” builds gradually to Bernstein’s first public recital in 35 years (circa April 2012), we come to understand that every lesson he teaches is itself a sort of performance, striking a careful balance of gentle encouragement, critical acumen and unmistakable showmanship.
For anyone who has studied piano or any other musical instrument, Bernstein’s interplay with his students may bring back fond and occasionally nerve-wracking memories. It’s in these scenes, too, that the unfussy precision and elegance of the filmmaking are most apparent, from d.p. Ramsey Fendall’s nimble coverage and Anna Gustavi’s fluid editing to the all-important sound mix calibrated by Timothy Cleary and Guillermo Pena-Tapia, ensuring that the numerous snippets of Schubert, Chopin and other composers are heard to their best advantage. Hawke may be an unobtrusive presence onscreen, but his exquisite sense of formal judgment, along with his affection for his friend and mentor, permeates every frame.
While this “introduction” hardly counts as a comprehensive biography, Bernstein does occasionally talk about his early years, including his army service in the Korean War (accompanied by archival footage), during which he and others played occasional concerts for their fellow soldiers. Viewers curious to know more about his personal life since may pick up on telling details when Bernstein describes his difficult relationship with his father, who could never fully understand or appreciate his son’s gift, or when he bemoans the reality that society has taught men to “subdue the feminine,” tossing off some particularly robust, aggressively masculine strains of Beethoven to prove his point.
“Let us shed our guilt concerning the use of the soft pedal,” reads the tagline on the movie’s poster, and “Seymour: An Introduction” is nothing if not a paean to understatement — a concept made literal when Bernstein carefully tests one Steinway after another, searching for the most controlled and delicate sound possible. In his calm defense of beauty, craftsmanship, intellectual curiosity and emotional connection as vital human needs, this is one artist who knows he doesn’t have to raise his voice to speak volumes.