Thursday, May 20, 2010

A Classical Pianist with CHUTZPAH

I see that the last time I gave a Chutzpah of the Week award in the domain of music was about a year ago, when I gave the award to those members of the operations team of the American Bach Soloists who decided that a festive setting in Grace Cathedral was more important than whether or not anyone in that cavernous space could actually listen to the music of George Frideric Handel being performed. This time around listening is once again the issue, but the awardee is putting a much more positive connotative spin on his chutzpah. Unfortunately, he is on the other side of the pond; so we may have to wait a bit in this country before we can enjoy his chutzpah directly. Furthermore, if he does decide to grace our shores, chances are good that his chutzpah will extend to his choices of venue for an American tour.

The awardee is the pianist James Rhodes, and I knew nothing about him until he was profiled by Damian Thompson in a piece that recently appeared on the London Telegraph Web site. Thompson's introduction makes it clear why Rhodes is a candidate for the award:

No cheesy crossover, no TV ad favourites, but Bach partitas, Beethoven sonatas, Chopin études and wild, sprawling piano fantasies by the crazed 19th-century composer Charles-Valentin Alkan.

And he’ll be playing them live, too, in venues where classical music has never been heard: the Latitude festival, for example, a sort of highbrow, right-on Glastonbury held on the Suffolk coast in July. Next Wednesday he performs in the Udderbelly, a tent in the shape of an upside-down purple cow on the South Bank.

The cover of Rhodes’s second album (the last before Warner snapped him up) shows him dressed like a mime artist at a psychedelic rave: face slathered in white make-up, a smear of scarlet lipstick, plastic trousers – one leg red, one blue. When it came out, I wrote a blog post asking: “Why does this clown think he can play late Beethoven?”

And the answer was: because he can. The performance of Beethoven’s late piano sonata Opus 109 on that album is one of the most delicate and exquisitely crafted I’ve ever heard.

This is the sort of performer who gets attacked by critics who have never actually heard him play because they feel obliged to defend the honor of their profession (whatever that may mean). Thompson's profile singles out the critic Michael White, who seems to have dismissed even the possibility of listening to Rhodes after the latter dismissed traditional concert settings as being "full of people with blue rinses and smelling vaguely of urine." My own reaction was that perhaps I was not missing as much as I thought by not being able to attend concerts in London; but I suppose that is why White is trying to circle the wagons (assuming there are any wagons other than his own).

With this as context we can now turn to the interview that Rhodes gave to Thompson:

I meet Rhodes, now 35, for lunch in the restaurant of the Wigmore Hall. No, that’s not the venue he had in mind, he says. And he’s sorry about the urine remark, though it’s perfectly in character: the other day he became the first concert pianist to tweet about a bowel movement.

It’s the format as much as the composition of classical concerts that bugs him. "They’re at this weird, inconvenient time – 7.30pm – which doesn’t give you time to go home to see the kids, and they’re usually way too long," he says. "What’s wrong with 6.30, or 10 o’clock after a hot date?

"And this complete lack of verbal communication. The audience sits there reading about sonata form while the artist is so wrapped up in his own genius that you can’t shake his hand afterwards because, you know, his fingers are sooo fragile."

So Rhodes will sometimes chat to the audience before and during his recitals, "which, believe me, makes playing 100,000 notes from memory twice as nerve-racking, but also twice as satisfying. And I’m going to make some other poor bastard nervous, too, because one day I’m going to ask for someone from the audience to come up on stage and see if they’ve got the guts to play their party piece."

That might sound like a 21st-century gimmick; actually, it’s the sort of trick that the virtuoso showmen of the 19th and early 20th century played, in an era before piano competitions when pianists took risks that didn’t always come off.

"Fistfuls of wrong notes," says Rhodes gleefully, aware that – although he spends six hours a day drilling technique into his fingers – his lack of conservatoire training means that he can’t turn on the prestissimo autopilot, as so many production-line soloists from the Far East can.

The fact is that, as a performer, Rhodes has his priorities straight. He is interested in the immediacy of the occasion, and he clearly wants that occasion to involve something more than auditory stimuli going in one ear and out the other. Here are his own words at the end of Thompson's account of his interview:

Too many people turn up expecting to hear the pristine performances captured on CD. Well, that’s not what I’m offering. I want the kind of edge-of-your-seat excitement that makes the audience think, "Holy ----, he’s taking this fast. Will he make it?"

Exactly, and if it takes some element of shock value to get listeners to the edges of their respective seats, then all the better for Rhodes' knowing how to shock. Here is a pianist who takes his chutzpah onto the stage with him but does not seem to let that chutzpah interfere with the music he is performing. That seems more than sufficient to merit a Chutzpah of the Week award.

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