David Helfgott of 'Shine' Fame Is Talented, but Has His Limitations

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Byline: Bill Gowen

"You truly are an inspiration. And to those people who say it's a circus, then with your celebration of life you've shown me that the circus is a place of daring and risk-taking and working without a safety net - and giving us your personal poetry."

- Geoffrey Rush's tribute to David Helfgott, in accepting the Oscar for best actor for portraying the Australian pianist in "Shine."

And now, if we are to believe what we've been hearing and reading lately, "the circus" comes to town this weekend.

Helfgott, subject of director Scott Hicks' acclaimed film, is currently performing "The Shine Tour," which will include concerts at the Auditorium Theatre at 8 p.m. Saturday and Monday. It is this tour that has raised considerable controversy throughout the classical music community.

To put it simply: Is Helfgott, at this stage in his life, a capable enough musician to perform concerts of difficult music for which the public is charged (in Chicago at least), $20 to $65? From evidence so far, the answer is no. Helfgott's playing has been panned in nearly every city he has performed, starting March 4 in Boston.

When music critic Richard Dyer of The Boston Globe called Helfgott's performance "... shapeless and utterly incoherent," among other things, the comments were reprinted in Time magazine and sent over the wires. Other critics joined in: Tim Page of the Washington Post said "He (Helfgott) generally seemed to be operating on a measure-by-measure basis, without memory or anticipation." And so it's been, in nearly every city in which Helfgott has appeared over the past month.

Rush's comments in his Oscar acceptance speech reflect those by Helfgott's wife, Gillian, director Hicks and others in the pianist's entourage, who insist that this tour is about much more than music - it is "a celebration of life."

Hicks answered Dyer's Boston criticism with the following, reported last month by the Associated Press: "I think there are some critics who perhaps act as sort of self-appointed guardians of elite culture," Hicks said.

So what do we as critics do? Do we ignore events like "The Shine Tour" as strictly popular culture phenomena and not review them, or are we obligated to listen and offer our opinions?

My feeling is that in cases like this, water will find its own level. In other words, we can blast Helfgott's musicianship all we want, but the public will eventually decide how successful a revival of his career (after a 12-year absence because of treatment for a mental breakdown) will be. In other words, if Helfgott plays the piano poorly, return engagements will dry up. "The Shine Tour" may end up as a one-shot deal.

There is a parallel case:

I remember the commotion over the late conductor Antonia Brico in the mid-1970s, back when a woman conducting a symphony orchestra was a real rarity. A biographical feature film was released titled "Antonia: Portrait of a Woman," in which Brico criticized the classical musical establishment for not giving her a chance "to play my instrument - the orchestra," as she put it. A recording was made with New York's Mostly Mozart Orchestra, and a North American concert tour took place.

Brico's concert in Chicago was at the same Auditorium Theatre where Helfgott will play Saturday and Monday, and her lifeless interpretation of Brahms' Symphony No. 1 was panned by the Chicago critics.

What happened? Brico's career quickly faded. Her legacy turned out to be not her own career but her pioneering work (along with that of Chicago's Margaret Hillis) which paved the way for the many gifted female conductors working today, including JoAnn Falletta and Catherine Comet.

Will Helfgott's career fade, too? It's too early to tell, but in the long run, only the greatest musicians can sustain a classical music career, particularly pianists, for whom supply far exceeds demand. …