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Play Like You Mean It! | December 7, 2010

Live music rocks, sometimes in a metaphorical sense, because it’s not always rock; sometimes it’s folk, or blues or jazz or hip hop. You know what I mean. However, going to see David Helfgott playing solo a couple of weeks ago had a certain sense of going out on a limb, especially for the price of the tickets. All I know about the man can be encapsulated in the biopic “Shine”, in which Geoffrey Rush played Helfgott and received an Oscar for. That was before he became better known as a pirate vagabond, Geoffrey Rush that is, not Helfgott. However, with Helfgott being Australian, it seemed to make sense to go and see him, what with Wellington being in the… er… same hemisphere.

Geoffrey Rush - Oscar being used like a weapon there methinks...

Given that I knew little of the man, and that the whole geographical relevance thing was wafer thin, you would assume that I am something of a student of classical music. Well, I’ve listened to plenty of it over the years, but I seem to have a lot of difficulty remembering most of the pieces I’ve heard. I have a suspicion the problem is what’s described in the film “Amadeus” (as a criticism of Mozart’s stunning work) as “there are too many notes”. I just don’t think I can remember that density of sonic stimulation.

A few stick though: There’s Holst’s “The Planets” which is slowly sinking in after 20 years of play, although I still find it hard to name the specific movements (Mars excepted) even though all I have to do is attach one of six possible names. Ravel’s “Boléro”, which every Great Britannian knows from the international ass-whooping that Torvill and Dean served at the 1984 Winter Olympics (stand and salute my countrymen); gold medal victory is a dish best served cold. Of course, they used the radio edit, but I am also familiar with the original album version, which is a lot longer – Olympic winners, for sure, but a little on the lazy side it would seem. And, naturally, I know “the music from The Deer Hunter” and “the music from Hovis advert”, although I suspect they aren’t the official names.

This cat has a better memory for classical music than I do, and it spends 95% of its time thinking about fish...

For all my love of music you would think that I would have put in some effort to learn an instrument. My parents had, indeed have, a piano, and as a child I was asked if I wanted to learn to play. In the days before I learned to judge my responses and would reply without giving my fearful lizard brain a vote, I eagerly said yes. This was a mistake, as my lessons were scheduled for exactly the same time that “Mighty Mouse” was on TV. “Here I come to save the day!” No Jon, it’s time for your scales. I didn’t actually have the expletives in my vocabulary to describe my miffedness.

I didn’t practice much either, as there was the outdoors and den building and Lego and cartoons and pretty much everything else going on in my young life, and it was all more important than middle C and its keyboard companions. I did manage to lodge the first eight or something bars of “Yankee Doodle Dandy” into my noggin, although only the melody. Once, in the music block at school, where I would invalidly hang out, I played my terrible rendition on an unfortunate upright. When the hat/feather combo was declared to be Macaroni my friend, Dan, jumped straight in and thrashed out the chorus; he used chords and finesse and all kinds of madness. It was humbling, although not enough for me to learn better, oh no, you can still catch me awkwardly murdering that melody whenever I am near a keyboard.

This is what pianos want to do to themselves when I show up...

But my fists of ham don’t really bother me that much, because I really enjoy watching other people play the piano. In fact, my earliest memory of this strange fascination of the visual exhibition involves the aforementioned Dan Rendall, playing the piano at some school concert. I’m fairly confident he played some Scott Joplin. He seemed to have a penchant for that when we were kids.

My love of the piano as a focal object must go back to my parents, and their old Joanna. One of my earliest memories is of being sat on my mom’s knee at the piano, singing along as she played. We’d go through a pile of sheet music and choose our next victim – I have never been much of a singer. Polly would be implored to put the kettle on, and we were familiar with the disappointment the sailor felt when he discovered the limited ocular choices of a seascape, at least I think I used to do my machine gun fire shouting of “sea, sea, sea” along with the piano – I wonder if my mom egged me on, driving me along with her own trigger key punching, like a super skilled Morse tapper.

Carolina - I have never been and the intertubes provide poor evidence of "fineness", just pictures of women called Carolina and American Football players. So the jury is out on this one...

And my dad used to play with gusto, thrashing out recitals of “Carolina In The Morning” (nothing could be finer, I am informed) and “When The Saints Go Marching In”. I’m not sure if he always stood up to do this, but I always remember him standing up, proper rock ‘n’ roll style, even if the music wasn’t. In fact, my dad playing “When The Saints…” is still the only version I actually like, he must have captured some of the real gospel spirit in there somewhere, unlike most renditions you hear, around football matches and whatnot. Obviously I watched all this ivory tinkling and I guess I’m reminded of these fond memories at some deep level whenever I see anyone play.

All things considered, I reckon I was bound to enjoy seeing and hearing David Helfgott play, and I knew it. Of course, he is a pianist of rare talent, unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. I was transfixed by the movement of his hands and was enormously glad that I was sat on the side of the theatre from where I could see them – it took me until the second half to realize that the stalls were uncharacteristically unpopular for exactly this reason.

David Helfgott - me and him share a posture...

From my vantage point I could see his digits slink around the keyboard in a spectacular fashion. Never ever did his action look heavy, even when pummeling a key with his powerful hands, like Kung Fu rather than heavyweight boxing, the power came from speed and precision, rather than weight and brutality. And what speed, there were times when the movement was a blur, not some kind of hyperbole, an actual real “I can’t see where those fingers really are in space” type blur.

Best of all though, David Helgott hunches over the piano in exactly the same way I hunch over a plate of food. Now, I don’t want to read too much into this meaningless fact but does this mean I’m a virtuoso food eater, rather than poorly postured and mannered? I rather like to think so.

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