As David Helfgott jogs onto stage and gives a thumbs up into the audience with both hands, grinning like an excited child, you can't help but be enchanted. This is not your average start of a classical concert, and Helfgott certainly isn't your average classical performer. After having inspired the Oscar-winning movie Shine in 1996 with Geoffrey Rush portraying him as an adult, he is in fact probably one of the best known pianists of our time. The movie shows Helfgott's childhood in Melbourne, born to Polish-Jewish parents. He displays early signs of being a prodigious piano player, but increasingly struggles with a schizoaffective disorder. The movie was subsequently strongly criticised by his sister who disagrees mainly with the depiction of their father as an authoritarian tyrant.
Today David Helfgott performs Sergei Rachmaninov's Piano Concerto No 3 in D minor, the very piece that brought about his mental breakdown and admittance to a psychiatric hospital as a young man. It is known to be one of the most technically challenging pieces to play. "Rach Three" is a wonderful composition - full of longing and nostalgia and a passion that sometimes simmers under the surface and sometimes bursts open in glorious, brilliant rainbows. The extraordinary thing about Helfgott's performance is how he seems to literally live and breathe the music he is playing. Every now and then he mutters and grunts, bowing deep over the piano and frowning in concentration. At other times he beams gleefully into the audience, nodding vigourosly when playing a particularly triumphant part. He plays without sheet music and is utterly immersed in the piece. His enthusiasm is contagious and highly entertaining. There is nothing grave and somber about Helfgott's playing; it is pure, unadulterated joy.
When he finishes, the audience erupts in cheers and gives a long standing ovation. Critics have found fault with Helfgott's technical abilities in the past; they have condemned an audience, not used to classical concerts, for clapping between movements. They were bothered by Helgott's grunting while playing. Looking around me, I see smiling faces everywhere, people laughing out loud at Helfgott's repeated hugging and kissing of his fellow musicians on stage, others copying his two-handed thumbs up. This man brings joy and wonder into people's lives, he makes classical music approachable and is truly inspiring in his playfulness. Why so serious?