He bounds on stage like an excited child: chatting incessantly to himself. Or could it be to the higher beings above? He wears a turquoise satin shirt a Cossack dancer might wear. Its sheen reflects his enthusiasm. He cups his hands on his forehead to see his audience beyond the glare of the spotlight. Thumbs up. More thumbs up. He grins, exuding sheer joy. Then he sits at the Steinway and begins to play.
Chopin, Liszt, Mussorgsky. The magic begins as his lithe fingers traverse and caress the keyboard. We are instantly transported. But watching David Helfgott and listening to him are two different things.
Eyes open, we see a man who embraces not only the music, but the audience. He chatters nonstop, incorporates his version of singing along with the music. He is clearly having the time of his life. He sits upright. Then his back is hunched as he leans over, his face almost touching the keys. His exuberant face turns to the audience, the crinkles around his expressive eyes exaggerated as he somehow interacts with them intimately. An invisible lasso shepherds the audience into his world. His unique world. Visually, the scene is extraordinary. It almost overshadows the music. Almost.
Eyes closed, the impact of the light and shade of the music is a powerful force as, impossible cadences and finger gymnastics, a dazzling feat.
At the end of each musical piece, he jumps to his feet, grins broadly and bows hyperactively as he effusively thanks his audience. Thumbs up again. He does not speak between pieces. Not in the normal accepted sense. But there is no shortage of communication, albeit the language is somewhat different.
There is such generosity of spirit and emotion on display. Everyone in the audience senses it. You can hear a pin drop. Men wearing suits, jeans and tattoos; ladies in stilettos, boots and sneakers; wide-eyed youngsters. We are hypnotized by the Helfgott spell. It is an indescribably powerful thing. Time stops. No wonder he is beloved around the world with a sold out concert schedule throughout Europe and beyond.
Two hours later, after a standing ovation, streamers, flowers and encores, wife Gillian comes on stage. They hug unselfconsciously. She says how happy David is playing his music and thanks the audience for making him so happy on this special night: his 71st birthday. The simplicity and genuine nature of the sentiment is overtly moving. I feel the prickle of tears welling in my eyes; the natural release of emotion. I have witnessed a miracle.
To say that David Helfgott is unique is stating the obvious. Is this what a genius looks like? An extraordinarily, talented human being who makes everyone around him look and feel ordinary.
Backstage? His warmth and love fill the room. He takes my hands, holds them, admires my nails, hugs me, nuzzles my face, bestows kisses with great generosity. Yes, he is going back to Budapest for a concert – he mutters greetings in Hungarian. Vienna? He switches to German. Then the banter is English and Helfgott speaks without taking a breath. All at a million miles an hour.
And then he is gone. The room suddenly becomes dull. As though a light has been switched off. Like the night sky when the brightest star has been extinguished.
Published May 20, 2018