A magnificently accomplished concert pianist who at one time seemed poised for fame, Seymour Bernstein, now in his eighties, quit performing at age 50. Since then, he has concentrated on composing, teaching, and simply playing. Director Ethan Hawke -- who appears only briefly in Seymour: An Introduction, as an intensely quizzical, vaguely rumpled presence -- explains that he met Bernstein at a dinner party, and was drawn to the elder gentleman's ideas about performing and creativity: Hawke had been struggling with his own questions about what it means to be a performer, and has at times suffered from debilitating stage fright.
The film Hawke has made -- which borrows its title, though little else, from J.D. Salinger -- works both as a celebration of Bernstein, whose spirit is at once gentle and boldly generous, and as a way of exploring creativity and the meaning it can have in our lives.
Listening to Bernstein speak and play, and watching him connect with his students, you can see why Hawke would gravitate toward him. He's an impishly cheerful-looking man with a roundish face, his thinning hair brushed into a little tuft at the top. His aura of calm is like an enveloping mist when he talks about the nature of merging "the musical self and the personal self," or when he likens a student’s playing to "a dream."
He's a reassuring but challenging presence, maybe because he's still asking questions himself. What does it mean to play music, to teach, or to simply create? The answers are in Schubert, in Beethoven, and floating out there in the universe. They're in a chord you can feel in your heart.