7 years ago

Volume 20 Issue 7 - April 2015

  • Text
  • April
  • Toronto
  • Jazz
  • Theatre
  • Arts
  • Musical
  • Bloor
  • Symphony
  • Trio
  • Orchestra


MUSIC AND THE MOVIESSeymour: AnIntroductionPAUL ENNISIn last September’s issue of The WholeNote, in my preview of theToronto International Film Festival, I wrote that the film I was mostlooking forward to was Ethan Hawke’s Seymour: An Introduction.It had been Hawke’s explanation of Bernstein’s teaching mantra(responding to Hubert Vigilia’s question on, two years agojust as the film was taking shape) that piqued my curiosity and madethe film a must on my TIFF to-do list.Said Hawke: “He’s a very deep guy. I was touched by him, andI thought he had a lot to teach me about acting, and then I slowlyrealized that the way he’s talking about the piano relates to everyprofession.”I was touched, charmed and inspired by Hawke’s moving documentarywhen I saw it at TIFF and couldn’t wait to see it again. Six monthslater, it’s begun an exclusive engagement at the Cineplex VarsityCinemas. The second time I was even more moved. Be prepared to becharmed and inspired when you see it. It’s unmissable.Hawke (Boyhood, Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, Before Midnight)has given us a tender, warm portrait of the captivating pianistSeymour Bernstein. Among many things Hawke’s documentarydoes, it debunks the axiom that those who can, do and those whocan’t, teach. And it does so with wall-to-wall piano music highlightedby Bernstein’s own playing of Chopin (Berceuse, Ballade No.1,Nocturne Op.37 No.2) and Beethoven (Bagatelles Op.126, SonataOp.111, “Moonlight” Sonata) among others, as well as some of his owncompositions.Hawke, at 40, was struggling with why he does what he does as anactor. At a dinner organized by Bernstein’s former student Tony Zito,Hawke felt more comfortable around the 84-year-old Bernstein thananyone else. He seized on their rapport as the impetus to documentthe older man’s teachings.A good place to start was with The New York Times’ culture reporterMichael Kimmelman, who had begun lessons with Bernstein at five.Kimmelman’s mother, who used to sit sketching during his lessons inBernstein’s apartment, presented the teacher with a sculpture of hiscat. Years later, Kimmelman repaid his teacher by annotating a 2-CDset of Bernstein’s live concert career.Bernstein himself had begged his mother for piano lessons whenhe was six despite the lack of music in his home. A sensitive souleven then, Scarlatti felt familiar to him and he cried over Schubert’sSerenade (we hear snippets of each). When he was 15 he realized thatthe “real essence of who we are resides in our talent.” If he was practisingwell, things in general went well: “Music and life will interact ina neverending cycle of fulfillment.”He had a patroness, a wealthy woman who was also a spiritualist,who sponsored his European concerts and provided one of her housesfor him to live in. Which he did for a year, before the almost daily giftsthat were delivered convinced him to give it all up. She was growingtoo enamoured of him.Then, at 50, in 1977, Bernstein gave a farewell concert at the 92ndStreet Y, yielding to “nerves.” Public performance terrified him; hehad terrible blocks, physical symptoms, memory lapses, a feeling ofinadequacy as a pianist: “If you feel inadequate as a musician thenyou’ll feel inadequate as a person.” Yet he tells Hawke that most artistsshould be more nervous. He recounts a story about a young actresswho was surprised to find the great Sarah Bernhardt in a state backstage.When she told Bernhardt that she never suffered before aperformance, Bernhardt replied: “You will get nervous when you learnhow to act.”Bernstein rebuilt his own self worth by teaching and workshopping– he’s currently on the faculty of NYU’s Steinhardt School of Culture,“Music is a reminder of our ownpotential for perfection.”Seymour BernsteinSeymour Bernstein in concert at the Steinway Hall rotunda.Education and Human Development. He found his creative identity asa teacher. “I poured it into you,” he tells Kimmelman.At an NYU master class he demonstrates how the impetus foran entire sonata (Beethoven’s Op.110) develops out of the first fourbars; the sound he creates on the keyboard seems to grow, not die(as the student’s did). “Don’t move in a way that the energy is pulledaway from the piano,” he advises another. The key is “to inspireand encourage an emotional response, not just for music but for allaspects of life.”He thrives on solitude; he’s lived for 57 years in the same apartment[by now it must be 60]; Hawke shows him making up his sofabed one morning before breakfast while he sorts out all the thoughtsthat course through him. He finds the sense of predictability of musicsomething he can control, as opposed to the world outside: “Avoidexcess analysis and allow the music to reveal its own beauty.”He studied with such storied musicians as Alexander Brailowsky,Sir Clifford Curzon, Jan Gorbaty, Nadia Boulanger and Georges Enescu.Curzon, his most significant mentor, always his hero and the modelof “what you should be,” once told him that the most important thingabout choosing a piano is “how softly the piano will play.”There is wonderful vintage footage of Curzon playing Schubert’sImpromptu Op.90 No.4 in the basement of Steinway Hall. The basementhas its own role in the film as Bernstein searches out a suitablepiano for the recital Hawke will film in the Steinway rotundabefore an invited audience of (mostly) the actor/director’s friendsand colleagues. Watching Bernstein’s delight in finding a piano thatresponds to his playing of the opening of Beethoven’s Piano ConcertoNo.4 is another of the countless musical treasures of this film.Spiritual teacher Andrew Harvey, one of the key talking headsHawke turns to, notes Bernstein’s integration of the ordinary andthe archetypal. “The key is that music can produce ecstasy and you[Bernstein] have the touchstone from which you can gauge everythingelse.” (Bernstein believes – much like Marc-André Hamelin – that aperformer gets closer to the creative process when he plays, if he alsocomposes.)The film’s aesthetic and narrative climax is the recital in theSteinway Hall rotunda. Here, Hawke gives his artistic sense fullflower by seamlessly cutting back and forth from Bernstein playingSchumann’s Fantasie Op.17 in his apartment to performing it in therotunda recital. What makes it so compelling is Bernstein’s descriptionof how he feels about the piece while playing it in his living room:it “just rips him apart, it’s just so impossibly beautiful; it has oneof the biggest climaxes in all music (here it comes).” As he finisheseach comment, Hawke cuts to the recital and the Fantasie continueswithout pause.For me, the most hypnotic moment of this sublimely hypnotic filmis Bernstein’s playing of Brahms’ Intermezzo Op.118 No.2, which occupiesthe left half of the screen as the closing credits roll on the right.Brahms marks the score Andante Teneramente and Bernstein playsit with a tenderness that envelops the lyricism he coaxes out of themusic. His last words in the film “I never dreamt with my own twohands that I could touch the sky” are, in that moment, absolutelybelievable.RAMSEY FENDALL. COURTESY OF MONGREL MEDIA.78 | April 1 - May 7, 2015


Volumes 21-25 (2015-2020)

Volumes 16-20 (2010-2015)

Volumes 11-15 (2004-2010)

Volumes 6 - 10 (2000 - 2006)

Volumes 1-5 (1994-2000)