David Helfgott

This was not meant to happen. A beaming voice answers my call to a hotel room in Maryborough, Queensland: “Hello, hello, hello, David Helfgott here, David Helfgott… I’m watching Judge Judy on the TV, Judge Judy…”

The tumble of words is impossible to make out, but within seconds his phone is whisked away and Gillian Helfgott, the pianist’s wife, takes over the interview. It’s almost a relief, and immediately one realises why his minders say David Helfgott is unable to give interviews. Geoffrey Rush’s mimicry of his yabber is exactly right. The second thing to note about the 66 year-old pianist immortalised in Shine is that he is now an Italian citizen, of sorts. Gillian explains how in June he was made an honorary citizen of Montecatini Terme, Tuscany. “It was a lovely honour for him. Puccini and Verdi spent a lot of time there. The authorities gave him the keys to the city a number of years ago after David did some fund-raising concerts there for cancer research.” These days David gives a lot of charity concerts. Back home at the Helfgott’s five-acre property in Bellingen, NSW, he holds private soirees to raise money for Sanctuary Australia Foundation, which sponsors refugees from war-torn countries. George Negus, their neighbour, hosts these soirees – which leads us to a third finding, and more. It was Negus’s wife, ex-Adelaide journalist Kirsty Cockburn, who helped bring Helfgott back into public view after he had been shut away for years with mental illness. Says Gillian: “Kirsty did a major program on David that helped raise him to attention, even before Shine. They remain two of our very closest friends.” At the Helfgotts’ property, which they bought at George and Kirsty’s suggestion 22 years ago, David spends five hours a day in the water – as much time as he practises the piano. “He likes water because he finds it very healing,” Gillian says. “He gains a sense of freedom in it. Put him in water and he’s so much better. After 30 years of knowing him, his energy levels are frightening at times.” Gillian is enormously protective of David, shielding him from any potential adverse scrutiny. The canings he has sometimes received from concert critics over the years is a subject our conversation delicately glides past. Gillian simply says: “David plays accurately these days, but he does take risks”. She is quick to point out that Rubinstein and Horowitz, whom Helfgott admires greatly (he refers to the former as “sweetie-pie”), were risk-takers too. “When David plays a piece of music he hands himself totally over to the music,” she continues. “His playing flows with originality and passion. Some critics say David’s playing of Liszt is incomparable.” Meanwhile, the former professional astrologist is almost brutally frank about her husband’s personal eccentricities. “He does get up to mischief,” she says. “If he stays at somebody’s home he’ll steal the toothpaste. He’s like a big kid.” She describes how he often establishes a closer rapport with animals than with people. “Horses walk over to him in the paddock and chat to him. One day he told me a snake gave him a cuddle; I probed him about it and he said it came up and wrapped itself around him. Then there’s a remarkable photo of a cheetah licking David’s hand in Cape Town. Animals pick it up that he trusts them. With nature he is quiet. Otherwise he never stops talking.” One also learns that Helfgott is a radio fiend: “He has ABC Classic FM on all day,” says Gillian. “He takes his transistor radio out to the pool and even into the shower – music is with him all the time.” The only one thing that ever irritates him, she says, is having to wait. “He’s dreadful if you’re standing there waiting for a car. There’s actually very little else. If there’s something wrong with the piano for instance, like it’s out of tune or there’s a string that needs replacing, he’s not bothered.” Helfgott above all craves affection – fact number 10. It’s something his closest supporters understand and will provide unconditionally. They include, says Gillian, the Danish record producer Nils Ruben, loyal friends in Germany and Adelaide’s own Scott Hicks. He still keeps up with Hicks, she adds. But the affection from audiences is what Helfgott craves most, and this is the key to why he differs from virtually any other pianist on the planet. Gillian explains: “There’s a beautiful childlike quality about him. He’s just wanting to trust and love everybody. Audiences feel this and respond to that beautiful openness. It shows when he runs out on stage in his bright red Cossack shirt and they roar with love. There’s no stagecraft about it – he’s just being generous about sharing his love and joy for music.” David Helfgott Adelaide Festival Centre Thursday, October 24 davidhelfgott.com

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