Then & now David Helfgott, pianist


IN 1997, CINEMAGOERS flocked to see Geoffrey Rush’s Oscar-winning portrayal of a mentally ill classical pianist in the movie Shine.

David Helfgott had been struggling with schizoaffective disorder for much of his adult life, but when Shine dazzled the public and Oscar voters, Helfgott found the fame that had been denied him due to his illness.

He was born in Melbourne 65 years ago, and his piano-playing skills were nurtured early by his father, Peter (the movie controversially painted Peter as a strict, abusive father, which was vehemently denied by David’s sister, Margaret in her book, Out of Tune). He went to London to study at the Royal College of Music, but while there his mental state began to deteriorate and he became emotionally unstable and frequently manic.

The movie opens with Helfgott arriving at a restaurant in a heavy rainstorm, wet, bedraggled and talking a mile a minute. This was Riccardo’s wine bar in Perth, where Helfgott began playing piano on Saturday nights, soon after his discharge from a mental institution.

His residency at Riccardo’s proved more therapeutic than electro convulsive treatment, and it was there he met his wife, Gillian, an astrologer and numerologist who nurtured him back to performing in public.

After the success of Shine, Helfgott was hugely in demand for concerts, but some were concerned that he was becoming a circus sideshow, and that his gruelling touring schedule might plunge him back into mental illness. Others were critical of his idiosyncratic playing style, punctuated by involuntary grunts and whoops. He would also sing aloud to the music completely off-key. But audiences gave him standing ovations wherever he played – and still do.

Far from sinking back into obscurity, Helfgott is at the top of his game. Last month, he received a 16-minute ovation in Vienna, and he’s just performed his beloved “Rach 3” (Rachmaninov’s 3rd piano concerto aka the Shine Concerto) during two sold-out nights in Sydney.

He has found peace in an idyllic valley in Glennifer, on Australia’s north coast, where he and Gillian have been living for the past 21 years. He is planning to branch out into composition and, according to Gillian, he’s also discovered a new talent – he’s a horse-whisperer.

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