James Rhodes plays the piano gorgeously – you don’t need me to tell you that; and it should be reason enough for anyone to go to his gigs and buy his albums. He’s also known for his relaxed approach to recitals and his quest to make classical music more accessible to the wider public.
What I didn’t know was that he is also very funny. Being at one of his gigs is like music education comedy – a bit like the music ed lessons I loved in school, but with laughs.
And, most importantly, he’s out to challenge all the (frankly, stupid) rules that have somehow attached themselves to classical recitals over time and are casting a whole load of unnecessary doom over the experience of going to listen to somebody play the piano.
Despite having played piano all my life, I rarely go to recitals. There’s just too much stuck-up-ness involved in your average recital. The oppressive atmosphere of a Queen Elizabeth Hall filled with posh people in their finest evening wear, making you feel that this is no place for your frizzy hair and your studded boots. The visible discomfort of the pianist clad in full tuxedo. The constant horror that you might clap at the wrong moment – or, indeed, that a little noise of joy might escape from your lips at the end of a piece, drawing two hundred pairs of furious eyes to you. And, the most stupid of all the rules: Why the fuck is the pianist not allowed to talk to the audience? I mean, the awkwardness! It makes me cringe every time. It’s unnatural. It’s just plain wrong.
And that’s what I love so much about James Rhodes. He plays recitals in the basement of a Soho theatre, he comes on stage in jeans and a stripy t-shirt and bright red shoes, with his trademark messy hair, and just puts you at ease.
Most importantly, he talks. It’s as simple as that. He gets up from the piano, he faces his audience, and he tells us, with so much love and passion for his subject, about the composers and the life experiences that led them to compose the pieces he is playing, and shares his feelings about a particular composer, or piece, or the process of learning it. And this has nothing to do with the common misconception that you have to spell things out to your average audience because they’re too uneducated or unsophisticated to understand and appreciate classical music. It’s simply about putting some life and humanity back into the process of playing – and consuming – classical music.
Because surely all music, whether it’s pop or metal or classical, should be there to enjoy and to share and to dance to – and not to be consumed by the elite in awkwardness and according to a set of pointless social rules that would probably make the composers turn in their graves.
I raise a pen to James Rhodes for putting the fun back into piano recitals, for always making sure we get plenty of Chopin, and for reminding us of the human beings behind those great classical works of genius.
Here’s James reading one of Beethoven’s letters at Letters Live in December 2013
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