James Rhodes, who will be performing in Palma in June.

29-04-2017

Londoner James Rhodes is not your stereotypical classical pianist, he is more rock and roll than white tie and tails, suits and long capes. He likes to perform wearing jeans or whatever he happens to feel comfortable in on the day of a concert.

"Someone asked once why I played wearing jeans, I replied ‘why not?’ As long as you're comfortable in what you are doing, what does it matter what you wear," James said this week ahead of the concert he will be performing at the Trui Theatre in Palma on 4 June.

James has no formal academic musical education or dedicated mentoring. The title of the debut album, Razor Blades, Little Pills and Big Pianos, hints at the suffering that dogged Rhodes’s childhood and early adult life. Classical music became his solace and key to his survival. It was Bach, Beethoven and Chopin that offered comfort. And coming to Majorca, James is eager to get some free time to visit Valldemossa, where Chopin spent a winter.

In October 2009, James appeared in his first documentary on BBC Four’s Chopin: The Women Behind the Music. "It was extremely interesting, especially because of my love of Chopin’s music, but sadly it was very much focused on his life in Warsaw and Paris, the budget didn’t stretch to Majorca. So I am very excited about coming over and getting up to Valldemossa. That’s the only downside to this job. I seem to only see the inside of hotels, airports and concert halls, but I’m defiantly going to make some time for myself in Majorca."

In March 2010, James became the first classical pianist to be signed to the world’s largest rock label Warner Bros Records. His first album, Bullets & Lullabies, became his third number one iTunes album. That summer he was also the first solo classical pianist to play the Latitude Festival, sharing stages with international stars such as Florence + the Machine and The National.

But, his road to success was far from easy. "Miles Davis once said ‘anyone can play music, it’s 20 per cent talent and 80 per cent attitude’ and I love that quote. However, when I initially began learning to play the piano I didn’t have the discipline and patience required. I tried to run before I could walk and eventually, at the age of 18, gave up playing and I didn’t play again for the next ten years. So I guess I was a very late starter. I had never got past grade three by that point."

Growing up, he had to deal with mental issues to the extent that he was unable to take up a scholarship at the Guildhall, but in 2003 a chance meeting with Franco Panozzo, agent to Russian concert pianist virtuoso, Grigori Sokolov, changed things. Panozzo arranged for James to have a brief tutorage by the renowned piano teacher Edoardo Strabbioli in Verona Italy.

Suffering further setbacks due to health issues, it was not until 2008, when Rhodes met his present manager, Denis Blais, that he was encouraged to record his first CD. This enabled him to bare his soul and put many of the ghosts of the past to rest.

"I eventually left Warner Bros and started my own label because I am a control freak. Life’s too short and I wanted to record what I wanted to play and write, and to tour when I wanted. But the trouble with playing Chopin, Bach and Beethoven is how do you choose what to play? It’s like going into a library and being told you can only take one book away. There’s such a vast range of great music composed by these that it’s sometimes extremely difficult to select what to play. But it’s wonderful at the same time.

"That said, the trouble today is that many people have either forgotten how to listen or have never known. In this age of smartphones and super technology everything is so instant, so fast, people no longer know what it is to really ‘chill out’: it’s much more than listening to some naff CD or download.

"That’s one of the reasons I don’t bother with the white tie and tails, I want people who come to concerts to feel comfortable along with me. I want to connect with the audience. I always play straight through for 80 to 90 minutes. I don’t bother with intervals because that breaks the connection and interrupts the audience’s train of thought and experience.

"I want people who come to hear me play to sit back, close their eyes and disappear into the music. I know it’s difficult in this day and age when people can not focus for more than 40 minutes without sending a text or an email, but that’s what I want my audiences to do and it works. I’ve always been keen on breaking down the establishment tag which goes with classical music so often. I want to crack open that niche market and it’s working.

"My audiences are getting more and more eclectic with ages ranging from seven to 80, but more recently I seem to have really connected with the generation in their late 20s and early 30s which is sensational. It shows that interest in classical music is not dying out, but it’s important how it’s presented and how it is priced.

"I’ve played concert halls and theatres all over the world but I’ve also performed at some of the largest rock and music festivals and the reaction is just as good. The trouble with this industry is that there are so many people involved who want to keep classical music a niche market for the establishment. Concerts are quite often very expensive, too expensive, but the promoters etc. are doing that on purpose so that they cater for an elite market and not the general public as a whole.

"And the downside to that is that, ironically, the promoters and managers are damaging their own industry by restricting the audience. How many orchestras around the world are struggling for funding? Hundreds. But they would not be if the world of classical music was properly opened up to the public.

James is currently working on a new album and is about to embark on making a documentary about the late great Canadian pianist Glenn Gould in Toronto. He is no stranger to performing in Spain. His memoirs, Instrumental, reached number one in Spain on the ABC non-fiction list, and a book he wrote teaching people how to play the piano in six weeks has been translated and has sold extremely well.

He will be be performing a very moving concert here in Palma. "The performance is all about life and death. It will involve some very youthful pieces by Bach and then some very dark pieces by Chopin. It will be immensely emotional."

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