He looks like a loony cross between Prince and Amadeus, with a touch of Michael Jackson thrown in for good measure. As he strides onto the stage, he is dazzling in an embroidered Victorian cape, or a monk’s habit, or an Oriental robe (with nothing underneath), or white jodhpurs or sometimes a see-through shirt and a Nefertiti hat. The hands that will attack the piano are encased in one of his 38 pairs of gloves: some diamond-studded, some made of leopard skin, and a few simple gauntlets by designer Karl Lagerfeld. When, after that entrance, Jamaican-born Orrett Rhoden sits down to play Chopin or Bach, he often arouses as much passion as if he had blown up the piano. Last fall, when he made his debut at Carnegie Hall—and startled everybody by appearing in regulation black tie and tails—the Daily News reviewer found his loud, fast, flamboyant playing in “execrable taste.” The same recital moved the New York Times critic to write, with rare plainness, “Mr. Rhoden really can play the piano.” Says Felix Aprahamian, a critic for the London Sunday Times, “He is a spellbinding pianist, and a crazy but adorable personality.”
Rhoden, 25, has always been startling and has almost always played the piano. His father was a black government worker in Kingston and his mother a Jewish piano teacher named Norma Levy, who noticed early on that their oldest (of four) “had an abnormal amount of energy.” At 3, Orrett insisted that his mother teach him the piano. “The moment he put his fingers on the keys, he could play it,” she recalls. “I always knew he was a major, major talent.” At 7, the prodigy was taken to Rita Coore, the influential, eccentric, 450-lb. wife of Jamaica’s then deputy prime minister, who took him on as her pupil in both the piano and life. “At first it was a bit overwhelming,” Norma says. “He was no longer our child, as it were. There would be times before a competition when Madame Coore would call at 2 in the morning and say, ‘I want to give him a lesson.’ And my husband would have to get out of his pajamas and take him.” By the time Orrett was 10, Madame Coore was trotting him out at grand diplomatic parties, from which he would often come home tipsy from champagne. “It was a concern,” his mother says, “because he had school the next day.” If the high living hurt his head, it didn’t turn it. When he took up practicing at 1 a.m., he bought his neighbors earplugs for Christmas.
By 12, Rhoden had won just about every musical award in Jamaica and given his first formal concert, but the next year the curtain came down with a vengeance: Rita Coore died suddenly. Rhoden cried for months and for a time became paralyzed. “It was believed in the end that it was witchcraft,” he says. Coming out of it with the help of a psychiatrist, he went to the U.S. to study with Dr. Virginia Rittenhouse in Massachusetts. “I needed some kind of maternal figure,” he says, “somebody who would look after me.” Rittenhouse, with 120 acres and a 26-room house, looked after Rhoden for about two years. Then, performing back home for the visiting Queen Elizabeth in 1983, he came to the attention of a BBC producer who arranged an audition with the London Symphony. He has been a popular guest performer with the orchestra ever since and has made London his home. His first album, of pieces by Brahms, Handel and Chopin, will be available in the U.S. this fall, but that’s just the start. He’ll also make a classical video directed by Francis (Desperately Seeking Susan) Kenny, and last Saturday he was scheduled to play at London’s Festival Hall for Prince Charles and Di.
A self-styled Byronic figure who pals around with the Eurotrash crowd, Rhoden enjoys the life that revolves around “people who have adopted me”—and who often underwrite his performances. “I feel I deserve nothing but the best,” he says unapologetically, “because I have nothing but the best to give.” In Jamaica, says his mother, “they look on him as the Bob Marley of the classical world,” and he sees no incentive to tone down his act. “One hundred years ago each pianist had a particular style,” says Rhoden. “Today people are turned out by conservatories to play a particular way. They miss the essence of living.” They also, he notes, usually miss young audiences, a failing he hopes his video and outrageous duds will correct. “Young people don’t come to classical concerts because they feel they’re stuffy and boring. I think someone like me might appeal to them. Besides,” the latest gloved one concludes, “I like to do things on a grand scale.”