We have been bombarded with numerous attempts to bring classical music to the same level as more popular music and throw it off it’s (apparently omnipresent) self regarding pedestal. We’ve had those attempts since the start of the last century. Evangelists for the cause have been far too many from Leopold Stokowski and André Previn to the more recent lights of André Rieu…and James Rhodes. This popularising tendency has been the driving force and a money spinner behind the classical crossover industry and seems to find lots of friends in record labels. When James Rhodes’s much commented signing to Warner produced Bullets and Lullabies some critics were charmed, but there was an obvious unease in most reviews.
After having a few terse exchanges with him on his blog and Twitter, I thought maybe it would be only fair to see him perform live and make my own mind up.
Reading through the programme it was a mix of very brief pieces, the longest being under 20 mins (Beethoven Waldstein sonata), most of them transcriptions from other instruments. A fact that got me worried before arriving there, as the piano has one of the most extensive repertoires, it seems odd to not find enough pieces written for the instrument and to resort to clumsy transcriptions.
On arrival at the QEH it was obvious we were in for a treat, drinks were allowed to be taken in the auditorium, the piano was skewed at an angle (not sure that’s a wise choice as the QEH has a very immediate acoustic) and as the lights dimmed to a pitch darkness we are treated to an american football kind of announcement, to welcome James Rhodes…well, we had no idea it would be him on stage did we? We had a bit of a wait while he looked intensely at the piano and at last he started playing. The sound was thin and reedy, with a clear lack of coordination between left and right hands and also with obvious rhythmic inconsistencies. I attributed that to nerves and looked forward to the next piece. Then he gave us a long winded lecture about the anachronistic nature of the term classical music, name dropping his friend Stephen Fry blah blah blah blah. He did a petulant little routine about the music being “serious” and the audience laughed at the slightest little quip and barely amusing snippet he threw out like the courtiers of a mad king (for a fact, 40 people had free tickets that he gave away on Twitter) somehow I did not find any of his jokes funny, Bach’s portraits showing a man gagging for a blow job was possibly the lowest level of jokey populism I’ve heard in years. But you have to give him his dues, he tried very hard to joke about everything he played. Maybe it’s terribly old fashioned of me to attend a concert and expect to listen to music, but have never felt short-changed not to have Martha Argerich crack jokes about Ravel and Chopin to make an evening interesting.
For this audience it was more like the taping of Have I Got New for You than a concert. Had at least his playing been up to scratch, one could possibly forgive his dull comedic routines, tailor made to amuse a certain demographic that this “inaccessible” type of music was just being presented as the new coolness. Another long prologue followed for the longest item in the bill, the Beethoven sonata. After he sat and started playing the sound was again as thin and the left hand was bashing quite heavily on the keys, a sound made horrible by the fact the production crew left on his radio mic so alongside the piano we got the sound of his fingers bashing the keys (in Rhodes lingo…not cool!). Beethoven, alongside Bach has such a distinctive writing that within 30 seconds you can tell it’s him. On Saturday night had I not have the lecture in advance, I would have struggled to tell you it was a Beethoven. The obvious technical flaws, made this one bumpy ride, the sense of overall shape and melodic progression seem to have never been of concern to him. An elegant piece let down by sloppy, downright amateurish playing. The double G&T I had at interval was much needed! Had I not have to blog about it, I would have left at that point, but the good company and the booming theatrical laugh from the very well known TV actor behind me were an alluring package.
Unfortunately he attempted a Rachmaninoff (Prelude in C sharp minor) that truly was awful, no obvious emotional content, just beefy bashing with the left hand while the right was attempting fidgety little ornaments more akin to embroidery than the Russian school. But the absolute worse was left for the finale, where we were treated to three encores, one of them being the Frankenstein version of Mozart’s Rondo alla Turca he played at Cheltenham in the summer. My notes clearly mention playschool Mozart, no need to elaborate further. It got him a standing ovation, started by his pal Derren Brown (a few seats away from me)…I remained seated waiting for the end and hoping that this was the last encore. But then after cracking another not very funny joke about office workers being called back to work a bit more at the end of the day, he played Grigory Ginzburg’s transcription of Grieg’s In the Hall of the Mountain King, as featured in his album (I figured that one afterwards when I checked on Spotify) he was barely keeping up with the rhythmic variation and pace, but clearly the audience was dazzled by the virtuosity.
A couple of Twitter followers reprimanded me for partially putting the blame on the audience and maybe they are right. This low level quality performance should not be programmed at a prestigious venue, part of the South Bank Centre. It would have been more at home in a more alternative venue making both the audience and Rhodes, not being weighted by the classical set up of a concert hall, feel more comfortable…also would manage to sell out, unlike this occasion.
All in all a dreadful evening, marred by amateurish piano playing and an audience that permitted it to happen and lapped up this drop of musical standards to the gutter. James Rhodes just gave us spineless renditions of compromised scores for the Apple generation. The type of people who think being a geek accounts to queueing around the block from one of their stores on launch day of the next iGadget. If only life was as simple and music making equally did not require the amount of skill and practise it does. He did a disservice to music, to the audience and himself.
A little extra for you, lucky people
Since the dreadful video of Rhodes “playing” on a TV breakfast show has been removed, have some glorious pianism by Martha Argerich, a woman who has proven over the last forty years that gimmicks are not needed for an intense experience