Igudesman & Joo meet the Oregon Symphony

Classical music comedy duo returns to Oregon with new material and a really big backing band

Editor’s note: on Sunday, March 6, the classical music comedy team of Igudesman & Joo return to Oregon to perform with the Oregon Symphony in a program called BIG Nightmare Music that consists of classic I&J comic sketches and new material. Before the pair appeared last summer at Chamber Music Northwest in a duo show, Oregon ArtsWatch ran a preview written by Portland pianist and classical comedienne Dianne Davies, and an interview with Hyung-ki Joo. We’re republishing those together here to remind readers to check out the pair’s new show with the orchestra.

by DIANNE DAVIES

What started in a fight of probable smashing of chairs and music stands upon each other’s heads has grown into an influential friendship. What the two musicians were actually fighting about is still a mystery. Fortunately, pianist Hyung-ki Joo put an end to the outburst with a small offering of fish and chips to violinist Aleksey Igudesman that he just couldn’t resist. This reconciliation kick-started a fantastic duo resulting in the collaboration that birthed “A Little Nightmare Music,” which they’re performing at Portland’s Chamber Music Northwest on July 20 at Reed College’s Kaul Auditorium.

Igudesman & Joo perform March 6 with the Oregon Symphony. Photo: © Julia Wesely

Igudesman & Joo perform March 6 with the Oregon Symphony. Photo: © Julia Wesely

In 2004, inspired by classical musicians and entertainment pioneers Victor Borge and Dudley Moore, Igudesman & Joo created their show, whose name is a twist on the Mozart serenade A Little Night Music. Much acclaimed by critics and audiences alike, “A Lit­tle Night­mare Music” is a unique show, full of vir­tu­osic pyrotechnics, captivating music and zany, out­ra­geous humor. You might see Beethoven’s “Für Elise” played with Joo’s own Karate style piano technique, or a piano lesson Joo gives Alesky that includes yelling and head slapping galore with every mistake.

Igudesman & Joo’s humor and music draw diverse audiences from clas­si­cal music lovers to people who would rather run for cover at the mere men­tion of Mozart. Their goal is to spread the true spirit of classical music to a wider and younger audience. If you are in the category of, “I hate classical music,” then this is the show to change your view.

Leningrad born violinist Aleksey Igudesman and Korean-English pianist Hyung-ki Joo met at age twelve at England’s Yehudi Menuhin School, founded by the great American-born violinist and conductor Yehudi Menuhin (1916-1999) to provide the environment and tuition for musically gifted children from all over the world to pursue their love of music on stringed instruments and piano without the regular classroom load. The school educates more than 60 musically gifted boys and girls between ages 8 and 19.

Born in England, Joo started piano lessons at age eight, and two years later won his place at the Menuhin School, where he realized that the world of clas­si­cal music had lit­tle to do with the spirit in which the music was cre­ated and so began dream­ing of a way to bring this great music to a wider and newer audi­ence.  Dur­ing his stud­ies at the Menuhin School, Igudesman read all the plays of George Bern­ard Shaw, Oscar Wilde, and Anton Chekhov, whose attitudes inform their satirical sketches on classical music’s often snobbish, exclusionary presentation.

Since 2004, I&J have rocked major stages all over the world and been featured at music festivals such as Verbier, Bergen, Yehudi Menuhin Festival in Gstaat, Lockenhaus, Saratoga, and more. The duo have collaborated with many of classical music’s biggest names, including Joshua Bell, Emanuel Ax, Janine Jansen, Gidon Kre­mer, Vik­to­ria Mullova, and Bernard Haitink. It’s a good thing Aleksey likes fish and chips!

Their performances reach well outside the classical realm. In 2008 they toured Europe with pop musicians such as Robin Gibb (Bee Gees), Midge Ure (Ultravox), co-creator of Live Aid and Band Aid, Tears for Fears, Simple Minds, and Kim Wilde and Joe Kerr. I & J have also teamed up with actors such as John Malkovich and for­mer James Bond, Sir Roger Moore, on sev­eral occa­sions in aid of UNICEF.

They also per­form “BIG Night­mare Music,” with some of the world’s leading orchestras, such as the New York Philharmonic, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Belgrade Symphony Orchestra, theHong Kong Sinfonietta, and the Orchestre de Cannes Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur. In this show, which the pair brings to Portland with the Oregon Symphony March 6, the sketches include such works as Mozart Bond, Alla Molto Turca and Clean­ing vs. River­danc­ing amped up for a full-blown orches­tra.

