Critical praise — not public adulation — has eluded piano virtuoso David Helfgott since his life inspired the hit movie ‘Shine.’ But that’s fine by him
“I am indeed blessed,” says the man whose troubled life would suggest anything but.
Australian virtuoso pianist David Helfgott’s talent was first discovered when he was 5 years old. He quickly became labeled a child prodigy. Then, entering adulthood, he suffered a mental breakdown. After 10 years of psychiatric treatment, he recovered and toured the world. It was all ripe material for a filmmaker.
And so it proved. Helfgott’s life became the subject of the 1996 movie “Shine,” directed by Scott Hicks. Both the movie and the man on whose life it was based became huge hits — the movie a box-office success while Helfgott himself became the top-selling classical artist of 1997.
The New York Times promptly hailed him as “Most Influential Classical Musician of the Year.” Recognized worldwide as a result of “Shine,” few of his contemporaries did more to bring people into concert halls.
“It is wonderful that the film and my touring have brought more people into classical music and that makes me very happy,” Helfgott tells The Japan Times in a recent telephone interview. “I am now recognized around the world and it is lovely when people talk to me at airports and write to me from so many different countries.”
Well known, yes — but polished? Not necessarily.
The New York Times also condemned Helfgott’s Boston debut in 1997, with their chief music critic Anthony Tommasini stating that “it is hard to imagine that listeners —whose first experience of Beethoven’s colossal Waldstein Sonata was Helfgott’s sketchy, monodynamic performance — went away with any idea of this music’s boldness and feisty vitality.” And Tommasini is not alone in suggesting that the pianist’s once-formidable technique as a teenager has deteriorated because of his illness and that he tends to over-theatricalize — with grunts and physical displays — without due attention to the intricacy of the music.
If the critics remain doubtful, though, the public does not. Helfgott has consistently played to sell-out crowds around the globe this decade, and no audience is more enthusiastic than the Japanese.
It is often suggested that Helfgott’s second career is a product of the movie. Certainly, concert promoters are not shy about making the connection — his promoters continue to market him as the “real” man from “Shine” and his Japan tour is titled “Shine Your Life 2007.” Yet his talent was evident from the beginning.
Born in 1947 to Polish-Jewish immigrants in Melbourne, Helfgott received early piano tutoring from his father, winning the Australian Broadcasting Cooperation’s Instrumental and Vocal competition six times as a child.
Aged 14, Helfgott was invited by the late violin virtuoso Isaac Stern to study music in the United States. It was Helfgott’s disciplinarian father who refused to allow him to go.
Later, as a 19-year old, Helfgott ignored his father’s wishes and accepted a scholarship at the Royal College of Music in London, where he studied for three years before suffering a mental breakdown. Unable to perform on consecutive days, he sometimes broke down into unintelligible speech.
Returning home, Helfgott was institutionalized in 1973 at a mental hospital in Perth shortly after the breakup of his first marriage. He underwent intense treatment, including electroconvulsive therapy for schizoaffective disorder, whose symptoms include hallucinations, derailed speech and catatonic behavior.
“I had many lost years in the ’70s and early ’80s,” he says, “but I do believe that the experiences I had then have added a greater dimension to my playing and given me greater strength.”
While addicted to nicotine and caffeine and taking prescription drugs, he maintained a rigorous practice regime in the psychiatric lodge, sometimes playing up to 10 hours a day.
When Helfgott finished his psychiatric treatment, he was asked to fill in for a sick pianist at a Perth restaurant. At first, diners mocked him for his erratic physical movements, but were soon stupefied by his lightning performance of the technically brilliant work “The Flight of the Bumblebee” by Russian composer Rimsky- Korsakov, now a standard in Helfgott’s repertoire.
The restaurant owner invited Helfgott to live at his home, where the pianist was introduced to astrologer Gillian Murray.
“I proposed to her the next time I saw her,” he says gleefully.
When Helfgott made a comeback in 1984 with the Rachmaninov Piano Concerto No. 2 with the Nedlands Symphony Orchestra in 1984, it was his first major concerto performance in more than 12 years. More invitations to the concert platform followed over the next decade. In 1995, he recorded Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 3, arguably the most difficult to play piano work ever written.
It’s also his headliner for the Japan tour. The piece is full of good memories for Helfgott, who says, “I was so happy when Professor Smith [Helfgott's teacher at the RCM] said I played [it] like a god.”
It was Australian filmmaker Scott Hicks who, in 1986, read an article on Helfgott in The Adelaide Advertiser, titled “Out of the gloom, a genius reborn,” inspiring Hicks to begin his 10-year movie project, “Shine.”
The movie was criticized for confusing fact with fiction, not least by Helfgott’s elder sister Margaret, who declared its portrayal of their father to be inaccurate. But defenders of the film, which shows Helfgott being physically abused by his father, and Helfgott himself, argue that “Shine” was only ever “inspired” by Helfgott’s life and not intended as completely faithful biographical documentary.
“I found the film very moving and Geoffrey Rush [who won an Academy Award for the role] portrayed me so well,” Helfgott says. “Whilst the film used dramatic license, everything in it had a point to my life and captured the essence of it. Through the movie I now have a great understanding of and closeness to my father’s memory.”
Though Helfgott refuses to discuss his health now, intensive therapy has reportedly cured him of his psychiatric problems. His wife has also persuaded him to cut down from the six or seven packs of cigarettes and about 25 cups of coffee a day he used to take in, and helped him keep to a disciplined exercise regime of jogging, swimming and yoga.
Now 60, Helfgott is far from slowing down.
“I have tours of New Zealand and Europe this year and again two European tours in 2008, as well as concerts in Australia and Asia, so my itinerary is rather full,” he says. “But then I enjoy playing very much. I just play and let the music tell the story.”
Helfgott is effusive when talking about the program of his forthcoming Japan tour, which follows concerts here in 2001 and 2003. He says that Chopin’s Ballade in G minor is “an epic saga with a wonderful grandness to it,” and admires Liszt’s B minor Ballade No.2 for capturing “so much of the triumph of life.” Rachmaninov’s Sonata No. 2, meanwhile, is “like a stream of life.”
Helfgott’s energy comes from a love of performing — arguably more so than contemporaries because his desire to play compensates for the times when he was only fragments of himself.
“I feel more complete as a person when playing than at any other time.”