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Comics Igudesman & Joo Explain Their Take on Classical Music

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A Little Nightmare Music has garnered 15 million hits on YouTube: So when is this hilarious and clever classical culture show finally hitting American concert halls?

A vacuum cleaner sucking up a violin bow meets a grand piano, which only answers to credit card payments. A cell phone’s ringtones compete with classical violin repertoire; a musician performs a river dance in underwear; piano keys are chopped at, karate-style … but no matter how unhinged it all seems, Russian-born violinist Aleksey Igudesman and British-Korean pianist Richard Hyuang-ki Joo make it all sound fantastic.

Who are these silly, yet thought-provoking jesters daring to take classical music out of its all-too-serious home territory?

The classically trained duo attended some of the best European music schools before they launched their quirky act in 2004. When asked to describe their show, "A Little Nightmare Music," during a Q&A in March 2010, they said, "To sum it up in a sentence is not possible but if we were absolutely forced, we would have to say: 'Mozart meets Monty Python'… Our aim is to bring people closer to classical music, rather than just trying to be different. For us, the mix of music, comedy and theatre is an own art form. We try to combine those three components to create an own synergy."

That synergy, as well as its virtuosic delivery, has certainly resonated with European audiences. “They always fill the hall,” says German critic Julia Gass about their performances, like the recent "Museum Night" show in Dortmund, Germany.

Some of their ideas have become original treasures. So the iconic, pre-fitted wooden blocks as a solution for small-handed pianist Joo’s problems with reaching difficult pianistic chord passages, in this case composed by large-handed Rachmaninov. The punch line? Joo exclaims on the duo’s now famous YouTube video clip: "Only hands are small!"

Many of their offbeat presentations reflect deeper concerns, as the sketch about the abusive music teacher, taxing the self-confidence of the student. The show’s “cyber conductor” gives the audience a glimpse into an orchestra’s world and interaction with a weak conductor the orchestra does not follow. Substitute that conductor with a tyrannical and mean one, and you have a sketch about a 'villain conductor' who will avoid chaos but embarrass some of his flutists by singling them out and making them squat while he yells at them, before even yelling at the audience. This sketch might very well speak to the challenges of conductor-orchestra hierarchy, but also to the vitality of a live orchestra performance, as opposed to the even, but rather sterile experience of a CD. Masterful musical know-how transforms the different aspects of the mediums, by imitating the fast-forwarding option of the remote control  within a skilled orchestral demonstration.

Beyond the sketches there is the deconstruction of popular classical tunes, which have found their way into today’s pop repertoire. Think Celine Dion’s "All By Myself" and Rachmaninov’s Second Concerto chord progressions, Verdi’s La Traviata Libiamo theme and a rather well-known James Bond jingle, or consider the "Love Story" theme in the duo’s “Mozart Bond” skit: every category of music, usually kept in its own box and separated from all others, is being unwrapped and put up against other gems, creating a truly virtuosic mélange spiced up by a zest for human folly.

In an interview on September 15, 2009, John Stanton of Star News observed: “Maybe it’s a reaction to what‘s often perceived as the overly formal nature of classical music, but the genre has a rich history of turning out comedy acts that replace seriousness with humor…” Staton asks: ”What is it about classical music that seems to lend itself to satire?” And Igudesman & Joo — who, by the way, also compose and arrange, record, and play chamber music — answer: “There is nothing about classical music that lends itself to satire. It’s only the way in which it is presented or taught or marketed that lends itself to satire. We would love for this to change as we believe that classical music has an enormous power and beauty.”

Is it that certain pretentiousness of stale rituals and the antiquated attitude surrounding the classical music circuit they mock and ultimately question? Do their comic routines attempt to rescue the essence of classical music? The duo is in good and thoughtful company when posing these questions. From London to New York, we find ourselves in the midst of an ongoing discussion about classical music’s ‘rules of engagement’ within modern society.

Laura Silberman, in her article in the New York Times from March 4, 2010, for example, is all about rethinking and analyzing every conceivable aspect connected to the concert experience.

From pianist Emanuel Ax and thoughts on audience behavior to New Yorker music critic Alex Ross’s comments, from British music critic Jessica Duchen considering the underappreciated role of the page turner to musicologist Greg Sandow’s rap on the future of the classical concert culture, classical music’s pedestal shows serious cracking. And change is already manifesting itself: endeavors to perk up the classical music experience have led to initiatives which schedule classical performances at alternative venues, such as performance spaces associated with rock and pop culture. A successful example of this ‘infusion’ approach is Ronen Givony’s artistic direction of Le Poisson Rouge in downtown New York. 

One cannot help but sense a certain diffidence in all matters relating to classical music, which seems to cut a lot deeper than current budget restrictions. One could just about imagine a cartoon in the New Yorker titled "The Concert Goes to the Shrink,” telling a story of famed music critic Alex Ross being asked by his patient, the concert: “Oh tell me, Dr. Ross, what can I do to boost my self-confidence?” Igudesman & Joo have already found a powerful remedy — LOL might just be what the doctor prescribed for classical music performances.

