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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 16, No. 10 July 2011

Igudesman & Joo: Concert Comedians

by 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 “But there is a rich collection of historical documents explaining how concerts happened, and the whole concert-going experience offered hardly any divide between the artist and the audience.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.



(c) La Scena Musicale