“Seymour: An Introduction”: Visiting a pianist in harmony with his world

“Seymour: An Introduction” opens with 87-year-old pianist Seymour Bernstein figuring out a difficult passage of music. Playing the same few bars over and over, he has to strategize, figure out where he needs to put his fingers and when, to make the difficult transition from this chord to that. Finally, after a lot of trial and error, he gets it right.
To the casual listener of the final performance, of course, it might sound like the music just flows out of Bernstein’s fingers. But, of course, it takes thousands of hours of practice to make that music “flow.” The documentary “Seymour” makes a powerful and poignant case for the hard, unglamorous work that goes into making great art, and that making that your life’s work makes for a life well-lived.

“Seymour” was directed by actor Ethan Hawke, who befriended Bernstein after the two were placed next to each other at a dinner party. As Hawke explains it on-camera, he confided to Bernstein that he was having a mid-career bout of stage fright, and couldn’t figure out how to stop being nervous. Bernstein replied wryly that most performers ought to be more nervous when they go on stage.

Bernstein would know. A talented concert pianist who received great reviews from the New York Times and others, he was so anxious about being on stage that he finally walked away from performing at the age of 50, devoting his life to teaching music. Challenged by one of his former students if he had a responsibility to continue performing, Bernstein responds, “I poured it into you.”

The film is structured almost exclusively around interviews with Bernstein, whether he’s talking with Hawke, talking to his current and former students, or looking directly into the camera. His music and his life seem completely integrated with each other; he even speaks like he plays: thoughtfully, calmly, compassionately, perceptively.

“Seymour” moves around in time, shifting from Bernstein’s interactions with young students today to his memories of growing up and serving in the Army, where he would play concerts on the front lines in South Korea for soldiers who had never heard classical music before.

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