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The reception of David Helfgott’s Shine tour has called attention to the fact that critics and audiences can be completely at odds with one another about the same musical event. But what are they at odds about?

By and large, critics insist that, despite his promoters’ claims, David Helfgott is not a musical genius, indeed, that his playing is not up to the minimum standards of the major concert halls in which he appears. They say that people who respond to Helfgott as if he were a musical genius are being fooled. They are right.

Due to the popularity of Shine, which powerfully dramatizes Helfgott’s troubled life, Helfgott regularly plays to sellout crowds and standing ovations. Audiences claim that Helfgott’s playing is deeply moving, that his concerts are extremely satisfying events. They say the critics just don’t get it. They, too, are right. [End Page 358]

Helfgott’s reception shows that critics and concertgoers do not always attend concerts for the same reason, that a musical event can be interesting in more than one way. Indeed, it shows that what is musically interesting to one person is or can be completely uninteresting to another. This should not be a problem. But it is. Critics condemn the fact that the values they bring to the concert hall are not shared by their readers. Audiences are offended by the critical dismissal of their taste. Each party claims that its point of view is not only legitimate but the only right one. In this, they are both wrong.

The fact that music can mean many things to many people is implicit in the complex and varied history of musical reception. I will not stop to examine that history here, but will focus on one of the many polarities that exist within that history—the one that I believe is fueling the current controversy. In the most basic sense, this polarity concerns why music matters.

Why do we look to music with interest? What is it about music that we value? At the one extreme, it would appear, we value music for its specifically musical qualities. At the other, we look to music as a form of human communication.

Critics claim that the specifically musical qualities of Helfgott’s playing do not merit serious attention by the concertgoer. His playing is too flawed from a technical point of view, and his interpretation—phrasing, dynamics, rhythm, and the like—is mechanical and expressionless. Even when Helfgott manages to get all the notes right, his playing doesn’t build, doesn’t go anywhere. We have the notes but we don’t have the music.

I do not think this view of Helfgott’s playing is entirely correct. But there is enough truth in it to let it stand. Helfgott’s deficiencies show that what is wanted, on this valuation, is technical and expressive perfection, or at least very great proficiency. Many performing artists are capable of providing this, even in the case of the extremely difficult “Rach 3” that Helfgott cherishes, so the critics are right in not settling for what Helfgott has to offer.

Helfgott’s audiences seem not to be particularly interested in pianistic achievement. It is not the technical or expressive perfection of Helfgott’s playing but the human drama of Helfgott playing that audiences find so rewarding. What the critics don’t get is that in addition to playing there is a player, a human being who feels and communicates with other human beings through the medium of music.

Of course, critics say they do get this. Only for them the issue is that Helfgott is being exploited as a kind of freak. The interest of Helfgott’s [End Page 359] concerts may be human, they say, but it is not humane. With his stammering, stopping, foot pounding, and audible commentary he gives to himself, Helfgott attracts the wrong kind of attention. Audiences are drawn to his weird behavior rather than to the music.

Implicit in these remarks is the view that music itself has little or nothing to do with the success of Helfgott...

Additional Information

ISSN
1086-329X
Print ISSN
0190-0013
Pages
pp. 358-363
Launched on MUSE
1997-10-01
Open Access
No
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