The first minutes of documentary film “Seymour: An Introduction” was more than enough for me to become interested in its remarkable human subject. As a man who has happily maintained his own balance between life and art for many years, he is willing to impart some of his lifelong wisdom to us, and the documentary gives us a vivid, loving, and respectful portrayal of his exceptional life and career.
Born on April 24th, 1927 in New Jersey, Seymour Bernstein already showed his considerable potential as a pianist during his early years, and he quickly became a new talent to watch as he made a terrific debut with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1969. While his career kept rising during next several years, he decided to quit on one day in 1977, and he has mostly concentrated on teaching since then.
Early scenes in the documentary show a number of students individually receiving a private piano lesson at Bernstein’s small but posh apartment in the Upper West Side area of Manhattan. While sharply pointing out small and big things to be corrected and modulated by his pupils, he never raises his voice, and his instructions are always accompanied with warm, honest encouragement. We meet some of his former pupils, and we can sense their deep affection and respect toward him as they talk with their dear mentor who still inspires them as before.
As the documentary freely looks around several important points in his life, Bernstein candidly talks about how he came to step down from the peak of his career. Although he found a way to accept and deal with the emotionally challenges of public performances, he was still not so satisfied with where his life and career were going, so he simply made a choice as reaching for something more satisfying and rewarding to himself.
We also hear about his military experience during the Korean War. He and other few musician soldiers were ordered to give classic music concerts for soldiers in the front line, and there is a mildly amusing episode about how a piano to be played by him managed to be sent to its destination. He still vividly remembers one horrible sight he saw around a battlefield, and he later reminisces about an uncanny moment of poetic beauty he encountered by coincidence during one early morning.
The documentary is directed by Ethan Hawke, who humbly steps aside for Bernstein even when he talks about how much he has learned from his friend and mentor since their chance meeting via a dinner party held by Hawke’s friend. Increasingly stressed and anxious despite his successful career, Hawke was not so sure about what to do with his life and career around the time when he met Bernstein, and he gave Hawke helpful advices on how he can moderate himself between life and career as focusing on his artistic talent. Life is unpredictable indeed, but life without trouble is as meaningless as harmony without dissonance in Bernstein’s view, and he believes that one’s artistic talent can be an important balancing element for life. Although it has been more than 30 years since he left the stage, he has never stopped practicing and composing music, and we see some of significant achievements during his later years.
Hawke later suggested that Bernstein should give a small concert for him and the members of his acting troupe, and Bernstein accepted this challenge. One of the most entertaining scenes in the documentary comes from when Bernstein visits the storage room filled with many Steinway pianos. All of these precious musical instruments do not look that different to us, but he can tell the differences as carefully examining some of them one by one. Like players, instruments are imbued with their own personalities, and he wants to find which one is more suitable for his upcoming performance.
In the meantime, we get lots of piano performances by Bernstein and others, and they are another enjoyable element in the documentary. As a contemporary of Glenn Gould, Bernstein tells us one humorous anecdote about that legendary pianist whose genius he admires with reservation, and the documentary makes a nice point along with Bernstein through the archival footage of Gould’s performance full of his usual eccentric mannerisms. We also get to know about Bernstein’s British mentor Clifford Curzon, and there is a touching episode about how Bernstein probably helped his mentor receiving a prestigious recognition, which he richly deserved as one of the best musicians representing his country.
While watching the documentary, I was reminded of “Searching for Bobby Fischer” (1993), an overlooked chess drama film which makes a thoughtful argument not so far from Bernstein’s wise gentle words in the documentary. Like the chess prodigy hero in that film, Bernstein exemplifies that being talented and being human are not exclusive to each other at all, and that is why he is all the more inspiring at the end of the documentary.
“Seymour: An Introduction” effortlessly gets us involved in what it wants to show and tell, and it did a commendable job of presenting Bernstein’s artistry and humanity with clear insight and warm respect. Stable and comfortable with his life and career, he is ready for whatever will come next in his remaining life, and we cannot help but applaud when another beautiful performance in his life is over.