Igudesman & Joo: Concert Comediansby Crystal Chan
/ July 1, 2011
Flash version here.
It’s the dream demographic for most
classical musicians: concertgoers aged 13 to 35. This is the makeup
of violinist Aleksey Igudesman and pianist Hyung-Ki Joo’s biggest
fans—and the duo claims the secret is actually bringing back the original
spirit of classical music.
“We don’t spend a single minute trying
to think about how to make classical music more accessible,” said
Igudesman. “It just happens naturally when you bring out the fun and
passion that we’ve always seen in classical music. We play the same
music as everyone else; when we do a sketch with Emanuel Ax, it’s
still Beethoven’s fifth “Spring” sonata, with a few minor changes.
What we add is usually external to the music.”
The pair’s A Little Nightmare Music
show features classical music pieces and pop songs with melodies taken
from classical music, all performed as part of humorous skits.
“Of course, I wasn’t there 200 years
ago,” said Joo. “But there is a rich collection of historical documents
explaining how concerts happened, and the whole concert-going experience
offered hardly any divide between the artist and the audience. It was
a form of communication. There used to be so many music parties and
house concerts where people were just hanging out together, drinking
wine. Liszt used to go into the audience; but when we now go to concerts
the artist doesn’t even talk to the public.
“This idea of the classical musician
as the elitist performer really started towards the end of the 19th
century. We take ourselves too seriously, and going to a concert often
seemed like going to a funeral. We felt the spirit wasn’t there anymore.”
Even for conservatory trained Igudesman & Joo, “it was boring
to go hear classical music.”
So, inspired by their music assignments
and drama classes at the famed Menuhin School, where the two met, at
age 12, Igudesman & Joo started brainstorming up an ensemble that
would kick boredom out of the equation. They premiered Igudesman’s
The Bastard Sonata at age 14 (the score has since been published
by Universal Editions) and started playing at Christmas parties.
“Those Christmas parties made us realize
that we could be a fun duo,” said Joo. “Actually, what we’re doing
now is one huge Christmas party, really.”
Meanwhile, their flair for the theatrical
continued to develop as they performed in school plays and snuck off
to watch plays, movies, and TV. They loved British comedy acts such
as Monty Python and “were reading Oscar Wilde and Bernard Shaw instead
of practicing,” explained Joo.
In spite of this, Igudesman went on to
study at the Vienna Conservatory and Joo at the Manhattan School of
Music. After that, they straddled both classical and pop music: Igudesman,
with musicians from Hans Zimmer to Bobby McFerrin, and Joo, with musicians
from Vangelis to Billy Joel.
Their skits are just as varied, featuring
everything from slapstick to highbrow musicological jokes. In a popular
one, Igudesman throws Joo blocks with grooves cut into them, in time
for Joo to press them onto the piano to play the impressive-spanning
chords in Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in C# Minor. In another, Joo can’t
play the piano because an automated message asks him to “enter your
credit card.” In yet another, Igudesman plays his violin—a Santo
Seraphin violin from the year 1717—with a milk frother.
They’re quick to emphasize that what
they do is make fun with—and not of—music, pointing
out that not only great musical comedians like Peter “P.D.Q. Bach”
Schickele, Victor Borge and Dudley Moore but also ‘straight’ musicians
such as Glenn Gould and Leonard Bernstein loved adding humor to performances.
Like Gould, Igudesman & Joo performed a comic radio skit for CBC
(which can be heard online).
The ‘straight’ artists of today have
caught on, too. Since premiering A Little Nightmare Music
in 2004 at Vienna’s legendary Musikverein (in the same city where
they’d previously lived as roommates so thriftily that they spent
one winter with a broken window), they’ve worked as a duo with such
celebrated and diverse artists as Gidon Kremer, Robin Gibb (Bee Gees),
Simple Minds, Roger Moore, and John Malkovich. They’ve now toured
worldwide to crowds of up to 18,000 and performed with leading orchestras,
presenting their show in 12 languages.
The celebrated pianist Byron Janis expressed
how touched he was by one of their acts. The sketch features a handcuffed
pianist. Joo recounts how Janis, who’s suffered from crippling arthritis,
was almost in tears: “He said, listen guys, I’m really touched by
what you did. That really spoke to me.”
The response from lesser-known fans has
been overwhelming, as well. Many of them comment on their Youtube videos
(which have garnered over 20 million hits) or webpage, saying how much
they now love classical repertoire, or how the duo’s performances
got them interested in playing.
“I became more and more uncertain of
my future as a concert pianist,” writes one music student. “I didn’t
want to end up as one of those stiff persons. I want to share with people
how fantastic it feels to make music… And then, one afternoon, I saw
[you] on Youtube. For me, you two saved classical music.”
“That’s the biggest compliment for
us,” said Igudesman. “That people from all fields of work love our
music. Some who didn’t know they had an affinity with classical music.
Some who didn’t even like music of any kind before!”
July 13 at Ottawa’s Music and Beyond
Festival, 8 p.m.