Last night, I attended an advance screening of Seymour: An Introduction, a documentary about pianist Seymour Bernstein, directed by actor Ethan Hawke. The film is a loving tribute to the emotional power of music, and to a charming and talented man who has dedicated his life to performing and teaching classical piano.
Bernstein is 88 years old, and has lived in the same New York City apartment for 57 years. His home is modest, yet full of small trinkets and character, like a ceramic Chihuahua by a lamp or cooking pans hanging on the kitchen wall. Bernstein is confidant and funny, a short plump man with a kind face. He teaches advanced students out of his home, and helps them through pushing them in a positive way. He may tease them by saying they played a piece better than he did, or coach them by telling them to not rush ahead of the music and play with emotion and breath.
The film discusses the ideas of artistic geniuses, and why many noted artistic geniuses are awful people in their personal life, or are “monsters.” Hawke brought up Marlon Brando as a theater example, while Bernstein spoke of Glenn Gould as a neurotic, eccentric mess who was a piano genius. They spoke of how the interpreter of an artist’s work gets the major credit for a performance, not the artistic work. So that audiences would come away thinking,” Wasn’t Glenn Gould great?” instead of “Wasn’t Chopin great?” Bernstein spoke of the interpreter as self-indulgent, as “in service of something higher than themselves.” It was a fascinating way to look at an interpreter of an artist’s work, and how a incredible performer can get the credit, with the artist’s contributions undermined.
His kindness and patience puts students at ease, and there is a sense of calm while watching the film, a slow, relaxed feeling of listening to beautiful piano music. There are many beautiful and touching quotes throughout the film from Bernstein. On the emotional power of music: “Music and life will interact in a never-ending cycle of fulfillment.” On music and its relation to religious worship: “Music is intangible, yet it has penetrating effects . . . most people don’t tap that resource of the God within.” And on the unique interpretations of music: “Every piano is like a person. They are built the same way, but they never come out the same.” Bernstein carries a sense of peace and tranquility with him that is enviable, but admirable at the same time.
The screening, held at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, followed with a Q&A with Bernstein and Hawke. Hawke opened up a lot about his own anxieties as an actor, and having self-doubt and disillusionment despite his success over nearly thirty years as an actor (and coming off of a recent Academy Award nomination for Best Actor for Boyhood). He spoke of not having felt anxious as an actor until he was reaching middle-age, and not knowing how to handle his nerves. Bernstein gave helpful advice. “Accept nerves as a natural component of what you’re about to do.” Anxiety is normal for a person, and it fuels them to do better. When they aren’t feeling nervous is when a performer should worry, because they have become complacent. “Our talents are autonomous,” said Bernstein. “To persevere in spite of doubts gives us a sense of self worth.” That is good advice for anybody striving for success, not just for performers dealing with anxiety.
Hawke made a good point about making a film about an elderly man in a culture that is obsessed with youth. That has become much more prevalent, with people over age 35 being seen as “so old,” and social media that mocks older people for not knowing current technology or not being as popular as the current youth. By contrast, Bernstein’s simplicity and acceptance of himself is refreshing, and much more thoughtful and interesting to listen to than a much younger person who puts all of their self-absorbed thoughts on social media every few hours. Hawke may have made this film in part of dealing with his own middle-age (he makes reference to having anxiety and changes upon turning 40, and not always understanding his teenage children’s lingo and text-speak), but it is a selfless gesture that he made in directing this documentary about a fascinating and wonderful man. Seymour Bernstein concluded the Q&A with this insightful statement: “when we are searching for our identity, our identity is in whatever talent you possess . . .the person and the artist become one and the same.” His talent and class was a true joy to behold for that evening.