My headline really isn’t irreverent. While Seymour Bernstein, the peerless subject of Ethan Hawke’s wonderful new documentary, “Seymour: An Introduction,” is undeniably a man with a profound worldview, he’s also warm, generous, funny and a bit bawdy.
Hawke says that when he met Bernstein at a mutual friend’s dinner party, he’d been “struggling with why I do what I do, what’s authentic.” Fascinated listening to Bernstein, sensing that the great musician had also dealt with these issues, Hawke chose to film him and the result is a portrait of the artist and a life well-lived.
Bernstein was a child prodigy, from a family without music (who “didn’t even own records”), and a much-lauded concert pianist (a New York Times review from a 1969 performance at Alice Tully Hall, says he “triumphs at the piano”). And for more than 30 years, he has been a beloved and revered piano teacher.
What Bernstein, with his great and beautiful gift, teaches is not just how to be an artist, specifically a pianist, but how to breathe (“most of us breathe so poorly, it’s a wonder we stay alive); how to be (the “real essence of who we are resides in our talent”–and he is enormously broad in defining talent); and how to live (the balancing of harmony and dissonance, “the same thing happens in music”).
Although he had abandoned his performing career 35 years earlier (“I was comfortable that I could say what I wanted on stage” and was eager to leave behind the commercial aspects of the business and the “horrible nerves” that gripped him prior to performing), during the making of the film Seymour selected the “best in show” Steinway and performed on April 4, 2012 in Steinway Hall on West 57th Street.
As he gloriously plays the piano, street life and cars are seen through the large window framing him. On the film’s soundtrack he discusses music, a guide to living, “Music is the aural manifestation of universal order, (it) dispels loneliness and discontent…we sense in music our own potential for perfection.”
“Seymour: An Introduction” will open on Friday, March 13 at the IFC Center and the Lincoln Plaza Cinema, followed by a national rollout. Seymour Bernstein will be in person at IFC on opening night at 6:15 pm and 8:15 pm shows. Bernstein will be joined by Ethan Hawke on Saturday, March 14 at 6:15 pm and 8:15 pm, and Sunday, March 15 at 4:15 pm and 6:15 pm.
The only person other than Seymour Bernstein whom I’ve heard speak with such intellectual and emotional clarity is the great Buddhist teacher Pema Chödrön. I have several of her books and a DVD set (with my portrait of Ani Pema on the cover). I played piano (abysmally) as a child but I’m not entirely being facetious when I off-handedly mention that I’d love to take piano lessons with Seymour.
The film is 81 perfect minutes. I wanted more, could have watched for hours, and was extremely happy when I was asked to photograph Ethan and Seymour for the film’s publicity. Thank you Charlie, Ryan and Lauren for thinking of me for this shoot and Annick for making the scheduling work.