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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.

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