Classical music was never intended to be a stuffy, elitist, black-tie affair, say top-notch musicians Aleksey Igudesman and Richard Hyung-ki Joo. Their musical comedy acts offer a fresh perspective on an old tradition.
Aleksey Igudesman (left) and Richard Hyung-ki Joo have a hard time being serious
Classical music events are often associated with the pomp and circumstance of a national convention. Groomed couples sit obediently still as the performers file onstage, clad in black as if they were at a funeral, and play the sacred notes of Bach, Beethoven or Brahms.
But how would Mozart have reacted if he were to see Aleksey Igudesman and Hyung-ki Joo play a zany version of his Rondo alla turca? Chances are he would laugh.
Igudesman and Joo's "A Little Nightmare Music," a series of sketches during which Joo is not above screaming at the top of lungs in the middle of a Beethoven sonata or vacuuming Igudesman's bow mid-performance, has become an international success since its premiere in Vienna in 2004. The duo is currently touring Europe, with performances later this week in Hannover. In March, they make their first public appearance in New York City.
Getting back on track
Generally, classical concerts have strict protocoll: sit down and shut up
It all started over fish and chips. Aleksey Igudesman and Richard Hyung-ki Joo, both just 13 years old at the time, were students at the prestigious Yehudi Menuhin School in England. Although they had met a year earlier, they didn't get along until this traditional English meal finally broke the ice. Igudesman, a violinist, and Joo, a pianist, discovered they shared the belief that classical music was going in the wrong direction.
"We both felt that the classical world, which we absolutely loved and wanted to be a part of, didn't reflect the spirit in which the music written," recalled Joo, now 38. "We found concerts to be unnecessarily ceremonious and elitist affairs."
One of their biggest hopes was to bring classical music to a wider, and specifically younger, audience - which they seem to be achieving. The Igudesman and Joo YouTube site has received an impressive 20 million hits to date.
Their comic routines manage to attract young audience members with no previous knowledge of classical music alongside well-versed connoisseurs - no small feat in an age of waning interest for what is often perceived as on outdated art form. Elizabeth Weber, an old friend of Igudesman and Joo who now serves as their general manager, says she has seen young teenagers go gaga over them.
"All Aleksey has to do is raise an eyebrow," Weber said, "which makes it all the more real in comedy as well as when they're being serious musicians. People connect so easily with their performances because there's no artifice in what they do."
All in good fun
Joo and Igudesman have known each other since they were children
The duo leaves a certain amount in their shows to chance, and even surprises each other onstage on occasion. At a recent performance, two fans from Lisbon, both Tae kwon do teachers, asked Joo if they could give him a demonstration. Joo not only accepted, but asked them to appear during his "karate piano" act, during which he hits the piano like a martial artist. The only condition was that Igudesman didn't know beforehand.
"Aleksey was backstage like 'what is going on?'" recalled Joo with amusement. "We also do this to keep our show fresh. Some people come on more than one occasion, so we try to make every performance as unique as we can."
Igudesman and Joo draw upon a wide variety of sources for their acts. Although Joo cites composers and musicians as their primary inspiration, he explains that, growing up in England, he couldn't escape great comedy television, including Rowan Atkinson and Monty Python as well as modern actors like Ricky Gervais and Sacha Baron Cohen.
Direct predecessors for their concept are Victor Borge, a Danish pianist renowned for his tongue-in-cheek performances, the actor and pianist Dudley Moore, and the legendary spoofs of PDQ Bach. Joo adds that classical musicians such as Glenn Gould and Leonard Bernstein also integrated humor into their performances.
"In some ways, what we're doing is not new at all," said Joo. "Our real belief is that people will go nuts for classical music if it is presented in the right way."
World record in sight
The classical concert is a modern construct
Although the classical industry is slowly changing its approach to programs and formats, Joo says many presenters are stuck in a tradition which does not accurately represent the reality of classical music's heyday.
"In Mozart's and Beethoven's time people were drinking wine at performances, Liszt would go and mingle with audience during recitals," he explained. "Performances were shared events, and a lot more relaxing than the stifled atmosphere that took over for the last 50 or 60 years."
However, Mozart and Beethoven probably didn't attempt to break the world record for the largest number of river dancing violinists at one time. Joo and Igudesman hope to attain the title this year at a New Year's Eve benefit concert in Vienna's Konzerthaus, which will also be raising funds for UNICEF.
As Joo sees it, classical music is a much more present part of our everyday lives than most people imagine, from movies to television ads. "I was on a metro train in Madrid, and classical music was playing over the speakers," he said. "We just have to find ways of making people enjoy it. Audiences have dwindled not only because of the rise of other popular genres. It's because the classical music world has scared them away."
Author: Rebecca Schmid
Editor: Kate Bowen