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Pianist David Helfgott has brought thousands of new fans to classical music. So why are the critics trashing him?


Douglas McLennan
March 19, 1997 1:00AM (UTC)

classical music has a new star. "Shine," the Australian movie about pianist David Helfgott's triumph over abuse and mental illness, has been nominated for an armful of Academy Awards. Helfgott's recording of Rachmaninoff's Third Piano Concerto has surged to the top of the classical charts and cracked the pop charts in Britain. Tickets for his hastily arranged American tour, which began two weeks ago in Boston, sold out in hours. Helfgott is the biggest thing to hit classical music since the Three Tenors.

You'd think music critics would be happy. These are, after all, the same critics who have been complaining that their art form is dying with the public. But they are about as excited as they were over the spectacle of Domingo, Pavarotti and Carreras cavorting in fan-filled baseball stadiums.

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One critic called Helfgott-mania a "new low" and "a significant new step in the dumbing of America." Another declined even to see the film, declaring that any movie making an icon out of something so unworthy as a Rachmaninoff concerto is not worth his time. Most reviews of Helfgott's recording have been dismissive, if not scornful, and there has been speculation about whether the mentally ill celebrity is being exploited by those eager to cash in on the success of "Shine."

This isn't just pique over a new star launched without the critics' coronation. Even critics who assailed the Three Tenors notion at least had to acknowledge that each of the singers had important careers. Helfgott, on the other hand, has not won his celebrity through performances, but his performances through celebrity.

The qualities that make a star are hazy. Is Nadia Salerno-Sonnenberg definitely a better violinist than Dmitry Sitkovetsky? Yo-Yo Ma a greater cellist than Janos Starker? Yet Salerno-Sonnenberg and Ma are invited on Jay Leno and Sitkovetsky and Starker are not.

Certain music also radiates charisma. There are some 39 versions of Rachmaninoff's Third Concerto in the recording catalog, and it is a staple of orchestra programs. But many serious music fans would dispute the movie's claim that the Rachmaninoff is the most difficult piano piece. Technically tortuous though it may be, your average Bach prelude and fugue or Beethoven concerto is much more musically demanding.

But what those discovering Helfgott, and Rachmaninoff, seem to be attracted to -- more than the music or the performances -- are their stories. The Rachmaninoff requires such physical exertion it was declared unplayable by Joseph Hoffman, the pianist for whom it was written. And Helfgott's life is inspiring: David defeats the twin Goliaths of Dad and Rachmaninoff, with the movie version casting the battle in heroic terms.

Rather than being dismayed by the Hollywood-inspired Helfgott phenomenon, critics ought to be pleased. He has already sold more than 100,000 copies of his Rachmaninoff, and reportedly sales of other recorded versions of the Third have picked up in a spillover effect. There is a real connection between getting people in the door with highly appealing classics and having them stick around for more sophisticated fare. Developing taste has to start somewhere, even though many classical "newbies," as some of the current orchestral program research suggests, rarely venture beyond the "lite" classics.

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There is also much to be said for over-the-top personalities and some down-market glitter. The 19th century American pianist Louis Moreau Gottschalk was as famous for his flamboyant persona as for his music. Audiences clamored to see singer Jenny Lind after P.T. Barnum's promotional exertions. More recently, the film "Elvira Madigan" scored a hit for Mozart's C Major Piano Concerto, and Bo Derek's "10" a groundswell for Ravel's "Bolero." "Amadeus" ignited a Mozart cult that lasted years.

True, the world is full of talented pianists, and Helfgott's playing doesn't stand out above that of thousands of others. And true, without the movie he likely wouldn't have a performing career, least of all the sensational one he is having now. Perhaps he is being exploited. But outward indications are that for Helfgott, playing the piano in front of audiences is pure joy -- joy that many a musician only dreams about having at this level.

So what's wrong with getting caught up in that dream, of cheering the story, of celebrating Helfgott's very real accomplishments? The Helfgott phenomenon isn't just about music. Besides, surely the classical music world is big enough to welcome legions of new Rachmaninoff fans buying tickets and CDs in Helfgott's wake. New fans, presumably, who would stick around if something else grabbed hold of their imaginations.


Douglas McLennan

Douglas McLennan is the founder and editor of ArtsJournal.com. He has been a regular contributor to Salon, as well as Newsweek, The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Wall Street Journal and the London Evening Standard.

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