The prodigious talents of classical pianist James Rhodes took over the Ambassador's theatre on Wednesday for one night of solo piano recitals. Rhodes has been lazily described as a 'rock star pianist', a label which likely arose after being the first classical artist to be signed to Warner records. Essentially, though, this was a traditional programme of classical standards, presented in a refreshingly informal way.
Rhodes has won plaudits for his conscious efforts to make classical music more accessible, eschewing the tux-wearing archetype of the orthodox concert pianist, in an effort to break down the wall of stuffiness. No programme notes are handed out, as is common practice among his contemporaries. Instead he speaks directly to the stalls and paints a vivid picture of the music's origin, and its often eccentric composers. (Did you know, for example, that J. S. Bach fathered twenty children, and married his cousin?) It's a lovely, fascinating touch to the evening, a quality that sets him apart from the usual classical concert.
His appearance is unconventional too; he shuffles around the stage in sparkly shoes, skinny jeans and oversized glasses, peering behind greasy shoulder-length hair and with an awkward adolescent slouch that belies his 35 years. But he speaks with infectious passion about his subject and effectively deploys dry, caustic humour, firing off jokes both bad and good (a quip about Bach needing a blowjob made some elder audience members squirm a little).
And his playing is exquisite. For someone apparently so 'rock' Rhodes is unashamed in his established musical choices - and with music this beautiful, you can hardly blame him. Bach, Chopin, and Revel all make appearances, each with their own absorbing backstories. There was a devilishly cheeky take on Gieger's famous Hall Of The Mountain King, an intense twenty-minute piece about death from Bach and an extraordinary minute-and-a-half etude from Moszkowski, requiring "thirty to forty notes per second".
Throughout, Rhodes demonstrated impressive technical virtuosity with a distinctive flair to match, and whilst, by his own admission, he may never be accepted into the mainstream classical fold, that was never the point. The pianist recounted that just before the gig, two teenagers approached him by the stage door. They had come from Stevenage to see him play, and it was their first classical concert ever. He beamed with the memory: "That's what it's all about, really."