Ethan Hawke might strike you as an unlikely guide to classical music. But in directing his first documentary, “Seymour: An Introduction,” he created an intriguing and ultimately profoundly moving tribute to a largely unknown artist, 86-year-old pianist Seymour Bernstein.
A student of Clifford Curzon, Nadia Boulanger and Georges Enescu, Bernstein seemed in the 1950s and ’60s to be a serious star ascendant. A 1954 New York Times preview mentioned him as a rising virtuoso in the same sentence as Leon Fleisher, Earl Wild and Jacob Lateiner. In a review written in 1969 — the same year that Bernstein made his solo debut with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra — Times critic Donal Henahan raved about both his technical accomplishment and intelligent interpretation: “If his recital … was not merely one of those freakishly great days that good pianists sometimes enjoy, Seymour Bernstein is ready to break out into a wider circle of attention.”
That never quite happened for Bernstein — at least, not in a traditional career trajectory. At age 50, he decided to dedicate himself completely to teaching, composing and writing. In 1977, he gave a farewell performance, though unbilled as such, at the 92nd Street Y. The Times reviewer, Joseph Horowitz, wrote of that concert with unknowing prescience: “It is a pity that, given the modesty of his bearing and the subtlety of his art, Seymour Bernstein will probably never be as widely appreciated as dozens upon dozens of lesser pianists.”
This isn’t only a film for piano fans, though. Bernstein’s deep humanity, sagacity and wit come shining through in this tender and loving portrait. Borrowing the title of a J.D. Salinger short story for this project, Hawke illuminates Bernstein as an artist and teacher whose wisdom reaches far beyond the confines of classical music.
While the spotlight is on Bernstein, Hawke appears on screen a couple of times — first to explain how this project came to pass (after a chance meeting at a dinner party), then to discuss paralyzing stage fright with his new friend and quasi-mentor. It’s a subject Hawke and Bernstein can commiserate about; the film’s narrative suggests that stage fright was part of the impetus for Bernstein’s decision to quit his performance career. Yet he tells Hawke, in essence, that if you’re not feeling fear, you’re not doing it right.
The film opens in limited release in New York Friday and nationally after that.