Read James Rhodes’s ‘Instrumental’. It’s brilliant.

I’ve been reading pianist James Rhodes memoirs Instrumental over Christmas, after hearing Canadian pianist Chilly Gonazales recommending it on Radio 3’s Private Passions at the weekend. It is a brilliant read, juxtaposing the horrors of sexual abuse with the perceived respectability of classical music. The impact of Rhodes copy is devastating.

A temporary court injunction nearly stopped Instrumental from getting published. The Supreme Court overturned that decision in May. Rhodes’ publisher was understandably quite pleased about the decision.  

Prior to reading the book, I wasn’t entirely sure of James. His piece about Classical Music awards ceremonies (the Classical Brits and Gramophone) was at odds with my comparatively (and surprisingly forgiving) stance. The line between confronting those who dumb down, or make the genre more elitist is often blurred to me. That’s reflected in the post I wrote collating Rhodes’ write-up and Gramophone’s response. There is sometimes a danger that criticising those who dumb down is a form of reverse snobbery.

But, having read Instrumental my view has changed. There is so much in his memoirs – his strong views on the classical music industry and the need to transform it, and his experience with a whole range of mental health problems – that I recognise.

I’ve been energised by what I’ve read in Rhodes book.

First, I recognise myself (thankfully) as one of the 5% of classical music audiences:

Go to any ‘established’ concert hall in the UK and you will see an audience comprising 10 per cent music students, 85 per cent over-fifties fulfilling one or several of the above criteria, and 5 per cent decent, ordinary music fans with no pretensions and a genuine love for classical music.

Second, he articulates what I think about the BBC Proms (which I had previously assumed everyone knew anyway):

The overriding reason for the success of the Proms has got to be the fact that it doesn’t have its head up its arse. It doesn’t speak down to the public; it simply manages to give the impression that whatever your knowledge of classical music, whatever your experience, your likes, dislikes, dress sense, background or intelligence, you are very, very welcome. If you want to clap between movements, then knock yourself out. Don’t know how to pronounce the name of the composer? Who cares? Don’t feel the urge to announce loudly and smugly the name of the encore the soloist has decided to play? Even better. And it does this in a way that few, if any, of the other big halls manage to do.

Makes me think of the time I interview Proms Director Roger Wright who corrected my mispronounciation of Ligeti’s name. Years of shame has suddenly been lifted from my shoulders.

Third, he views the digital space in a similar way as I have recently:

I’d found the glorious, unhinged world of the online forum. Anonymous, intonation-free, text-based cesspits masquerading as help but merely a front for vomiting all of the various neuroses, perversions, kinks and foibles out into the world in the hope of ending the feeling of ‘always alone’ and possibly finding someone worse than you.

Fourthly, and perhaps most importantly, he nails something which really resonates with me:

The removal of choice is one of the greatest terrors you can inflict on someone.

I found Instrumental an invigorating read. It goes beyond a biography of an unorthodox pianist. It provides an accessible insight into mental health, and acts as a clarion call for ambitious classical music marketeers everywhere. Read it.

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