I’ve written about James Rhodes before, both here and for the Huffington Post, but as a fan of the emotions and beauty of classical music, though not a fan of the world that surrounds it, I grab pretty much any opportunity I can to listen to James play live.
James is well-known for his desire to play away from traditional classical music venues, to broaden the audience and lower the barriers for inclusion. Many remain intimidated by the rules and conventions associated with such concerts so James attitude as well as his skills remains as much in need as ever.
The Ambassadors Theatre was a good choice to host the show as it’s one of the West End’s smaller theatres, keeping a lot of the intimacy from previous concerts. Also the acoustics were excellent. I spent the first half in the Stalls and the second half in the Circle (don’t ask) and the view and sound in both were perfect.
James’s set list continues to evolve and he is now incorporating longer pieces. Last night James played Chopin’s Ballade no.3 in A flat major and his Fantasie in F Minor and I found them to be the highlights of the show.
James seems to almost lose himself in these longer pieces, as if he gets swept up in them to the point where, even momentarily, he forgets that there’s an audience behind him, as if he’s back in the practice room.
As well as displaying the pianist at his best, also the fluctuating, passionate flashes of emotion in these pieces were perfectly suited to the theme of the night, as well as perhaps to James himself.
James has never hidden his battles with mental illness and his willingness to serve them up with a bit of gallows humour for discussion with the audience is a powerful way to connect not just with us, but to connect us to the pieces he plays too.
Chopin, Schumann, Rachmaninov… These guys had their demons and in between pieces, James spoke about how he, probably much like the composers he was playing, had found an outlet, even salvation through music. James is probably right when he says “Chopin minimised the noise in his head with music.”
There is great dialogue in the music, for sure, but that James continues to fuse his playing with words remains a strength. James talked very openly about his emotional connection, even his dependency, on his playing. And it’s this strength and this comfort that James finds through music that he is committed to sharing with others.
This UK tour is timed to coincide not just with his new DVD, copies of which James is signing for audience members, but also with his new initiative, Don’t Stop the Music.
This campaign focuses on the need to improve music education and resources set aside for it in schools across the UK. Often seen as an extra rather than an essential part of the curriculum, music education is patchy at best.
Yet, as James talks about in his show, music has been a salvation for him in times of dire need and he is angry that such opportunities are being denied to kids up and down the country simply because of a lack of interest or financing.
Channel 4 is running a two-part series on James’ campaign, the first of which I missed last night as, well, I was at James’ gig but, you know, there’s always catch-up.
This show was the longest I’ve heard James play for – 90 minutes – and every minute of it was wonderful. Alongside the obligatory Chopins and Rachmaninovs (I don’t think James will ever manage to play a gig without playing a piece from Rachmaninov – I think there’s a profound emotional connection there!) James also plays familiar pieces from Prokofiev as well as lighter, romantic pieces from Gluck as a way of balancing out the emotions.
I’ve said it before but it remains true that spending an hour (or longer) listening to James play really is a wonderful way to spend an evening. His playing is incredibly emotive and his passion for fusing music with words to break down barriers remains as strong as ever.
9-10 September Ambassadors Theatre, London www.theambassadorstheatre.co.uk
12 September St George’s Hall, Bristol www.stgeorgesbristol.co.uk
14 September Watford Colosseum www.watfordcolosseum.co.uk
16 September Leeds Town Hall www.leedsconcertseason.com
20 September RNCM, Manchester www.mcm.ac.uk/whats-on/events
22 October Canterbury Festival www.canterburyfestival.co.uk