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‘Shine’ pianist debuts in Boston, gets standing ovation

March 5, 1997

BOSTON (AP) _ Finally reaching a U.S. concert stage, pianist David Helfgott hummed and talked to himself as he played Chopin and Liszt. Then, the subject of the movie ``Shine″ got a standing ovation.

The Australian pianist, who triumphed over mental illness, smiled broadly and bowed Tuesday night as a sold-out crowd of 2,000 people, who paid $50 apiece, roared their approval in glittering Symphony Hall.

The audience loved it, but one critic didn’t.

``Helfgott is a radiant, endearing and exasperating presence, who runs from the stage door to the piano,″ Richard Dyer wrote in The Boston Globe.

The performance, Dyer continued, ``was without phrasing, form, harmonic understanding, differentiation of style, and often basic accuracy; worst of all, it was without emotional content. ... The sad fact is that David Helfgott should not have been in Symphony Hall last night, and neither should the rest of us.″

``Overall, it was pretty good and we’re pretty happy with the outcome,″ said Helfgott’s manager Austin Prichard-Levy.

``I think David was little bit thrown at one point by the large audience,″ Prichard-Levy said. ``He’s very keyed up by the American tour. I think he’ll just get better.″

Helfgott, 49, performed works by, Chopin, Liszt, Mendelssohn and Beethoven. He ended his double encore with ``Flight of the Bumble Bee.″

It was a remarkable achievement for a child prodigy who spent years in a mental institution and worked his way back in piano bars in Australia.

``Shine,″ whose Oscar nominations include best picture, blames Helfgott’s years of unspecified mental problems on his father’s refusal to allow him to accept a scholarship to study in the United States, along with other harsh treatment he received as a boy. Helfgott’s siblings, however, dispute the account.

Earlier Tuesday, Helfgott’s wife, Gillian, movie director Scott Hicks and others fielded questions at a hotel as Helfgott was upstairs doing push-ups.

``He doesn’t get nervous, he gets excited,″ said Mrs. Helfgott, who married Helfgott in 1984 and helped stage his comeback. ``David is just purring.″

While some music critics have not been kind to him, Helfgott’s compact discs are selling at a rate of $10,000 a week, his publicists said.

``I think there are some critics who perhaps act as sort of self-appointed guardians of an elite culture,″ Hicks said. ``Maybe there are barricades that need to be stormed. Maybe the public has a right to be heard.″

Peter Feuchtwanger, Helfgott’s piano coach since 1986 and vice president of the European Piano Teachers Association, said Helfgott is a fine performer.

``I don’t know anyone with a greater talent than David,″ he said.

After Boston, Helfgott is scheduled to perform in Montreal, Toronto, New York City and then the West Coast.

``David gave me a special gift in trusting me with his life’s story,″ Hicks said. ``I’m delighted to be here in support of his long-delayed and long-overdue North American debut.″

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