Tuesday, March 31, 2015

"Seymour: An Introduction", a look at a loved piano teacher


Ethan Hawke follows his role in “Boyhood” with a directorial effort in a look at pianist-composer Seymour Bernstein, in a moving documentary “Seymour: An Introduction”.
  
It’s hard to believe that Bernstein is 87, as he is shown still giving piano lessons, to Jiyang Chen, Junko Ichikawa, Marcus Ostermiller and later Liam Kaplan, a teen who plays the opening of the Rachmaninoff Second Concerto in spectacular fashion.
  
A lot of the lesson scenes involve matters of phrasing and rhythm, with special attention to some of the late Beethoven sonatas (most of all, #31 in A-flat). 
  
Bernstein’s biography is quite interesting, even if a lot of it was lived inside a library-like one-room apartment on the Upper West Side (apparently).  Was his grand piano in the apartment?
  
Bernstein also relates the time he was drafted, during the Korean War.  He survived bivouac in the winter cold, and then in Korea entertained the troops, near the DMZ, and the troops loved it.  That recalls my own Army Basic at Fort Jackson, SC in early 1968, when I played the organ a few Sunday mornings at chapel (I tried to play the theme from the last movement of the Mahler Third for one service prelude). 
  
Some of the footage happens in a Steinway store in NYC, where Bernstein compares pianos.  There are also some scenes from an apartment that appear to be above Central Park West, about 30 floors or so.  The view is practically the same as the one from which Timo Andres gave a concert in December 2010, which I attended, just before the passing of my own mother (Drama blog, Dec. 11, 2010).  Was this in fact the actual unit?
  
To close the film, Bernstein performs the conclusion of the Fantasy in C, Op. 17, by Robert Schumann, where he builds up to what he claims is one of the greatest piano climaxes in all of music.  Bernstein’s treatment of the coda is seen as controversial. Bernstein keeps up the intensity until almost the end, only softening for the final chords.  (I discuss another performance on the Drama-music blog Jan. 11, 2011).
   
Seymour does play excerpts of a few of his own pieces. 
    
Director Ethan Hawke often “intrudes” into the film, moderating the activity, and looks lean and fit at 44 (he had to age a bit for “Boyhood”).

Seymour notes the four foundations of ancient Greece:  arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music. 
  
  
The official site is here  (IFC films and Sundance Selects).

I saw the film at Landmark Bethesda Row before a fair Monday night audience.  I didn't get to the QA opportunity with the pianist this weekend.   It would be nice to have this downtown at E-Street, too.  Had the West End not closed, it might have played there. 
      
I recall only one other film about teaching piano, which suitably is called “The Piano Teacher” (2002, by Michael Haenke, from Kino and Studio Canal, France) with Isabelle Huppert as the teacher.   

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