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  • The Helfgott Problem
  • Jennifer Judkins

David Helfgott presents a curious problem for the musical world. The problem is that he is being heralded on his Shine tour as a brilliant pianist. Encouraged by a well-honed advertising campaign, many in the general public, while rightfully applauding Helfgott’s victory over mental illness, have mistaken his rambunctious enthusiasm for artistry. For musicians and knowledgeable listeners, however, his unmusical, inaccurate renditions threaten the standards of the practice and challenge the long-held notion that when one plays the piano on a concert stage, one should be evaluated solely as a concert pianist.

I attended Helfgott’s “Celebration of Life” concert at the Pasadena [End Page 363] Civic Auditorium this past April, 1997. (This program was on a Monday night; “The Miracle of Love” program followed on Wednesday.) Both recitals were anchored by several Liszt pieces, and both ended with a Beethoven Sonata.

Helfgott began by groaning and muttering his way through the Mendelssohn Andante and Rondo, at times conducting himself with his right hand and playing with his left, and bowing repeatedly at the conclusion. In other words, he immediately fulfilled all that the audience expected to see. I wonder what they expected to hear?

If they wanted to hear articulate, rhythmically accurate playing, they were in the wrong place. If they had hoped to hear any sense of structure or pace within these pieces, they needed to find a soloist who doesn’t interrupt phrases to swing his arms back and forth, and who doesn’t blithely rush ahead to “the good parts.” The most uncomfortable moment of all came when Helfgott was playing a thinly textured passage, missing notes, and moaning loud enough to be heard in the top of the balcony. Was this a musical event? If not, then what kind of event was it?

Engage in the following thought-experiment. Imagine David Helfgott as Hamlet. Helfgott turns in a tremendous physical effort, yet he garbles his part by omitting words, talking to himself, and hugging the other actors as they enter the stage. He takes numerous bows after his better lines, forcing the other actors to stand by in silence. The fans rush to see him, selling out all of the performances, not minding that they can’t understand much of the dialogue. What is important is his life story and triumph over adversity, as detailed in the souvenir program.

But this scenario would never occur. The play would never open. Tickets wouldn’t sell. The reason is that the public would expect to see a performance of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, with all of the potential richness and depth the script holds. The attempt might be laudable (trying to act in a professional production after overcoming mental illness and an abusive childhood), but the result is laughable. The audience would be disappointed if spoken lines were missing or distorted, and they might even feel that this mentally disturbed actor was being secretly ridiculed in such a display.

Oddly, a level of performance that would never be tolerated in a play seems to be easily accepted, even welcomed, by the public in the concert hall. Perhaps this is because music uses tones, rhythm, harmony, and counterpoint to create a work—materials that, unlike words, [End Page 364] are not normally shaped by us in our everyday lives. Of all the arts, only in music are the actual materials of construction identical with the object of appreciation, and musical materials are not fully appreciated by the untrained ear. Musical understanding requires musical literacy.

As a professional musician, I will admit that much of the Helfgott problem is the fault of musicians themselves. Musicians are famously inarticulate, perhaps because we don’t especially need to talk about what we do. Doing it is enough for us. Since musical discrimination is only acquired through years of study, an amateur often cannot distinguish a good performance from a great one, or a mediocre one from a terrible one. We are quite used to people “just not hearing it.” It’s like trying to point out a constellation in the night sky to someone who just can’t see it.

What is amazing to...

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