Seymour: An Introduction

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Screen Shot 2015-03-24 at 4.32.07 PMThis is a surprisingly compelling documentary about Seymour Bernstein, a successful and internationally acclaimed classical pianist who, at the age of 50, stopped playing concerts because of the crippling anxiety associated with them. His last public performance, he asserts with a sly smile, was his best.

He is now 87 years old and for the last 50 years has been composing and teaching master classes where, in an avuncular but firm fashion, he dispenses sage, corrective advice to his students. (Disclosure — my wife loves her piano lessons from one of his long-time students.) The film follows Seymour into master classes where we see his gentle bits of corrective advice gratefully absorbed by one student after another. There is also a wonderful scene in the basement of Steinway & Sons in New York where he is testing a series of their grand pianos for someone’s performance. To the dismay of the Steinway executive present, it takes only two chords for him to dismiss one piano after another with the blunt and unhesitating verdict: “Terrible!.” To the relief of Steinway & Sons, the last piano brings forth an enthusiastic positive reaction and a beatific smile.

Seymour is a charming, amusing and thoughtful storyteller. We hear many anecdotes about the unusual events and relationships in his life as a musical celebrity elicited through a number of informal, probing interviews and conversations. Some of them, with Ethan Hawke, the director of the film, are about the existential angst of performing. Others contain thoughtful, philosophical and sometimes blunt musings about art, music and life, and are conducted by Michael Kimmelman, a former student and now an architecture critic for the New York Times, who obviously has fond memories of their relationship.

This unassuming film will captivate not only music lovers, but anyone interested in spending a couple of hours with an unusual and fascinating personality.

Fred Rubinstein

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One Response to “Seymour: An Introduction”

  1. Yes, an inspiring look at a man whose life is music and how he communicates that devotion to his students, and here to the viewer. The documentary is wonderfully photographed and the music marvelous. In many respects, it is an extended master class, covering pianism and life. Added bonus of archival clips of the likes of the eccentric Glenn Gould and the elegant Clifford Curzon, a teacher of Seymour’s.

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