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James Rhodes holds court in a soiree at the China Club in Hong Kong March 11, 2013

Posted by Alan Yu in Classical, Culture, Music.
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When James Rhodes holds court in a soiree billed as “An Unconventional Recital” at the China Club in the Old Bank of China Building in Hong Kong, we are entitled to expect some fun.  And we were not disappointed last night.

As we seated ourselves in the dining hall cleared for the evening, Club founder Sir David Tang expounded his views on how concerts should last no more than an hour, and promised the evening would start promptly at 7 pm and finish at 8 pm.

On the dot at 7 pm, James strode into the hall and, instead of chatting about what he was going to perform – a practice which has become his trademark – he went straight to the piano and started playing a piece by Rachmaninov (the Prelude in C sharp minor, I think) – an  item not on the programme – with electric intensity.  He explained that he had “Rachmaninov” tattooed on his arm in Cyrillic, which could well say “Elton John” for all he knows.  Down-to-earth, charming and your regular guy next door: that’s what James Rhodes is all about.

Most of us think of Beethoven as the angry deaf composer.  Yet barely out of his teens he had been nearly beaten to death by his alcoholic father.  He single-handedly took classical music into the romantic period with a “big R” – for the first time, here was someone writing not for the church or the state, but for himself.

Beethoven’s Sonata No. 15 in D major, Op. 28, “Pastoral”, is an odd work.  Almost halfway through his 32 sonatas, it marks the crucial point at which he became convinced he was going deaf.  Yet the work shows no obvious depression, nor is it given over to much brooding.  The four movements are hardly distinguishable, running more or less into each other, linked often by material that keeps re-appearing in different guises.

James Rhodes’ interpretation was polished, subdued and exploratory; the left hand gently tapping a persistently repetitive rhythm, while the right scaling the sounds of nature.

For someone whose works remain stubbornly in play throughout the world, Chopin was apparently not a very nice person, ruined by a disastrous relationship with George Sand.  His Scherzo No. 2 in B-flat minor is the more popular among the four he wrote.  The signature opening of the work consists of quiet arpeggios followed by emphatic chords.  The rest then flows mellifluously in roller-coaster fashion.  In James’ hands, the Scherzo sounded warm and friendly, but a little staid, as if he was trying too hard to de-romanticise it.  I heard a few extraneous notes too.

Responding to our clamour for encores, James surprised us with what sounded like Beethoven’s Colonel Bogey Dudley Moore used to mischievously play, except I think he added snippets of the “Moonlight” Sonata towards the end.  Next up was an excerpt from Gluck’s Orpheus and Eurydice, a lilting work that hangs in the air like little water vapours, which he dedicated to Sir David.  To finish off, he served up a piece he claimed not to have played for a long time, a transcription by Liszt of Schumann’s Spring Night, one of 160 songs he composed during the year he courted Clara Wieck.

As we savoured the rapid outcry at the end of Schumann’s love song, we couldn’t help feeling grateful for Sir David’s generosity in bringing James to Hong Kong and opening the China Club specially for him on a Sunday night.  Most of all, we were proud to count James as a friend who happens to be an excellent pianist, rather than a virtuoso we put on a pedestal.

The Bicentenary of Franz Liszt October 22, 2011

Posted by Alan Yu in Classical, Music.
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Two hundred years ago today, Liszt Ferenc, better known to us as Franz Liszt, was born to Marie Anna Lager and Ádám Liszt in the Kingdom of Hungary.  In the service of Prince Esterházy, his father played a number of instruments and counted Haydn, Hummel and Beethoven as personal acquaintances.

As talented musicians are wont to do, Liszt started playing the piano early, and appeared in concerts at age 9.  He was to develop friendships with leading musicians of his time, including Berlioz, Paganini, Hans von Bulow and Wagner, who influenced him and were influenced by him.  For example, Paganini’s superb skills on the violin spurred Liszt on to become a virtuoso piano player.

For a good part of his life, Liszt travelled frequently and more or less divided his time among Rome, Weimar and Budapest, playing music and directing musical events.  His biggest legacy is his compositions, which can be divided into two types: transcriptions of works by other composers and those of his own creation.

Although having been vaguely aware of his piano works for a long time, I am a relative newcomer to Liszt’s music, and certainly not qualified to discuss it in any detail.  But I do know this much: his piano music can be technically daunting, and he practically invented the symphonic poem format.

As I tried to find out more, I came across some interesting sources.  As always, the first stop for any information is Wikipedia, which has a long entry on him:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Franz_Liszt

From there you can navigate to a page which contains a full list of his compositions:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Musical_works_of_Franz_Liszt

Allmusic is a good source of information about popular music for me, but it seems to be lacking in classical music.  Nevertheless, its entry on Liszt is a good starting point for further investigation:

http://www.allmusic.com/artist/franz-liszt-q7627

Naxos, the pioneer of affordable classical music CDs, has a long list of items on its catalogue with recordings of Liszt’s music:

http://www.naxos.com/person/Franz_Liszt/22599.htm

I recently stumbled upon an excellent web site, apparently maintained by author Rich DiSilvio:

http://www.d-vista.com/OTHER/franzliszt.html

On this site, not only are there detailed sections with commentary on his biography and his role in the development of music, there is also has a list of recommended recordings and bibliography.  What I find most fascinating is its list of links to other sites with information relevant to the composer:

http://www.d-vista.com/OTHER/Links.htm

Of course, it’s easy to find a list of videos of Liszt’s music on Youtube.  With the help of Toobbox.com, I have compiled a list of my own personal playlist of Youtube videos:

http://toobbox.com/playlist/franz-liszt–11243

And to whet your appetite further, you can create your own radio channel of music similar to that of LIszt on last.fm:

http://www.last.fm/listen/artist/Franz%2BLiszt/similarartists

But if you insist on generating a list of videos on Youtube, here it is:

http://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=liszt&aq=1

If you are anywhere in Indiana from October 27th to November 13th, you may want to attend one of the concerts the Indiana University is putting on to celebrate Liszt’s 200th birthday:

http://newsinfo.iu.edu/news/page/normal/19912.html

This is by no means an exhaustive list of sources.  I’m sure you will come across a lot of other sites with interesting information.  If you find one, drop me a line and let me know.