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Jessica Duchen
Thursday 25th March 2010
Meet James Rhodes

If you haven't already, that is. And you soon will. He's just become the first classical pianist to be signed up to Warner Bros Records - not Warner Classics, mind, but the full whammy, Madonna-featuring pop giant label. Here he is playing some Moszkowski:

As you see, he's not your average concert pianist type. He's been making capital out of "stripping away the pretentions that surround classical music". Last night at his launch party in Kettner's, Soho, our James rolled up in a stripey t-shirt that made him look like an ex-con, plus long hair and horn-rimmed specs for good measure. He played us four short pieces from Marcello to Ravel - short but sweet, and certainly enough to show us the boy can play the piano.

But hey - a lot of people can play the piano, so what's the big deal? Well, the taster was enough to show one thing clearly: he's a great communicator. He introduces his pieces himself and has an engagingly natural way of speaking - it's extremely personal, as if he's talking to friends in his front room.

Of course he's by no means the first musician to stand up and speak to the audience between pieces - artists like Tasmin Little and Piers Lane have been doing this for years - but there's something about the manner, kind of rebellious and vulnerable at the same time, that does get to people. As for his musicianship, even if there are wrong notes, what shines through is a relishing of the music - rich-toned melodies and virtuoso glitter alike - and an absolute love for it all, something that can be depressingly absent from certain culprits among today's high-charging young soloists (I'm thinking of the types reputed to have given their teachers on the juries backhanders to get them competition prizes - no names, no pack drill. Compared to that scene, Rhodes really is a breath of fresh air.)

Now, his story is especially touching because music helped him recover from drug addiction and psychiatric problems (read 'How Beethoven Became My Drug' here_.) Personally, before this event I was afraid we might be heading for David Helfgott territory - ie, disasterous taking over of public narrative from personal reality and/or classical music as freak show - but thank heavens that doesn't appear to be the case. What's intriguing is that in my experience a lot of musicians start out reasonably sane, then crack up under the strain of their careers. Rhodes seems to have reversed this process, and I just hope music continues to give him the solace and support he's always found in it once he's out there playing on schedule to thousands. 

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April 11th, 2010
9:04 PM
Not too impressed with the performance: Horowitz was playing this as an encore with far greater lightness and humour well into his 80s - and without any showy messing about with the text either. The sob-story about his drug addiction is touching enough, but seems to be an unashamed appeal to the "X-factor" type of audience. And is that a packet of cigarettes strategically placed above the left end of the keyboard as a piece of product placement?

April 1st, 2010
6:04 PM
Sorry but don't get James Rhodes. He doesn't strike me as particularly talented, seeing him at a few events play honestly bored me and his story: Well what will happen when the story doesnt get him coverage in the press anymore and he is only judged by his play? Will he really be able to stand the test next to such great pianists as Brendel, Uchida and Pollini?Doubt it...

March 25th, 2010
1:03 PM
The black and white video recording, with shots of the street, the sound of the cars... remembers some video recordings of a young Glenn Gould for the CBS. But this guy doesn´t play as Mr Gould at all... If Warner wants to create pop star, at least they should made a new image for him, not to use a stolen one...

Yoshiyuki Mukudai
March 25th, 2010
9:03 AM
I doubt my ears. The playing quality is under junior high level. If you critics are forced to sell this kind of kittens. "Shameful death of Classical Music" finally come true. Well, I know Warner Bros is a bull shit, though.

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About Jessica Duchen

Jessica Duchen is a music journalist and the author of four novels, two biographies and several stage works. She writes regularly for The Independent and BBC Music Magazine. Her latest novel, Songs of Triumphant Love, is published by Hodder.

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