New Rhodes

by pieces of moments

Look, no one likes a snob – no one. Let’s face it everyone: going to a conventional “classical” concert at one of the great concert halls in America does feel stuffy. Now, I’m not sure what has changed exactly since I want to speak from the phenomenonal and not from the statistical, and as I am still pretty young I can’t possibly comment from experience what going to a concert feels like now as opposed to 60 years ago. I’m convinced that I come to this argument from a disadvantage of having that knowledge in my back pocket from which to draw. Society was different then, and I cannot possibly go to a concert without taking my late 20th/early 21st century self through the door. But speaking as someone who has been attending concerts as early as I can remember I can say that as I have gotten older and have been able to pick up on the subtle environmental aspects of concert going I have realized that yes, it is a stuffy experience, indeed.

Exhibit A: Maggie, Nick, Nova, and I were attending a Boston Symphony Orchestra concert this past spring. We had great tickets sitting the football equivalent of halfway up on the 30 yard line (oh, please, I used to go to Husker games every fall…give me a break). We were having a lovely evening feeling rather giddy about our free tickets (perk) and looking foward to the program. We happen to be sitting behind a group of, shall we say, very seasoned concert goers. It was before the concert was starting (important point – note this) and Maggie and I were giggling about something amusing to us when one of the aforementioned S.C.Gs (seasoned concert goers) whipped around and shushed us. !!!!!!!!!!!!! YES! She legit shushed us and the concert had not even started yet. Furthermore, we were not laughing that loudly – totally used our indoor voices. Now, if that doesn’t put a sour taste in your mouth I don’t know what will. Who wants to go somewhere where laughing is seemingly prohibited by the regulars? What if that we had been first time concert goers who just decided to try out a student discount ticket? Would we come back??? Don’t think so.


{Maggie and I laughing freely…not at a “classical” concert…and without being shushed}

Basically this Promethean attitude of “yo, you should thank me for bringing this to you mortals” kinda zaps the joy out of things, don’t you think? I know I have said this before, but there have been many times where I have been desperate to go up to the members of the most renowned orchestras in our country and say, “so, you enjoy this?” because half the time I go to concerts these days and they seem like they are the musical equivalent of sleep walkers. I’m left wondering, are they really bored, or is it just the culture of the genre and I have changed, or is it this Promethean duty that weighs on them and gets ’em feeling down? Are they tired of playing the same rep over and over again (just think how many times you would have to play Beethoven’s 3rd Symphony if you were in an orchestra for 40 years)? Many have tried to solve that problem but few truly succeed.

Geez, I’m rambling. Just gets me going, you know? I get upset.

My essential question is this: where the heck is the joy? Why does it feel more and more like this burden of a thing we need to spoon to audiences? Shouldn’t musicians feel more like bird keepers who happen to be in posession of something so powerful it can make an audience feel like their souls are taking flight? Why does going to a “classical” concert at a major concert hall feel ever more like going to church with pervasive hushed reverance?

I am reminded yet again of how much I yearn for “classical” music to become something that is not elite but not swing too far the other way into wanting to just be “one of the guys” so to speak. There is that danger, too, and I see it when established “classical” organizations sense this swing of anti-elitism and freak out by wanting to find the lowest common denominator. Not cool. Can’t we find a happy medium here like, you know, letting the music speak for itself and making room for young performers with fresh perspective and stories? I love Ockham’s Razor Theory and I bet you can tell. The simplist answer is fine, people, no need to over complicate.

Enter James Rhodes.

James is a British pianist. He had a rough childhood – abuse, etc. He became an addict and attempted suicide more than once. But in the midst of it all there was music. He always loved music and eventually it became like his savior. His first CD gets that Ockham’s Razor Theory out and cuts to the chase with its succint life story title: Razor Blades, Little Pills and Big Pianos. With very little formal training during those early years when most young aspiring pianists are learning their alphabet along with their clefs and key signatures he carried his passion with him and eventually got the breaks he needed to get where he is today. But what I love about him is that he is determined to remain himself – a young, hip, 33-year-old, guy with more  lifetimes than most from which to draw for emotional grounding. He speaks like a 33-year-old, dresses like it, too (meaning that much to the chagrin of the old guard he wears trainers), all while being on stage performing straight up “classical” repertoire. Read this excerpt from a recent article in the Times Online by Bryan Appleyard:

Playing “hardcore classical” — as opposed to soft “crossover” pieces or interpolating soothing pop/rock or whatever — is an aspect of Rhodes’s conviction that this music needs no embroidery. It needs neither desperate marketing nor the white-tie-and-tails flummery of the traditional concert hall.

THANK YOU. What a novel idea. And you know what really gets me angry at my own kind (musicians/musicologists)? How someone like James is subject to criticism of trying to use his modernity as a gimmick or a publicity stunt. Seriously? You bellyache about not getting enough young people in concert halls but when there is someone who could actually make them feel like it’s a place for them, too, you shake a finger at him for wearing trainers whilst playing? Fail, “classical” establishment, you fail. That kind of scolding is the equivalent of being shushed before anything is even happening on stage. Seems to me like he’s just doing his thing and along the way just happens to be providing his fellow generation x and y members with an example of a “classical” musician they can relate to and see something of themselves mirrored.

Rhodes continues in the article saying:

“For me, classical music needs a kick up the arse like it’s never needed before. It needs to be seen as fresh and invigorating and exciting, all the things that it is. Pianists up there with a white tie and tails, they’re up there with the audience down there; they never talk, never mingle with them. It’s very boring and so exclusive. People don’t want to dress up and head down to the Festival Hall and spend £40 on a ticket and buy a programme with notes they don’t understand by some guy who doesn’t give a stuff.”

You know what I say to that? Two words: preach it.

Below is some video of James Rhodes. I’m not sure if I should be at liberty to tell you this, but what the heck: he told me he is hopefully performing in the NYC come fall (he currently performs in the UK). I would be checking websites continually if I were you.

**It should be noted that in this entry I’m talking specifically about traditional music venues – the “symphony halls” across America. I realize “alternative” venues are becoming more and more popular, and that’s great, but traditional music venues are looking to expand audiences and this is my complaint specifically  for them.