London (AFP)

The black composer and pianist Alexis Ffrench, a rising star in the mostly white universe of classical music, has set himself the task of "changing the image" of this musical genre sometimes seen as boring, cheesy or inaccessible.

The 48-year-old artist, whose last album will be released next month, has almost two million listeners per month on Spotify and has 200 million views across all platforms.

It was "Evolution" (2018), his previous record which remained at the top of the classical music rankings in the United Kingdom for three weeks and then in the top 10 for three months, which propelled him to the fore.

"Classical music is underrepresented in certain strata of society, no doubt about it," he told AFP during a rehearsal in a London store of the legendary piano maker Steinway & Sons.

"Determined" to use his influence "to help disadvantaged youth", he then went to the famous studios of Abbey Road to work with young people not necessarily attracted to the classic.

These sessions, the fruit of a collaboration between his record label and the Prince's Trust association, are part of a program that helps young people between 11 and 30 years of age to learn, train or find a job.

He who hosts a weekly program on Scala Radio uses the audience offered by this new online radio to "talk about classical music in an innovative and exciting way", sometimes playing songs that are inspired only from afar by traditions of the kind.

"I'm talking about Childish Gambino, all kinds of hip-hop artists, and what classical music can learn from it," he said, referring to American rapper Donald Glover.

"I think my duty is to change the image" of this musical genre, explains the musician, who will be touring Europe in April.

- "Soul sensitivity" -

Alexis Ffrench nevertheless followed a very classic course in terms of musical excellence: after training at the Purcell School - the oldest school specializing in music in the United Kingdom -, the prodigy joined the prestigious Royal Academy, as well as the Guidhall School of Music and Drama.

But he was inspired as much in his youthful passions, such as Stevie Wonder and Bob Marley, as in the great names of the classic, from Mozart to Beethoven. His compositions are for him a synthesis of many styles, structured by "DNA" of classical music. "It's classical music, but imbued with a kind of soulful sensitivity."

For his next album "Dreamland", collection of "lyric songs for piano", Alexis Ffrench drew on testimonies from fans on social networks, who explained how his music had been able to soothe them in the midst of the struggles of their daily lives.

"What I wanted to do with + Dreamland + is create a set of music that would bring comfort, which would be like an oasis where people could take refuge and, in a sense, stop, listen and breathe", a he confided.

- From organ to piano -

Married and father of two teenagers, Alexis Ffrench particularly attributes his success to his father, who instilled in him the desire to succeed.

This aeronautical engineer, working in the prestigious British Royal Air Force when he had left Jamaica at just 16 years of age, imposed on his three children very early a strict lifestyle made up of sport, presence in the church and of academic rigor.

"The idea was to be better today than yesterday," remembers the pianist nostalgically about this "old-fashioned" education of a "fairly authoritarian", but music-loving father. He often played music at home, raising awareness of Ffrench from an early age.

"Before having a piano, I pretended to play on a table, because I heard the music and I said to myself + Oh, I'm going to play that +", he recalls.

Very quickly, he started to play the organ in church - including at weddings -, and realized that he probably had what it took to integrate the best music schools in the country.

Today, Alexis Ffrench would like to give the same opportunities to disadvantaged young people.

"I have had teachers who never set limits on what I could accomplish," he said, "I am really grateful to them for that."

© 2020 AFP