How James Rhodes is making classical music cool again
I can’t quite remember how I first heard of James Rhodes. Perhaps it was this most brilliant piece he wrote on creativity for the Guardian, “Find what you love and let it kill you”, where Rhodes gave a window into his journey from repressed and stressed-out City worker whose life was ruled by his various addictions, to his fulfilling career as a classical pianist but also a champion for the revival of classical music in popular culture and for music education in general.
Rhodes is also a passionate advocate for…well, passion. He thinks it is the reason so many people live unfulfilling lives, because they are not making enough (or any) time to do what they truly love to do. And you don’t have to throw away your day job to do it either. In the aforementioned article, Rhodes says it’s often simply a matter of organising your time better and rather than giving in to the lure of television each night – which, let’s face it, is one of the most passive activities ever – use those few hours to pursue your passions.
“So if only to stick it to the man, isn't it worth fighting back in some small way? So write your damn book. Learn a Chopin prelude, get all Jackson Pollock with the kids, spend a few hours writing a haiku. Do it because it counts, even without the fanfare, the money, the fame and Heat photo-shoots that all our children now think they're entitled to.”
As someone who has been determined to live a life where my passions are a big priority, I have become a big James Rhodes fan, not just for his philosophies but for his music too. My husband Tom bought me some of his CDs for Christmas and I’ve had them on constant rotation. His playing has so much emotion behind it as he has absorbed the story of the piece and the composer who wrote it. I was one of those teenagers who spent far more time listening to Chopin and Schumann than I did Oasis, Blur or Silverchair (in the 1990s, as you can imagine, this made me very uncool) but listening to Rhodes’ vibrant and modern interpretation of composers I have loved for years has given them a new lease on life for me. It is true – knowing a little about the context of the piece infuses it with new meaning when you listen to it.
So when I found out that James Rhodes was doing some concerts at the Soho Theatre at the end of March this year, I knew I simply had to snatch the chance to see him in the flesh. Well, Tom beat me to it and surprised me with tickets! :)
The Soho Theatre was an interesting and, as Rhodes told us through the course of the evening, a deliberate choice. Part of his manifesto as an artist is to take classical music out of the dusty and intimidating concert halls and place it firmly back in popular culture where, indeed, it once was. Beethoven, Schubert, Bach and their contemporaries were, he explained, “rock gods” of their time.
So with his aim to make classical music far more accessible, what resulted was a delightful mixture of classical music and stand up comedy. Each piece, energetically and emotionally performed with a natural ease, was interwoven with Rhodes telling an often amusing story about the next piece he was about to perform. Did you know, for example, that Schubert had the nickname "mushroom face" as he was not the most attractive fellow? This added greatly to the audience’s enjoyment and I think also dispelled fears that we wouldn’t quite understand what we were listening to!
After the first piece, Chopin's Nocturne in C Minor, Rhodes welcomed the audience and announced that the theme of this series of concerts was “when love goes wrong….or ‘the venereal years’, as I like to call them." Sadly, as he wryly explained, many of the great composers spent most of their lives in poverty and often suffered from venereal diseases like syphilis and gonorrhoea, afflictions that not only cut their lives short but left some of them with a restricted ability to play.
Tom and I were torn between our favourite pieces of the night – I was spellbound by Blumenfeld's étude pour la main gauche, a piece to be played solely with the left hand across the full range of the piano (as Blumenfeld contracted a strain of syphilis so severe he lost the use of the right side of his body). James Rhodes placed his right hand on the side of the piano in full view of the audience so we could see he was playing this rich, textured piece with only one hand. It was amazing to watch (you can see it for yourself to the right) and the final notes were utterly triumphant.
Tom, on the other hand, loved Rhodes’ interpretation of Grieg’s In the Hall of the Mountain King where at one point, he began to play at a “wrist-breaking” speed and his hands became a whirling manic blur as he pummelled towards the piece’s dramatic conclusion. It was electrifying to watch.
Despite his enormous talent, Rhodes appeared very humble, unassuming and genuinely thrilled to see a packed house. This is not a man with an ego but one that is purely driven by his passion for music. We left the Soho as the last of the rapturous applause died down, both of us enthusing about the music, but also saying to each other “we should really take up the piano again!”
An hour of listening to this man play the piano is inspiring, emotional and uplifting. If you’ve ever been put off attending a classical music concert because you’re worried you might be bored, or because nothing in your wardrobe even vaguely resembles black tie, then go and see James Rhodes because not only does he perform in jeans and a t-shirt but he is making classical music very, very cool.
But then, for those of us who spent our teenage years listening to some of these original “rock gods”, it always was.
To find out about James Rhodes’ next concert, check out his web site.