If ever there were a poster boy for performance anxiety, it would have to be the Australian pianist David Helfgott. The subject of this year's Academy Award-nominated sleeper, Shine, Helfgott has become something of a media event.
Shine, which makes the preposterous assumption that Helfgott is a genius, traces the life of a young pianist hounded to the point of madness by an overbearing father. The contradictions posed by the glamorous fiction it weaves around Helfgott's troubled life, and the jarring realities of his actual musical abilities, raise troubling questions about the current state of classical music and the authoritarian forces that would seek to control it.
Considerably larger issues than either the film or Helfgott's overnight celebrity are at stake. In a society that no longer seems to care, the role of the artist and the function of art itself are under siege. An artistic sensibility is influenced by the politics of authority when those in a position of power (agents, teachers, recording industry executives, etc.) would seek to manipulate it to their own end. Perhaps it is no coincidence that today, Helfgott and the public have fallen victim to such a confidence game.
In the rarified world of classical music, centuries-old traditions legitimize musical values and performance practices. What lends authority to those traditions is their authenticity, insofar as they have been codified in theoretical treatises, music criticism, compositional procedure, heresy and, in the 20th century, by recordings. These form the criteria by which artists, and the seasoned music professionals who write about them, make critical judgments.
Confronted by such responsibilities, the fragile veneer of certain performers shatters when made the focus of the public's collective eye. While the emotional apocalypse that devastated Helfgott's mind and spirit may compel compassion for the man, it is the quality of his musicmaking, and not a cinematic treatment of his life story, that ultimately will test his artistic worth.
Neither the psychological baggage of his past nor the celebrity of his present can hide the fact that his playing is woefully immature, bordering on the incompetent. But now that his handlers have cashed in on his newfound popularity, arranging a lucrative concert tour, Helfgott exposes himself to the objective scrutiny of his peers, the press and the public.
His recently released CD, on the RCA Red Seal label, of music by Rachmaninoff (including the Third Concerto) explodes the myth Hollywood has seen fit to wrap wound his musical abilities and puts to rest any notion that he is a great pianist, or even a good one.
These labored, stodgy readings betray an overwrought musical sensibility and a severely compromised technical facility thoroughly incapable of intimacy, mystery or tenderness. The pianist's wooden tone and cavalier disregard of musical substance obliterate contrast and suffocate intensity. All bluster without joy, Helfgott pockmarks the musical landscape with all the subtlety of an incoming scud missile, vanquishing fluidity with a complete indifference to texture and symmetry. As for nuance, let's just say it doesn't enter his musical vocabulary.
The art of musical interpretation reveals itself in the space between the notes. Like Quasimodo leapfrogging the flying buttresses of Notre Dame, Helfgott sees fit to ride piggyback astride them, plodding along clumsily from phrase to phrase.
When he is not playing faster than he can listen, or ravaging a melody with brutal accents, his readings are by turns hysterical, mechanical and soulless. Helfgott torpedoes his way through a score without the slightest idea what the music means, either aesthetically or in compositional categories.
If there is any poignancy here, it is entirely extramusical. The wasteland that Helfgott's illness has made of his playing reflects an alienated consciousness out of touch with an emotional life. Clearly, he is a product of arrested development, and it appears that the absence of so much basic interpretive and technical equipment has assassinated his potential.
The tragedy is the shameless exploitation he suffers at the hands of his agents. Having seen fit to engage him at Lincoln Center and other equally impressive venues for which he is not artistically up to snuff, they do him a great disservice.
Virtuosity does not exist on credit. A concert artist is judged ruthlessly on the strength of his playing, not on his promises. As long as he represents himself as a professional, Helfgott will be judged as fairly as anyone else in his position: as a concert musician.
Scott Hicks, Shine's director, has, in recent interviews, protested the severity of critical assessment Helfgott has endured in the press.
"I think there are some critics who act as self-appointed guardians of an elite culture," laments Hicks.
As Hicks should well know, the high standards of performance that serious artists spend a lifetime cultivating are compromised when well-meaning amateurs misrepresent musical substance and meaning.
All the criticism is not so much a personal attack on Helfgott as it is an indictment of the social forces that would allow such a travesty.
"My students are not amused," reports David Dubal, a pianist and author of the critically acclaimed Reflections from the Keyboard, a collection of interviews with 45 major pianists. "While genuinely gifted young professionals struggle to get one recital, 3,000 people are going out to see some poor guy fall apart on stage."
Speaking from his Manhattan home, Dubal, a professor of piano at the Juilliard School, was livid. "Mr. Helfgott is a dreadful pianist. No artist has ever been made by any audience or any critic, but only by his peers. Art as public therapy is extremely dangerous at a time when everyone is fighting for standards, and it's untenable that it should be used for financial gain. The Helfgott debacle is a kind of gladiatorial combat in an arena that has no place in the concert hall."
The New York Times agrees. Anthony Tommasini cautions that "with David Helfgott, critics and audience are asked to put aside judgments and join a communal network for a troubled though scrappy man." Richard Dyer of the Boston Globe, citing the "morally bankrupt atmosphere" of Helfgott's U.S. debut, observes that "the sad fact is that David Helfgott should not have been in Symphony Hall . . ., and neither should the rest of us."
Still, a public that blindly lends its support to such a tawdry venture must share some of the blame. The shared, spiritual experience that music once was since has been sacrificed wholesale to consumer demand, assuming the character of the commercial mechanisms that exploited it.
Now, the triumph of capitalism over art is complete. The idea that the price of a ticket is equal to the experience of a work of art has caught on: People want to get their money's worth.
The culture industry's crass obiter dictum is simple: If it sells, it must be good.
David Helfgott's appearance here would have no meaning were it not a wake-up call for the classical music establishment. In this case Hollywood has gone too far, throwing its weight around in an area about which it knows nothing. As Tim Page, chief music critic for the Washington Post, points out, "We have reached the point where a disturbed man who can barely play the piano is suddenly the hottest person in classical music, duly hailed for bringing in a "new audience'; it's a little like the Peter Sellers film, Being There, come to life." In that movie, Sellers portrays an endearing but severely retarded gardener whose simple-minded aphorisms persuade a gullible public to elect him president.
Helfgott's emergence onto the international concert stage hardly signals the happy resolution to the celluloid fantasy that the studios concocted, but precisely the opposite. Hollywood and its stable of myth mongers once again appeal to the pleasures of instant gratification. Art-music deserves better and demands more.
Perhaps it is time for the entertainment industry to pick on someone its own size, and leave the David Helfgotts of the world alone.
John Bell Young of Spring Hill is a pianist whose critically acclaimed recordings of the music of Friederich Nietzsche will be rereleased this year on the Sony Classical label. An authority on the music of Scriabin, he is also a music critic for Clavier magazine.