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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