Rhodes to Rebirth

My classical music memory is this; an unholy marriage of Sundays and the dawn of colour TV transmissions of piano recitals from Vienna – the source of the sort of anguish that made one want to peel the bark of trees with their teeth. To make matters worse, the later Sunday movie was often a costume period piece (in black and white) which featured some dreadful C List femme fatale tearfully eyeballing her soon-to-go-to-war beau across an utterly cringe-worthy Chopin quartet recital; the players playing with all the passion of a harpsichordist dragged out of a sepulchre and made to play on pain of living for all eternity in the company of Shirley Temple….Pass the strychnine.

The ingredients for a love of classical music were all there in our record collection for sure but, alas, the product being broadcast, in large measure, seemed to have been cooked up a one-eyed squid who fell off a rickety galleon somewhere in the Caribbean (and before the invention of strings). That any child grew to love classical music in the post war era is a miracle on a scale of being hit by a meteor only to discover it is in fact a giant marshmallow.

My encounters with classical music through the ages (it feels like it, right!) have been a sort of muddle of awe and motor way-pile up. I once had the thrill of being invited by a beautiful young lady called Katie to the Opera Garnier to see the ballet ‘Giselle’ in the company of the Paris Philharmonic. What a thing! The Opera Garnier is just about as shock and awe a building as one can find. It is, at once, filthy and gold, obese and defined, standing atop the avenue of its own name, like some aging Huguenot whore – gatekeeping the revolution itself. How then could the ballet be anything other than brilliant, right? Wrong! The orchestra played as though the zombies had breached the barricades – the string section awaiting its ugly fate; eaten alive while spandexed Russians tapped across their heads. Other catastrophes followed. Many years later, in Santiago, the orchestra forgot to show up. Was it me?

Perhaps, unsurprisingly, as I found myself heading out to see James Rhodes in Madrid this weekend, getting there seemed like taking a 45 minute plank walk. Behind me lay a history of dishevelled orchestras and soloists, all strewn across some musical battlefield not unlike Gettysburg on a dewy morning of July 3rd 1863; a prairie of blood and tears – the gasping squawk of a punctured trumpet heralding the end of music (as though Richard Clayderman had not been enough). For 15 minutes, after arrival at the Circo Price, we sat in our reasonably appointed location watching the red lining of unfilled seats. Oh! Sweet mother of Stravinsky. One man, one piano and 2000 seats (Well, 1998 seats). Was this about to be embarrassing on a scale of red to inferno?

Then, all hell broke loose. It did so in the fashion to which I ought to have been accustomed after five years in this city of prolonged lunches. The locals finally dropped their can(y)as – a little late – and rushed at once to fill the auditorium. They could not have come quicker if chased by a bull. For a moment it was exciting. Exciting in the way that annouces David Bowie or Lenny. Or, would the bull take out the piano? As the crowds settled, I turned to the stage. The excitement abated. A pale lamp poked a solitary Steinway as though an interrogation was about to commence. The light went out. The audience hushed. A curtain rustled.

Onto the stage, traced by a laser beam, a scruffy, bespectacled, gangly nerd strolled – non-chalantly. Great, I mused. The record is sustained. The performer has died in the last ever hovercraft accident at Dover. This is the stage hand coming to retrieve the mike. But no! It was him. It WAS him. It turns out it was HIM. Suddenly, the stage was occupied by gleaming beast of a Hovercraft-recovery-vehicle. Rhodes turned to what had become a messianic Autobot, its ivories sharp enough to make Jaws piss himself. BANG! Zing! Thhhhhhhhrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrriiiiiiiiiiiiiikkkkkk!

It took all of thirty seconds. James Rhodes came over the pass like a Persian at Thermopylae and instantly took 2000 people captive. For two hours, he played and entertained with a passion, humanity and connectedness that classical piano has not seen since a young deaf man wrote the best piece of piano music ever written. Rhodes stripped the staves and clefs – raw to the bone – scrubbed them as though survivors of some hideous prison camp and then fed them fresh warm bread, dollops of honey, sweet, sweet tea and warm joyous hugs worthy of Josephine Baker. At one moment, during a sublime, cathartic, bracing interpretation of Beethoven’s final sonata, one felt as through the bedraggled and tortured young German had come seeking sustenance – lurking in the shadows of the Steinway to feel its movement as though his father had finally embraced his art. If not, then Beethoven certainly might have wanted to have paid a visit to hear Rhodes holler – “Rock and Rock, Motherfuckers” before trashing out a justly explosive Prelude from a similarly tormented Rachmaninov.

Rhodes did and is doing things to classical interpretation that have not been heard in 200 years. He has breached the protocol to save a drowning refugee. He has torn up the rule book to do the job that needed to be done – to make heard Chopin’s ‘Fantasie’ or Beethoven’s sonatas as they ought to be heard – replete with the grit and passion with which they were composed. The next best thing one could do is hear these pieces through the fingers of their very authors. Yet, though meteorites are not marshmallows, in Rhodes there is for, for our times, just such a miracle.

Colm Fahy is an Irish Human Rights lawyer, writer, film critic and artist based in Madrid. He works in democratisation support across Africa and the Middle East. He has been awarded official selection laurels for his screenplays at Oaxaca Film Fest and Shoresripts, London. He is the author of several children’s illustrated books and poetry. He has previously contributed to the Irish Times and his artwork and poetry has appeared in several international literary journals including the A New Ulster and Bohemia.