'Shine' Pianist Has Tough Act to Follow

After the film's inspiring portrait of David Helfgott, his US concert debut lacks mastery

The highly acclaimed film "Shine" has made it very difficult to separate David Helfgott the pianist from David Helfgott the public persona. With the film's popularity as well as two books (one by his devoted wife, Gillian) and an onslaught of newspaper and magazine articles, the pianist and the rather heroic story of his life have been thrust into the public eye with all the calculated fervor of a media blitz.

It is therefore impossible to assess Helfgott's talent without taking into account the tragedies and triumphs of his life. Hearts around the world have been captivated by the saga of Helfgott's award-winning musical gift; his tormented, allegedly abused childhood; his decline into mental breakdown and years of off-and-on institutionalization; and finally his inspiring recovery to reclaim a concert career.

It is the stuff that legends are made of, and in his native Australia, Helfgott is a cult hero, with fans storming the stage for hugs and kisses from the effusive musician.

Certainly, Helfgott's life deserves recognition and admiration, and it is drawing people to the concert hall who would not otherwise find much interest in a classical piano recital. New audiences are coming not so much with the expectation of an evening of first-class musicmaking, but to see the real live person about whom "Shine" was made. If Helfgott's love for music carries across the footlights to move people, so much the better.

But in the larger scheme of things, should David Helfgott be put on a concert stage and marketed as a capable, let alone brilliant pianist?

The American public got a chance to grapple with that question when Helfgott made his North American debut last week in Boston, the first concert of "The Shine Tour." (See schedule bottom right.) Depending on one's perspective (and there are clearly two camps), it was either one of the most inspiring or most pathetic musical events ever to hit the professional concert stage.

From an artistic perspective, Helfgott is at best a sometimes technically capable and enthusiastic player. The most secure playing of the evening came in two of the concert's three short encores. He approached a lighthearted Gottschalk confection with an engaging childlike glee, and "Flight of the Bumblebee" burst forth in a continuously delicate, nimble flourish.

For most of the program, however, Helfgott was a lost soul. His playing was erratic and eccentric to the point of undermining any cohesiveness in the music itself. Mendelssohn's "Andante and Rondo Capriccioso" was tonally flat and square, even a little clunky. There was little harmonic depth or linear definition. Chopin's lustrous Ballade in F Minor was totally devoid of any poetic expression or eloquence, and Helfgott's playing was so fragmented that musical structure was completely obscured. His pause before the coda was so pronounced that audience members began to clap, which Helfgott graciously stood and acknowledged before sitting down to finish the work.

In Beethoven's "Waldstein" Sonata, there was no sense of internal combustion or drive. It was as if Helfgott were reading and hearing it for the first time, having no idea of where the music was leading and no overall artistic vision. Liszt's "Un Sospiro" was a muted exercise that failed to convey any of the music's inherent sense of breathless unfolding, and the difficult Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 almost did the pianist in.

From the emotional angle, however, it must be noted that Helfgott's presence has the power to move an audience. That he is on a concert stage at all given his life story is something of a miracle, and the Boston audience leapt to its feet at concert's end, some flocking to the stage for handshakes and to bestow large bouquets on the artist. It was clearly a recognition of triumph over tragedy.

And Helfgott's enthusiasm and desire to please, at least at this stage of the game, are palpable. In Boston, he literally ran onstage, head bobbing with nervous excitement, and began to play before the applause even died down. After the Chopin tude, he gave a giddy little jump, clearly happy with his reception.

He frequently glanced at the audience as if to ask, "Are you still there? Am I doing OK?" His mouth emitted a constant commentary of groans, growls, hums, and mutters. By the end of the program, he was clearly coaching himself: "Can't let down ... Must concentrate ... Ah, that echo went very nicely." His hands often fluttered away from the keyboard, one hand conducting the other or even scratching himself at the expense of leaving out a melodic line.

It was a deeply disturbing performance to watch. Helfgott seems to be living on the edges of a very tentative reality, and it is both sad and infuriating to think that those around him may be capitalizing not on his musical talent, which is in great question, but on his celebrity, which is based on overcoming a mental illness with which he appears still to be struggling.

Yet one fervidly hopes that this is less greedy exploitation than the fulfillment of a dream. Helfgott has wanted to concertize in America for most of his musical life, and the fame accorded him by the movie "Shine" has given him that opportunity. He calls one program "The Celebration of Life" (the other is titled "The Miracle of Love"), and he seems to offer it to the audience with the utmost sincerity, like a grand gift. And in that spirit is the only way audiences, in good conscience, can accept Helfgott's concerts, for that is the only ethical justification for allowing a person so fragile and work so lacking in artistic merit to go time and again before the public eye.

* David Helfgott's US tour continues with appearances in New York, March 18, April 8; Los Angeles, March 25, 27; San Francisco, March 29; Seattle, April 2; Chicago, April 12,14; Philadelphia, April 16; Atlanta, April 20; Brooklyn, N.Y., April 23; Pasadena, Calif., April 28, 30. After his US tour, Helfgott appears in Canada, the United Kingdom, and Asia. Most performances are sold out. For more information, visit the tour's Web site: http://www.helfgott.aust.com/tour.htm

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