Born in Melbourne in 1947 to Polish Jewish parents, Helfgott has played piano since he was five. As a child prodigy, he won several local music contests, and at the age of 19 continued his music studies at the Royal College of Music in London. Helfgott later suffered a nervous breakdown and returned to Perth. After a divorce from his first wife, he spent about 10 years in mental institutions. After his release, Helfgott often played at a local wine bar, Riccardo’s. That’s where he met his second wife, Gillian, a professional astrologer and a divorced mother of two; she is 15 years older than he.
In 1996, director Scott Hicks released Shine, a fictionalized version of Helfgott’s life. The film was a huge success and brought numerous prizes to Hicks, while Geoffrey Rush won the 1997 Oscar for Best Actor for his portrayal of the adult Helfgott. Shine restored Helfgott’s performing career, and since the film was released, he has been touring the world. His wife has become his manager in many ways – she not only organizes his concert life, but also does interviews on his behalf.
Helfgott is typically seen as a controversial figure. Crowds flock to his concerts, which are held at the most prestigious venues, his Rachmaninoff album has reached the top of the charts and Gillian’s book I Love You to Bits and Pieces had a run of 185,000 copies. But music critics are far from excited about Helfgott’s performances. His sister Margaret, in her book Out of Tune: David Helfgott and the Myth of Shine, disputes the accuracy of many events in the film and in Gillian’s book. Other counterclaims have come from David’s brother Les Helfgott, who calls the film and Gillian’s book’s “outright lies,” and from David’s doctor and his first wife Clara, who has claimed that Gillian is manipulating David’s life.
Speaking over the phone from her Australian home, Gillian Helfgott softly rejects the epithet of “David’s guardian angel.”
“I should rather say that we care for each other.”
The world of classical music was not new to her. “The music was always heard in our house, but when I met David, my appreciation and my knowledge of the piano repertoire expanded greatly.”
She describes the life of a musician’s wife as “different and privileged: We travel a lot and meet wonderful people.” She believes that “of the things which are of great help to any traveling artist is to have their loved ones with them. Many musicians can have a very lonely life in their hotel rooms, but we do not have this sense of separation. David was born to play piano, this is what he loves most and this is when he feels complete as a person, and when people see him in a concert, the word which comes to their mind immediately is ‘joy’ – the joy that David experiences and shares – and the audience responds.”
Gillian’s life as a manager is a busy one, she continues, but they have agents in Australia, Denmark, Switzerland and England who are of great help. Due to their traveling, she is not practicing as an astrologist anymore. The only “bit of astrology I do is in the stock market, and this is helpful.”
HELFGOTT GIVES between 40 and 60 concerts a year – mostly recitals. But he also appears with orchestras as a soloist, performing Rachmaninoff’s Second and Third concerti. “Musicians and conductors love working with David,” asserts Gillian. “He is not arrogant at all, he is a very lovable person, he watches the conductor most attentively throughout the performance. He is a very sharing musician.”
His repertoire features music by Rachmaninoff, Tchaikovsky, Liszt, Chopin, Beethoven and Mussorgsky. “He is a very romantic soul; he loves the emotion.”
According to his wife, Helfgott is looking forward to adding more pieces to his repertoire, but meanwhile he is too busy for it.
They currently live in what they consider the most beautiful region of Australia. “We live in the country and have five acres of a very beautiful garden at the foot of the mountains.”
When they are not on tour, Gillian says that her husband swims two hours a day, reads a lot, carries his transistor radio and listens to classical music broadcasts all the time. After visiting friends, he practices for two or three hours in the late afternoon or in the evening.
Gillian says that they have plenty of friends who are very fond of Helfgott: “He is such a friendly person, he wants to hug everybody. We used to have home recitals, but now he is too busy for that. That said, he certainly plays for his friends when they come to visit.”
Helfgott also does his share of charity work, performing chamber music and raising funds for refugees, cancer and mental health research.
So what does Gillian think about the criticism, about people who say that David owes his concerts and audiences to his story and not to his musicianship? “They positively have not heard him in the past five or six years. The audience invariably responds to his personality when he runs out to the stage, but the music is what speaks, and in the e-mails that I get after concerts people say: ‘David, thank you for sharing your soul with us… When I woke up the next morning I was still smiling and full of joy… It’s been a revelation…’ This comes from the music, and I think David has attracted more people to classical music than other pianists.”
David Helfgott plays pieces by Rachmaninoff, Chopin, Liszt and Beethoven on June 20 at the Jerusalem Theater, and on June 25 at the Einav Center in Tel Aviv. Reservations: Jerusalem (02) 560-5755, Tel Aviv (03) 521-7766.
Jun. 16, 2009
MAXIM REIDER , THE JERUSALEM POST
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