You wouldn’t be alone in thinking classical music is not for you, and one man is working hard to change the perception of a genre of music often thought of as elitist or unfathomable. Meet James Rhodes…
He’s a pianist with no formal academic musical education, but James Rhodes is now considered one of the most exciting figures in classical music. His talent at the keyboard is unquestionable and his passion for sharing the power of music has won him many fans. Music has been a therapy for James, who has used the piano as a tool for standing up to his own demons. He has become as much a champion for mental health issues as he has for music education. An evening in the company of James is enlightening and engaging as he leads the audience through the music, immersing them in tales of favourite composers and sharing personal anecdotes. Think of it as classical stand-up…
James mades his St George’s debut in 2014 as part of a tour that coincided with a Channel 4 series and a bestselling book, ‘Instrumental’, and he has returned each year since, attracting capacity crowds every single time. We caught up with him prior to that first visit to talk music, mental health and what audience can expect from his recitals…
You have credited music with having the most profound effect during the darkest times in your life and we’re sure a lot of people would relate to this. However, music education, the arts, and mental health services are the first to be hit by budget cuts; why do you think this is?
Because they’re easy targets. We are still, sadly, allowing ourselves to see music education as a dubious luxury rather than a basic human right. And there is still far too much stigma around mental illness that allows such drastic cuts to go unchallenged. Mental illness is not one of the cuddly, media-friendly diseases – it is gritty and shocking and messy. Which is precisely why it needs to be spoken about more and treated with compassion rather than fear.
How is the digital age affecting the way classical music is experienced? Is it helping or hindering?
I really believe it’s helping. But many classical musicians and industry people don’t seem to be embracing the technology behind it in a way that helps their cause. Tweeting about a new album in the third person, moaning about sneakily-filmed YouTube performances, refusing to engage with audiences both from on and off the stage and so on will only ever hurt sales. There are only a tiny number of solo musicians now who don’t need social media and new technology (Kissin, Zimerman, Argerich etc). The rest need to embrace it and discover ways of using it to their advantage.
Your last Channel 4 series was about giving young people the opportunity to experience classical works, composers and instruments. Why do you think there is such a barrier between young people and classical music?
Because over the years, classical music seems to have been appropriated by a small section of society who seem determined to keep it for themselves. And at the other end you get certain big labels and radio stations pushing crossover as real classical which is manipulative, dishonest and cynical. Classical music (and the industry behind it) has become diluted and even weirder. It apologises for itself too much, has far too many barriers to entry and seems to place far too much focus on the bullshit surrounding it (dress codes, programming choices, venues etc) than the music itself. If I were a 15 yr old who hadn’t been exposed to much classical music and wanted to find out about it, I wouldn’t know where to start and would likely end up with a Classic FM Best 50 Revision Classics Ever Volume 56 or an album with some guitarist playing medleys from Phantom of the Opera. And I think it’s an utter travesty to have that as an example of what classical music is.
How are you breaking down these barriers, and what have you learned about this since starting the project?
By seeing the music and the audience as equals, talking to the audience and hopefully engaging with them, making concerts about storytelling and the music rather than about wearing ridiculous outfits and clapping in the eight places. My experience is that most people want to know more about classical but don’t really know where to start. I hope I’m a kind of gateway drug into the more typical Festival Hall/LPO/Wigmore concerts for them.
Have the young people you have been mentoring taught you anything? Did they surprise you?
Constantly. We (or maybe just I) consistently underestimate young people. All I know is I have never in my life been more astonished or impressed by their capacity for kindness, speed of knowledge-acquisition and utter likeability.
Your bestselling book, “Instrumental” is an “An impassioned tribute to the therapeutic powers of music.”
Can you explain a little bit about it? No. Buy it. Please. I need to eat…
Was it more difficult to express/define the darker moments in words, rather than music?
Of course! Forster said something about music being the ‘deepest of the Arts, deep beneath the Arts’ – it really does just tunnel in at a deeper level than words. Writing well is so much harder than interpreting music well I think.
You started your own label, “Instrumental Records”; is it important to be able to represent yourself and your music on your own terms and in your own style?
Very much so. And also to do the same for other musicians. I can’t wait to start signing new pianists, orchestras, singers, tour as a label, design beautiful albums, start to make music in a way that is more inclusive, fun and less up its own ass.
Your label started signing artists in 2015. What kind of musicians are you looking for?
Ones with something to say. Doesn’t bother me in the least if you have won competitions or graduated from a conservatory. I just want brilliant playing, engaging artists and to feel that raw excitement we used to have back in the day from soloists.
How is your most recent album ‘Five’ different to the previous four albums and is it difficult to choose what pieces feature?
It’s not really. It’s still a mixed recital format, Bach, Beethoven and Chopin, played as well as I can and polished to its maximum by a team of sound engineers and producers who do their best to make me sound halfway decent. Choosing repertoire for an album is the most exhilarating part of my job. It’s an embarrassment of riches to choose from. I can spend hours, days, weeks fantasizing about it before making a final selection.
We’re looking forward to having you at St George’s! What can the audience expect from an evening with James Rhodes?
Inappropriate jokes, brilliant music, a lovely atmosphere to bring a date, some bitching Chopin and, if we’re all lucky, a few moments of deep astonishment at witnessing what these genius bastard composers are capable of…
James Rhodes (piano)
Wednesday 4 October, 7.30pm
Tickets £25 Front Stalls, £20, £15, £5 Students/U18s (limited availability) (plus fees)
Interview by Kirsty Green. With thanks to James Rhodes, and Zoe Caldwell at Glynis Henderson Productions. James’s memoir, Instrumental is published by Canongate Books.