So there’s this guy called James Rhodes who plays the piano. He’s on Twitter (@JRhodesPianist), was recently involved in a fascinating televised documentary about Chopin…and as of this evening I’ve seen him play live twice. The first time was at the Hay-on-Wye festival back in June and this evening he played at Hinde St Methodist Church, London. He does hardcore classical stuff: Bach-Busoni, Chopin, Beethoven etc.
Now I will have to confess a deep, dark and shameful secret. I know slightly less than bugger all about classical music. Compared to some people I’ve met recently who seem to know a frankly staggering amount about this subject, I feel like an ignorant oaf lumbering about saying “Hurrrrr?” whenever anyone says something like “wouldn’t you just DIE without Mahler?”
This is not to say that I don’t enjoy listening to classical music, but rather to make the point that I don’t actually know anything about it. I wish I did, I wish I could go to concerts and then discuss the music properly afterwards with other learned folks, rather than go with one of my two stock responses of either “Wow that was brilliant!” or “Meh. Did I miss something?” Sadly, if truth be told, I only really know the relatively famous classical pieces, things like Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries”, Verdi’s “Dies Irae” or Strauss’ “The Blue Danube”, for example.
I know there are others like me for whom classical music sounds like something they should be enjoying, and yet also seems too difficult and intellectual for them to bother with. I am trying though. I’m Making An Effort. And I’ve found that, often, it’s not quite as difficult as it might at first appear. I think that part of the issue is that, perhaps because most of them are long dead, classical composers seem to have reached the position of near-deities. We don’t see them so much as people, but as awe-inspiring geniuses – this is also not helped by the fact that we usually only refer to them by their surnames, which is rather de-personalising.
But the thing is, they weren’t gods at all. Some are now known as geniuses, yes, but really they were all just (mainly) men, who were blessed with extraordinary musical talent. Most concerts you go to nowadays do far more to hold up the composer/god comparison than the alternative composers-are-people-too version. For me personally, this does not help when trying to make some sort of connection to the music.
What I really want is someone who EXPLAINS a little, who comes on and says, “This next piece is by Bach. He went through a lot of shit in his life (lost his lover and lots of children, orphaned at ten etc) and he wrote a lot of music to help him express his feelings about those experiences. This is one of them.” This means that as soon as the piece starts, I can immediately pick up on the intense anger and unhappiness in it and understand where it came from.
And bugger me if there isn’t someone who actually does this! Namely, the aforementioned James Rhodes. The thing I like about him is that, as far as I can see, there’s no pretence. It’s just him and the music, even the clothes he wears for performing tell you that. I think it makes the connection between the performer, music and audience much stronger because there is no pretentious nonsense to get in the way. He has a way of talking about the composers as if they’re all actually rather cool blokes whom you’d probably like to have as your mates – I don’t know if he realises how powerful this method of approach is, particularly for people of my own age or younger, but I think he’s on to a winner and I really hope that he reaches as many people as possible, who may otherwise never encounter real classical music.
The first piece this evening was one by Chopin. I’ve decided I love Chopin – he has liquid notes of silver that melt together and float to your ears (the soft bits) and then glittering crystals all jingling together like wind chimes on a blustery day (the loud bits).
The next piece was a romantic one by Bach…but unfortunately I missed a lot of this because I felt so dreamy and relaxed after the Chopin! The last one, however…well let’s just say you would have to be a comatose vegetable to not pay attention to it. This was the bit I mentioned earlier when James talked about Bach’s sad experiences re: bereavement and loss. I remember sitting there thinking “poor sod, must have had a hell of a time” (Bach, that is), and that you could practically hear him shouting to God “why the fuck have you done this to me?” and then suddenly realised there were tears sliding down my cheeks.
I still don’t quite understand how this happened. I didn’t feel particularly unhappy before attending the concert, work hadn’t been that bad or anything…so the only thing it could have been is the music. I guess I must have connected with it on some sort of level that I perhaps wasn’t consciously aware of and I am almost certain that would have been very unlikely without the verbal introduction to the piece at the start.
We all cheered and applauded so much that we got to listen to three encores (HURRAH!) and then it was over and we all went back out into the bitingly cold air again. If you haven’t seen him perform yet, I urge you to do so because he really is very good. There’s a website here if you want to know more about him: http://www.jamesrhodes.tv/ and there’s a new album out soon too – YAY! 😀