Years ago I worked for a now defunct Steinway Dealer in Metro Detroit. One of the many perks of the job, and of being an authorized Steinway dealer, was the partnership with the Concert and Artist division of Steinway and Son’s. In short, Steinway and Son’s have dozens of pianos across the country that are designated as concert pianos. These pianos are set aside for visiting Steinway artists and are not for sale.
The list of Steinway artists is as impressive a list as one can find. It includes past immortals such as Sergei Rachmaninoff , Vladimir Horowitz, Rudolf Serkin, Duke Ellington, Arthur Rubenstein, and my all-time favorite, Glenn Gould, just to name a few. Current artists are just as impressive, Billy Joel, Harry Connick, Jr., Diana Krall, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Emanuel Ax, Lang Lang, Evgeny Kissen, and the list goes on and on and on.(See a complete list here).
For the many years I worked there I had opportunities to play some amazing pianos. One great joy was to play on Vladimir Howorwitz’s Concert Grand, CD 503 (‘C’ refers to Concert; ‘D’ refers to the model, in this case the nearly 9 foot beast). And being a Long Island kid I greatly enjoyed playing on the piano that spent a year in Billy Joel’s home, while he composed his album of classical pieces, Fantasy and Delusions.
I also got to meet some fascinating and talented people. During one visit to Steinway Hall on 57 Street in New York I had the privilege to shake hands with Henry Steinway, the great-grandson of the founder, and in the artist selection room no less. He was a very gracious and grounded man. He was the last living family member that had run the company.
The most unique experience came in 1997 when I met the pianist David Helfgott. Mr. Helfgott had recently regained famed for Geoffrey Rush’s Academy Award winning portrayal of him in the 1996 film ‘Shine’. The movie was, and still is, one of my all time favorites. Though Geoffrey Rush won the Oscar I felt the situated portrayal of the Rachmaninoff 3 Piano Concerto was just as deserving and important to the overall context of the film. In some respect it seemed the director created a film around the “Rach 3” as it was termed. With no disrespect to Mr. Helfgott my favorite performance of the piece can be found here: played by Leif Ove Andsnes. The Andsnes’ performance coupled with superior sound quality is simply an achievement and a great way to spend 42 minutes.
The movie chronicles the struggle of an Australian piano prodigy who battled both an over bearing father and mental illness (not sure if those two are connected, I better ease up on my own children). His performance of the “Rach 3” seemed to parallel his struggles. SPOILER ALERT!!! In the movie he collapses on stage after a triumphant performance.
When the movie originally premiered there were several stories regarding David Helfgott’s mental illness, specifically the decision he and his wife made to stop using medication to treat his issues. His wife, a holistic practitioner, felt it inhibited David as an artist. I couldn’t comment one way or the other, but when I met him I remembered thinking what a brilliant rendering Geoffrey Rush achieved in his portrayal, I felt like I was in the film.
“Peter, Peter, Peter, Peter, aaaaahhhhhh, Peter, Peter Peter. Peter Rabbit, Peter Cottontail… be true to yourself Peter.” He said while shaking my hand. His eyes wandered about the room looking at anything and everything. “Computers, computers! Peter, you need technology, you need to keep up with things, uhhhh! Technology! Be true to yourself!”
He looked everywhere, stared at everything, if it struck his interest enough he would make mention of it. His reason for the visit was to select a piano to play at his upcoming concert at the Detroit Opera House. I’m not quite sure if he accomplished that task. He sat down at some pianos, those on the showroom floor, and played them, parts of “Flight of the Bumblebee” played in the film, for seconds at best. It was a spectacle, but so was his recent rise to fame.
Critics were all too quick to judge his lack of concert readiness. As an amateur aficionado of the concert stage I too knew his abilities didn’t traditionally justify sold-out shows in the world’s finest concert venues. With that said, Brad Pitt could most likely fill every seat on a tour singing Puccini arias, and I’m not sure he even sings. David Helfgott was now famous and to promoters and the public it didn’t matter why.
I had decent seats for the concert, center floor about six rows back. I like to be close enough to hear the clicking of the keys. The concert was as expected. For me I preferred to watch how he handled himself rather than listen to the music as an evaluator. The house was filled with inexperienced concert goers to say the least. They were not as adept in knowing when to applaud… The nerve! Mr. Helfgott seemed unfazed by this. Perhaps the typical pretentious concert pianist would have stormed off the stage, but not David Helfgott. Mr. Helfgott would widen his ever present smile at these occurrences and even do a reverse curtsy bow, by raising his bum off of the artist’s bench and bow. The Steinway Artist’s bench is a tufted leather adjustable bench that comes along with all of their grand pianos. This one however, had issues. He would raise it, and it would fall again. This happened constantly throughout the performance. Our typical concert pianist would again have cause for a walk off. Not David Helfgott. He was no ordinary concert pianist.
My resolution to the whole experience was simple. He certainly didn’t possess the abilities of his contemporaries, at least not anymore. But he also didn’t possess the vanity that is usually correctly attributed to virtuosi. He certainly shined. He enjoyed what he did, a difficult feat for most. An ultimately he received the adoration expected decades earlier.