He shone

The reviewers of David Helfgott's London concert this week felt `embarrassed', even `ashamed', to be watching him. So why did the rest of the audience not feel the same about the pianist who inspired `Shine'?
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Indy Lifestyle Online
I went full of foreboding to David Helfgott's London concert, but I came out - like almost everyone else - on a high. Then I opened a newspaper and learned that I had "implicitly supported a disgusting exercise in exploitation", and that I should feel "thoroughly ashamed" for having done so. The critic in question had watched "with acute embarrassment and sorrow" until the interval, at which point he had run off home to pen his diatribe.

Why did the vast majority of Monday's audience emerge neither ashamed, nor embarrassed, nor sorry? They can't all have been morally inferior beings. Why do the real issues which the Helfgott tour raises - and exploitation is indeed one of them - not sour the whole experience, as our critical friend would wish? Since spending two days with Helfgott last autumn, I've been mulling this question over, and it's a mystery.

What struck me then - and has struck others since - was Helfgott's extraordinary amalgam of vulnerability and charm. We were in Melbourne, where Shine was the film of the moment (it hadn't yet opened world-wide, and the current world tour was just a gleam in his agent's eye). On my first introduction I got the standard treatment, with the interviewee jumping into my lap, kissing me on the cheek, and mumbling into my ear. There were moments of pathos and flashes of wit in his sotto voce tirades; it took me a while to realise how cleverly - and tenderly - his wife was managing his life, doing everything from tying his shoelaces to monitoring his caffeine intake. It became clear that he was happy in this marriage, where he was at once lover, breadwinner and child.

But a concert he gave in Melbourne raised doubts. Oscars were not yet being mentioned, but the promotional bandwagon was rolling fast - for the film, the record, the biography - and Gillian Helfgott was basking in the limelight.

Helfgott's performance was bedevilled with his hallmark puffings and blowings, but a strange poetry shone through, and when his mind wasn't wandering he really could play. He took his final bow ankle-deep in streamers - the event was tightly stage-managed - and he exited high as a kite with happiness. This all seemed fine for a town where he was a local hero. But how would he fare in bigger, harder cities abroad?

The answer in America was just the same, in terms of audience reaction. But he got the most ferocious drubbing from the critics. "David Helfgott should not have been in the Symphony Hall last night, and neither should the rest of us" trumpeted the Boston Globe reviewer, speaking for most of his colleagues. The more vitriol they poured on the hapless pianist, the louder his talents were cried up by his promoters. Shine duly won its Oscar, and David was induced to make an excruciating television appearance to celebrate. British journalists were sent out to America to bring back advance word of the sacred monster - "I too was hugged by Helfgott!" - whereupon other British journalists were made to dig around for dirt.

Of which there was plenty, notably in the form of the Helfgott sister who attacked the film's veracity (and Gillian Helfgott's motives) and the ex-wife who had been airbrushed out of Gillian's official history. More seriously, a psychiatrist was wheeled on to prove - with videotapes - that David was regressing emotionally, whereupon yet more journalists began to speculate that David's tour might deliver a coup de grace to his wonky sanity. What a wonderful newspaper story! Like Shine, it had something for everyone. When he finally hit London, and was paraded for a few uneasy minutes before a posse of hacks, first reports made it sound as if he really was caving in under the pressure.

Come the big night, it became apparent that he was bobbing like a cork on this factitious sea of murk. He looked at ease on the platform, and he played with better concentration than he had six months earlier in Melbourne. The tour seemed to have done him no harm at all. He was clearly a born performer, and a clown into the bargain.

But the promotional machine was working full blast. The programme - a snip at pounds 6 - described him as "one of the world's leading pianists", and lengthily puffed the records, the rest of the tour, and Gillian's biography (actually, for an astrologer, surprisingly well-written). It is likely that this campaign had an effect on the reviews; when critics know any adulatory phrase will be hoicked out and put up on placards, they turn nasty just for the hell of it.

But this does not begin to explain the gulf between the satisfied punters and the gnashing pundits who slunk out halfway through. People who came from curiosity stayed because they loved what they saw and heard: the atmosphere was affectionately supportive, in a way I have not observed in London before. It was as though Helfgott's whole life was being laid bare on stage, and the audience wanted to cherish him.

But it wasn't just charity; there were things to admire in his performance, and moments to wonder at. Of course Helfgott is not "one of the world's leading pianists". Only a promoter could make so crass a claim. Two London critics wrote fair and appreciative pieces, but the case for the prosecution was elsewhere forcefully put. Helfgott's technique was said to be "in ruins"; he could "scarcely satisfyingly shape a single phrase"; he had "no musical awareness"; there were countless other pianists who were more "competent" than he. That is true, in the conventional sense of competence (and therein lies the source of tragedies no less poignant than Helfgott's - suicide is not unknown among failed pianists).

But the critic who rallied to the defence of his American colleagues - they were "doing their job properly and bravely" - went on to give the game away. The professional concert platform, he thundered, was "not a place to make allowances". The Helfgott campaign was "a nasty, cruel phenomenon... It lies to inexperienced audiences... about what constitutes good piano playing".

And there we have it. The audience are ignorant; they must listen to the priesthood. The American high-priests were defending their patch against the incursion of film people. The London high-priests are gunning for the custodians of the South Bank, and calling for further Helfgott concerts to be cancelled; they want their temple purged. They will happily watch the Festival Hall stage all manner of trash for its rock audience, but "good piano playing" must carry their holy seal of approval.

There's a parallel in art for this kind of blinkeredness, and it's called photo-realism. If there are unsung geniuses among the ranks of pianism's also-rans, there are photo-realists too, who play all the notes but communicate nothing. Only a musical Gradgrind could fail to catch the real beauty which Helfgott produces at those moments when his mind is fully focused. It's a strange, delicate beauty, as though coming from far away, but it has its own pure integrity.

There's a desperate grimness about the notion that a concert platform should not be "a place to make allowances". It denies the frailties and imperfections which make us what we are: it presents a large keep-out sign to most of the human race. If the critic mentioned at the beginning of this article had stayed till the end of the concert, he would have heard Helfgott play more brilliantly in his first encore than he had in the entire evening. Applause - acceptance - had liberated him, and removed some inhibitions. This was a wonderful moment, and it far outweighed the evil of the fast bucks made on the back of itn