Classic comedy

YouTube sensations Igudesman and Joo are in Israel this week to make you laugh with ‘A Little Nightmare Music,’ their hilarious theatrical show.

Igudesman and Joo 311 (photo credit: Courtesy of Julia Wesley)
Igudesman and Joo 311
(photo credit: Courtesy of Julia Wesley)
When was the last time you went to a classical music concert and nearly slid out of your seat in laughter? It’s almost a guarantee at an Igudesman and Joo performance.
Imagine two seriously accomplished musicians in tails and all the trappings of the classical world cavorting around the stage like they were in a Monty Python skit. That mixture of world class musicianship, theatrics and irreverent humor have thrust violinist Aleksey Igudesman and pianist Richard Hyung-Ki Joo into cyberstardom.
Their clips on YouTube – taken from their touring show, “A Little Nightmare Music,” – have garnered millions of views, whether it be their klezmer-tinged version of Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” or their hilarious performance skit, “Rachmaninov Had Big Hands” in which Joo invents a new form of karate block piano played with Igudesman’s perfectly timed help.
Forget Jack Benny, Victor Borge and Dudley Moore – these guys take musical comedy to another level.
But music is no joke to the duo, who met at age 12 as students at the Yehudi Menuhin School, in England. They do, however, feel the presentation of classical music could use some livening up.
“Hyung-Ki and I love music, but we’re also passionate about theater, film making and all kinds of different art forms,” said Igudesman on Sunday from Antalya, Turkey where the duo had been performing over the weekend.
“One thing we had a problem with from the start with classical music was its tradition, but not in the best sense of the word – that little bit stuck form of the classical music concert.”
“Think about it, when you go to a classical concert, it’s more like a funeral than a celebration, everyone is dressed in black, they bow very solemnly, there’s total silence between the movements, and even when there’s applause, if you shout out ‘bravo’ too many times, people start to look.”
“We often found that a lot of the time, when things went wrong – when someone slipped or spoke out of turn – suddenly the audience’s attention was better, they opened up and became more engaged. The performance became special, and over the years, that’s what we’ve developed and have crystallized.”
The Russian-born Igudesman and the British-raised Joo (son of Korean parents) planted the seeds of their inspired madness back in their school days, when their musical hijinks would sometimes get them in trouble with their teacher.
“Some of them got us, but others didn’t,” said Igudesman. “But forget about being popular with teachers, we weren’t too popular with each other – it was hate at first sight. Then at one point, Hyung-Ki offered me fish and chips, and we sat together and pretty much became inseparable.”
While both musicians forged successful musical careers on their own – with Igudesman composing and performing with his string trio Trilogy, recording with BMG Records and collaborating with everyone from Bobby McFerrin to Julian Rachlin – they continued being close friends and worked on many projects together before developing the concept for “A Little Nightmare Music” in 2004.
“Once we started putting some of our clips from our concerts on YouTube in 2007, it became a viral sensation,” said Joo, who jokes that owing to his last name, he’s the “world’s only Korean Jew.”
“We started getting all kinds of requests and offers, and now the duo is basically the main part of our lives. Most of the calendar year, we’re on the road together, and if not, we’re writing new material. Whatever time there’s left, we then work on our own individual projects.”
However, that time is rapidly dwindling, as the duo has traversed the world, not only performing on their own but also in a show they call “A Big Nightmare Music” which sees them joining forces with symphony and chamber orchestras.
Some of their biggest fans come from the classical world, where they’ve collaborated with Emanuel Ax, Janine Jansen, Gidon Kremer, Mischa Maisky and Viktoria Mullova. When the duo performed at the 80th birthday party of the great conductor Bernard Haitink, the maestro was recorded as saying, “I nearly died laughing. I’d like to invite them back for my 85th, but that might be considered reckless.”
“Some of our strongest supporters have been classical musicians and composers,” said Joo. “Gidon Kremer was the first one to endorse us and approach us about doing a project with him, and we worked together for three years touring with him and the Kremerata Baltica. Our most recent show was written for Emmanuel Ax - Manny’s Spring Sonata –which debuted in Vienna last month.”
WHILE IGUDESMAN and Joo could hold their own with any classical musicians thrown their way, they often look beyond that realm for their inspiration, especially to classical musicians who have expanded their boundaries and dared to step out of their comfort zones.
“What’s really inspired us are the great musicians who have also been open-minded, and have gone outside, whether it be dabbling in humor or attempting something other than conventional art forms – people like Glen Gould, Leonard Bernstein, Yehudi Menuhin. They’re really big figures for us in that they were open and didn’t stick strictly to their own classical field,” said Joo.
Diversifying is a big deal for Igudesman and Joo, and that’s an impetus behind their upcoming effort to set the world record for the most dancing violinists onstage at one time. As a benefit for UNICEF-Austria on its 50th anniversary, the duo called out to violinists around the world to join them for their New Year’s Eve show in Vienna to perform their arrangement and choreography of “Morrison’s Jig” which will be conducted by UNICEF goodwill ambassador Sir Roger Moore.
“New Year’s Eve is always a special event but this year we wanted to make it more special and get 100 dancing violinists to join us onstage,” said Joo, adding that they’ve already filled all the slots with violinists from far away as Singapore and the US.
“UNICEF is close to our hearts, but there’s a deeper reason too. Aleksey and I are very passionate about trying to get musicians to be more physical, and venture outside their stiff shell. This isn’t in order for every musician to turn into the next breakdancer, but as musicians, we’re not usually taught to use, take care of and be flexible with our bodies.”
The duo conduct workshops for musicians called “From 8 to 88” in which they focus on topics like physicality, the psychology of performing, theatricality and improvisation, in an effort to spur the participants’ levels of creativity.
“There was a time when musicians were renaissance people,” said Joo. “They might have excelled in something, but they all composed, improvised, painted – they were very learned people. But somehow, through the fashion of specialization that’s flourished over the last 100 years or so, we’ve lost that.”
“We strongly believe that in order to be a musician, you have to have a well-rounded education, and a passion and interest in life. That’s what we dedicate our workshop to and the ‘100 violinists’ project is one fun way to project that.”
That passion and interest will be on full frontal display this week when Igudesman and Joo arrive in Israel for three performances – Thursday and Saturday nights at the Gesher Theater in Tel Aviv and Friday night at the Northern Theater in Haifa. The duo performed here once before, several years ago at the Red Sea Jazz Festival, but they see their return to the country as a debut of sorts.
“This will be our first time in Tel Aviv and Haifa, and our show has changed,” said Igudesman. “Of course, you’ll still find ‘I Will Survive’ and ‘Rachmaninov Had Big Hands’ but our show is always evolving.
I’m sure we’ll come up with some special things for Israel. When we get there, we’ll think up something. If I told you too much now, it wouldn’t be a surprise.”
Whatever they serve the Israeli audiences, it will surely be lively, which according to Igudesman, is their ultimate goal.
“We’re very much against having the public fall asleep – it’s an expensive ticket for a nap. We want the audience to be entertained, hear some amazing music, and maybe take away something else, like a smile.”
With Igudesman and Joo, it will be more like a belly laugh.