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Spike-Haired Pianist Richard Kastle Shows How You Can't Judge an Album by His Jacket

March 24, 1991|STEVE APPLEFORD | Appleford writes regularly about music for Westside/Valley Calendar

The image of Richard Kastle glaring out from the cover of his new "Streetwise" album, looking tough and anti-Establishment in spiked hair and a sleeveless leather jacket, seems hardly enough to separate him from scores of other leather-clad recording artists, all vying for record buyer attention this year. Except, that is, for a warning label that reads, "Parental Advisory: This album contains classical music, no lyrics whatsoever."

Further investigation shows track titles by the likes of Beethoven, Bach, Mozart, Liszt and Gershwin among other compositions written by Kastle himself, a classically trained pianist. The Venice musician's debut album is also part of a larger scheme by Virgin Records' new Virgin Variations label to seek out and develop a new and younger audience for classical music.

"I want to break down the barriers that are around classical music, all the snobbery that's associated with it," Kastle said recently at Virgin's Beverly Hills offices, wearing the same leather coat. "I never could accept that. So, I figured if I could break down that barrier, younger people would listen to that kind of music."

Now 32, Kastle began on the piano at age 8, learning to play by ear Liszt's "Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2" after watching the cartoon characters Tom and Jerry perform the same piece on television. Later, as a teen-ager, the Miami-born musician studied for more than three years under Ivan Davis, a pupil of Vladimir Horowitz.

But it was Kastle's refusal to dress formally for concerts that ultimately got him expelled from the music program at the University of Texas before graduation, he said. During his first performance there, Kastle appeared in old blue jeans, paint-stained sneakers and a torn Jack Daniels T-shirt. Kastle had merely been following a tradition set by the lives of the composers Beethoven and Mozart, who were "radical guys" in their own time, he said.

The student pianist had also learned to enjoy the controversy that inevitably accompanied his performances on campus, he said. "I'd attract the younger people who wouldn't go, and afterward they'd say, 'Hey, that Beethoven piece wasn't bad.' I kind of broke the barrier.

"So I learned, when I was 17 or 18 in college, that the only way to get my friends to come hear me play was to wear something a little more outrageous," Kastle said. "And, of course, the professors were just appalled."

Kastle soon left Texas for Los Angeles and landed a job at a Shakey's Pizza Parlor in Hollywood, playing classical music by Chopin and others for children. Beyond that job, however, the 21-year-old was not being taken seriously as a classical piano soloist. And he turned to rock music, working on demo tapes of his own up-tempo Texas-flavored rock ballads, hoping to win some record company interest.

"The scary part was me singing," he said, joking. And he ultimately abandoned rock for his own original form of expression.

"I just got tired of the three-minute song format," Kastle said. "I prefer the symphony. It's a little more intellectually stimulating. And if I'm not going to be making any money, I might as well get something out of it."

About three years ago, Kastle said, he began performing his own compositions in clubs in Venice and Santa Monica, often doing a different show with a different symphony work every month. His music and sometimes aggressive playing style slowly built a following of young, often college-age, listeners.

But the same independence would sometimes work against him, he added, as when he was invited to perform at UCLA's Royce Hall a year ago. After the invitation, Kastle went to work on some music designed especially for the venue and its difficult acoustics. By the time he finished the "Royce Concerto" and before the contracts were signed, organizers had changed their minds about booking him. He still refuses to change the name of the piece.

Kastle's demo tape of classical work, meanwhile, was circulating among some record companies after his appearances on several television programs, including "The Pat Sajak Show." Eventually, the tape got to the desk of Roger Holdredge, head of Virgin Classics and founder of the Virgin Variations label.

The record company executive was interested in the unique approach of the young pianist, his hair sculpted and dyed behind his head in descending purple triangles. Kastle's album was slated to be the first release on the new label, which Holdredge said was designed "to allow people like Richard Kastle to play with music, to present it through their own eyes."

"It's OK to be different," he added. The Variation label's classical releases are aimed at a newer crowd of uninitiated listeners. Much of this potential audience, he explained, cannot relate with the musical form's traditional formality and couldn't afford the ticket prices to see established classical performers anyway.

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