Seymour Bernstein might have ranked alongside such classical pianists as Alfred Brendel and Van Cliburn. His recitals were glowingly reviewed and he had a highly supportive patron. Yet, at the significant age of 50, he voluntarily withdrew from the world of public performance to concentrate on teaching.
When it comes to piano technique and music theory, he clearly has much to offer. But he also has insight into how one best pursues an artistic career in general, or at least that is what one future Oscar nominee thought when he happened to meet Bernstein at a dinner party. The music teacher gets a low-key but satisfying ovation in Ethan Hawke’s documentary profile, “Seymour: An Introduction.”
Evidently, Hawke found in Bernstein an empathetic counselor-guru who could well understand his bouts of stage fright and the general career uncertainty that was plaguing him. Perhaps he was also frustrated about that film he had spent over 10 years on, but had yet to come out. Regardless, Bernstein had a knack for saying reassuring things.
In a variety of master classes and private lessons, we observe Bernstein at work. He is indeed a calm and constructive instructor, but also firm and specific. If you have the talent, he will refine it. Should you doubt it, several of his former students, including pianists Joseph Smith and Kimball Gallagher, offer their reminiscences and insights into Bernstein’s lasting influence on their careers.
For his documentary directorial debut, Hawke was not out to rake any muck. While not exactly hagiography, his “Introduction” is unflaggingly nice and polite. Fortunately, Bernstein is a New Yorker (albeit a really pleasant one), whose experienced, down-to-earth personality keeps it all real and grounded.
Anyone who knows pianos will not be surprised to see the prime placement for American Steinway in “Seymour.” As always, their concert models look and sound lovely. It is also cool to see that they still consider Bernstein a Steinway artist 30-some years after his last public performance. Fittingly, Hawke coaxes Bernstein into a return performance in the Steinway Rotunda on 57th Street, which naturally serves as the closing sequence for the film. Obviously, he still has his touch.
“Seymour: An Introduction” has surely received considerably more attention because of Hawke’s involvement than it otherwise would have, but that is a fine way for him to spend some of his accrued “Boyhood” and “Before Midnight” capital in a way that will generate further good will. It is a very refined and civilized film that will probably have a number of viewers checking out YouTube for Bernstein’s original compositions. (He has a number of them posted, including “The Hawke.”)
Respectfully recommended for classical connoisseurs, Hawke fans, and Steinway admirers, the Salingerishly titled “Seymour: An Introduction” opened Friday, March 13, 2015 in New York at the IFC Center.