When asked how they came to create their unique mix of classical and pop music with comedy, the duo recalls: "Already back in the Yehudi Menuhin School in England, where we met at the age of 12, we were always listening to and watching great comedians, parallel to great performers. We were influenced by people who were both wonderful musicians and had a great sense of humor, such as Victor Borge, Dudley Moore, or even Glenn Gould, who did some sketches for Canadian TV, which many people don’t know. Even the great violinist Yehudi Menuhin himself, who Aleksey was lucky enough to have lessons with, spread the word of being open to all things around and not just classical music itself… We have both done projects on and off stage, written music for the stage and the screen and acted in shows and plays."

The New York Times, in its obituary for Victor Borge in December 2000, quotes the late comedian and classical pianist, whose skits have made a strong impression on the duo:  "I have always worked for two audiences at the same time. One is the sophisticated, the other not musically oriented. I notice that the ones who laugh most are composed of professionals, as when I do my act with orchestras. But my jokes must be understood by everybody, nobody must be bored. It is a fine line that I walk."

In John Stanton’s interview, Igudesman & Joo state that they share that concept: “We always try to write on different levels. This is so that an 8- year-old will have something to laugh about at the same time as a classical music connoisseur and someone who has never heard a note of classical music.”

Apart from Borge, a whole range of comedy styles has fertilized the duo’s creativity — from the Marx Brothers to Monty Python. Says Monty Python director and comedian Terry Jones of “A Little Nightmare Music”: [It] … brings surrealism to the concert hall and takes its trousers down!” 

Superstars who have joined them in performance have included pianist Emanuel Ax, violinists Gidon Kremer and Julian Rachlin, cellist Misha Maisky, and actor Sir Roger Moore.

Other landmark events on the duo’s road to fame include the Chamber Music & Comedy festival in Croatia; the 2008 “Cinema & Comedy” premiere with Gidon Kremer and the Kremerata Baltica; and a tour of Germany, Holland, and Belgium as part of ”Night of the Proms” in 2009, where they appeared in front of half a million people, sharing the stage with rock legends such as Simple Minds, 10cc, and Ultravox. Their latest project, a film “mocumentary” titled Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Classical Music will air in Europe on channel 3Sat in early June, 2010. The mocumentary will include cameo appearances of the likes of violinists Julian Rachlin and Janine Jansen, cellist Mischa Maisky, and pianist Lang Lang, as well as of guests from the world of pop, such as Tears for Fears.

According to my Facebook and email conversations with them, the duo’s first performance happened at the Musikverein in Vienna, Austria. “That was on September 18, 2000. We put some sketches on YouTube and the rest kind of happened,” Aleksey Igudesman stated. The “rest” is an intriguing success story, to a large extent built on the worldwide distribution of their hilarious YouTube video clips. And what would be easier to promote than laughter?

What started out as a music stunt at the Vienna Musikverein has now become a much-admired fixture of popular and classical music culture alike. The duo is equally loved by audiences who might have little or no classical music background, as by a crowd of stout classical music fans; professional musicians adore them because they can relate to their humor in a particularly affectionate way.

Another fan base consists of music schools and art colleges where students are used to connecting by YouTube clips. The “Students for Igudesman & Joo to Come Perform in the US” Facebook fan page, which was started by college student and classical musician Kevin Hwang, has rallied with great enthusiasm for American performances of the comic duo since 2007. Their site’s 1000-plus fans (the duo’s general Facebook fan site is over 5000 members strong) were frustrated about the lack of ‘live show’ experiences in the US, and decided to become activists. Their efforts proved successful. In 2009, Igudesman & Joo finally performed in the United States, even though their performances were rather sporadic and spread out among college towns and music festivals, like their March 2009 performances in Warren and Eire, Pennsylvania, and the South-West Festival in Austin, Texas. In the summer of 2009 they returned for an appearance at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center and the Cooperstown Chamber Music Festival, as well as for performances at the Thalian Hall, Louisburg College, and the Carolina Theatre in North Carolina. A month later they also performed in Chico, California, and at the California State University. Facebook commentaries speak of fans traveling six hours and more to be part of one of those scattered few live performances.

In his March 2010 interview with Notes on the Road, comedian, pianist, arranger, composer, and comedian Joo, also known as the “Joo-ish” half of the dynamic comedy duo, shares his personal take on classical music:

I am and have always been madly in love with classical music, and from an early age, I just felt as if … this thing that I am so deeply in love with, is in danger of becoming either a dinosaur or becoming something that is is not what it was really meant to be. I somehow felt that the world of classical music had very little to do with the spirit in which it was created… As much as I loved hearing some of the great pieces performed by some of the great performers of our time, I just felt the whole ceremony surrounding classical music was conceited and elitist… I also knew, and still know, that classical music does appeal to kids and to younger people — it appeals to everyone! — but if it continues to be presented only in this so-called traditional setting it is inevitable that audiences will be lost eventually…

Advising young musicians, he says: "I understand there is a lot to do, a lot to practice. A lot of them are ambitious, but they sometimes limit their lives to a practice room.Yes, one has to work one’s art and perfect one’s craft, but if you’re not open to experiencing life …[ because this is what] will give you the experience, feelings and imagination to go out there and do what you are ulimately meant to be doing." It comes as no surprise that Joo enjoys running workshops for young musicians, designed to help them think outside the box.

When asked if there was any one place they have enjoyed performing the most, Igudesman & Joo agree: "The US is a place we have always wanted to perform, as so much of our inspiration has come from American sitcoms and comedians! The audience in the US is also extremely open minded, appreciative and very warm — a rather fabulous combination!"

Well, America’s audiences and stages are ready!

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