Songs without End
Selected for the festivals of Telluride, Toronto and New York, Seymour: An Introduction is still passing too low on public and publicity radar. This first documentary from Ethan Hawke is, like its subject, too quiet for its own good and for the masses: like that same subject, the eighty-one minutes disdains noisy hype.
Novelist, screenwriter, film and stage director, actor and quester Hawke was going through a five-year patch of insecurity-stage fright-performance anxiety when by chance, or divine design, he found himself dinner-party seated next to Seymour Bernstein. A twinkle in his clear blue eyes, that concert pianist-turned-teacher charmed, counseled and relaxed the actor half his age, and the two have become friends.
This cinema study is a gentle tribute from one of those friends to the other. More, it considers, but does not pretend to make any the less, the lifelong practice and patience that go into what to onlookers/hearers appears an effortless grace of art, in this case “the art of the Muses,” particularly of Polyhymnia (song/music and geometry) and of sun god Apollo (mathematics and music).
By current standards, there are really no talking heads, unless one count Seymour himself, not posed against a blank neutral backdrop and always illustrating or doing something while he converses with friends and former students such as art critic Michael Kimmelman in a coffee shop. Whether he is explaining to individual students at the keyboard of his beloved upright or onstage at a university master class or to a Steinway & Sons manager or a private audience (a benefit for “Ethan’s theater group”) in that company’s Hall Rotunda giving onto street passersby and Directors Guild of America doormen, he is in motion even more mentally than physically. There is, surprisingly, no metronome, and the only time he takes out a pair of glasses, it is to use them for marking time softly against the home piano fallboard.
An acclaimed concert pianist from an early age, even a classical musician for uninitiated and scared fellow soldiers during the Korean War, he instinctively backed off from the perquisites of talent, including what promised (or threatened) to be remunerative gift-showering love from a wealthy patroness older than he.
Unannounced beforehand, even to his mother, at fifty he abruptly retired from touring and concerts. Stage fright, or adrenaline rush, was necessary for performance but emotionally draining. Equally or more decisive, he clarifies, was an aversion to the pushy cutthroat commercial side of even the classical music business.
In the intervening thirty-six years, Bernstein has taught, not simply keyboard technique and interpretation but a philosophy of musicianship, of art and of life. Realistic, thoughtful and humorous at once -- asking permission, for instance, before touching students’ abdomens for breathing control or holding down shoulders to control emotion -- he instructs, molds, delights, encourages, and is respected and cherished. He is a guru, his observations a Zen of Piano Performance, An Inquiry into Values bursting with harmonizing Chautauquas of observation.
“With my own two hands I could touch the sky,” he marvels, and so can “the secret eavesdropper, you.” Following an apt apostrophe to the love and music of Robert and Clara Wieck Schumann, Bernstein’s film-concluding concert, before a limited select group, coming to “one of the biggest climaxes in all of music,” is stunning. All-appreciative silence is the appropriate response.
(Released by IFC Films and rated "PG" for some mild thematic elements.)