Back at the 2014 New York Film Festival, the self-effacing musical Yoda at the center of “Seymour: An Introduction” sat down on stage with programmer Kent Jones and admitted that when he first heard the name of his director — Ethan Hawke — he said, “Who’s that?”
The occasion was a dinner party several years ago to which both the pianist and the actor had been invited, and, in fact, wound up seated next to each other. There, they had a conversation that led to a documentary. Beforehand, however, Seymour Bernstein had had to look Hawke up. “I don’t go to the movies much,” the pianist and teacher rather shyly admitted.
The film, which also made friends for itself — and for Bernstein – at Toronto and Telluride, is an other-than-average musical biography. On one hand, it’s unique in taking as its subject a relatively obscure figure, who is now in his mid 80s and stopped performing publicly at age 50. It also manages to capture Bernstein’s special magic as a teacher, musical educator and musical thinker. And it’s about ideas, among them the proposition that fulfillment as a musician means fulfillment as a person.
According to both subject and director, the movie was really an extension of the two men’s dinner conversation, which had focused on their shared battles with stage fright, its causes and some legendary cases: One violinist, Bernstein recalled, who was so afraid of dropping his bow that one night he dropped it on purpose and cured his phobia. Or Hawke, who said his particular fear was that he’d stop talking: One night on stage he simply did stop talking, and screamed. The audience thought it was part of the act.
“What I took away from Seymour,” said Hawke, “was the notion that you didn’t need to be ashamed of these feelings.” He said Bernstein’s attitude was that a lot of people aren’t nervous enough when they’re going on stage.
“Seymour: An Introduction,” which indeed shares its title with a Salinger novella, features such Bernsteinians as New York Times art critic Michael Kimmelman, a onetime student, and fellow pianists Joseph Smith and Kimball Gallagher. Bernstein, a onetime student of Nadia Boulanger and Clifford Curzon, a winner of international piano prizes and a prolific composer, said a performer has a right to be nervous. “If you’re prepared,” he stressed, “you have a right to be nervous” — because public performance, and the interpretation of a composer’s work “is an enormous responsibility.”