The duo also maintain solo careers. After study­ing with Boris Kuschnir at the Vienna Con­ser­va­toire, Igudesman embarked on a suc­cess­ful career of play­ing, com­pos­ing, and arrang­ing for his string trio, Tri­ol­ogy, and has worked with musi­cians rang­ing from Acad­emy® Award-winning Hol­ly­wood com­poser Hans Zim­mer to multi Grammy® Award-winning vocal­ist Bobby McFer­rin. Hyung-ki Joo has worked with Acad­emy® Award-winning com­poser Van­ge­lis, and was cho­sen by Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee Billy Joel to arrange and record Joel’s clas­si­cal com­po­si­tions on a CD, which reached the top of the Bill­board Classical charts.

Beyond their performances, I & J lead their education program “8 To 88 — Musi­cal Edu­ca­tion for Chil­dren of All Ages” at uni­ver­si­ties and music schools around the world, leav­ing stu­dents inspired and con­fi­dent to break new grounds for their own musi­cal journeys. The duo has started a new group The League of X-traordinary Musicians, which debuts this year. In the spirit of cult comic series “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” and “The X-Men,” this group gathers multi-tasking instrumentalists from around the world with talents beyond the usual such as dancing, singing, rapping, beat boxing, acrobatics, and magic.

The next chapter is their upcoming “Big Nightmare Music” tour of the U.S., beginning in October.  The duo hopes to develop a TV series mixing classical music and humor, which I would love to see, having loved watching and mimicking Victor Borge myself. Born in 1965, I missed Borge’s TV appearances and his own TV series. Finally, two talented and educated musicians have picked up the torch carried decades ago by Borge and other musical humorists, and are carrying it to today’s audiences on an international scale, sharing their skills and music without the pompous stuffiness that turns many of today’s music listeners off. Together, I & J have brought this classical music back to the masses to accomplish its original goal: entertainment of the people, by the people and for the people!

Igudesman & Joo pianist connects with broad audiences through music and laughter.

“Why are chamber music presenter series like sheep?” asks pianist Hyung-ki Joo. “If you look at the presenter series all over the country, they’re all the same.” On Monday, July 20, Chamber Music Northwest breaks from the herd by bringing today’s leading classical music humorists, Igudesman & Joo — superb players who also reach broad audiences by combining classics with comedy. ArtsWatch interviewed Joo about the duo’s delightfully dizzy approach to classical music and humor, and what other presenters and performers can learn from their experience. 

Igudesman and Joo perform Sunday with the Oregon Symphony. Photo: © Julia Wesely.

Igudesman and Joo perform Sunday with the Oregon Symphony. Photo: © Julia Wesely.

Origins of their act and philosophy

We’re both very passionate about music. At the Menuhin School, we had fantastic music teachers. One, Peter Norris, was a very big influence. He had a Yoda like approach he got from his time studying with [the great French music pedagogue] Nadia Boulanger. “Never play one single note without meaning it,” he told us. We grew up with this idealistic music making approach. We had many fantastic teachers [including] a drama teacher. He was a big inspiration and still is. Every Christmas, there’s a cabaret party at school. The first time we did a skit was there, when we were about 15 years old. We enjoyed the experience so much that we did the next two Christmas cabarets. It was clear then that we would continue after we got out of school.

We both felt classical music was dying because it was taking itself way too seriously and if it continued to present itself in this way, there was the potential that no one would come to concerts anymore. People don’t dare to move and don’t dare to clap at the wrong time. We felt this is wrong — this music is full of life and passion. It’s dramatic and passionate, and it should be celebrated and not exist in this atmosphere of death.

What we do is not that innovative; it’s quite retro. We discovered in researching music history that Schumann and Beethoven performed in a lively manner, and the music was interspersed with poetry readings, magic tricks — performers would go into the audience and have a glass of wine with the listeners and then go back and play. These were the performers that were inspirations to us.

We just wanted to create concerts that we would want to go to ourselves. We didn’t want to be rebels. But since we can’t bend the rules of this tradition, we’ll make our own tradition. We noticed that once we mixed our concerts with humor and theater, then when we played a piece of classical music, their perception of what we were playing was a million times higher. People would really listen with a high degree of attention.

Advice to other presenters and performers

We encourage presenters: “please be creative with programs.” Who the hell devised that formula of symphony-concerto-overture? Why are chamber music presenter series like sheep? If you look at the presenter series all over the country, they’re all the same.

We’re not saying our way is the way, but it is a way. Even if performers would just come on stage and say hello and humanize themselves and say a few words about the piece, already there’s a certain barrier that’s been broken and the audience has already relaxed. Then when they sit down and play Schubert, if they’re able to crack a little joke, the audience can see a connection to the performer. Audiences want to feel connected and entertained. This kind of elitist barriers we have now will just put people off.

Connecting with audiences

If there’s no audience there, then we’re playing for no one. If you want to be at home and glorify music, that’s fine, it’s a virtue. But the moment people have paid for a ticket or are paying with their time and sharing their experience with you, then I think you owe it to them to make them feel included. If you’re including them, then they’ll feel connected.

Our audience is a very mixed audience. We’re very proud of that. We see people as old as three years old and as young as 88 years old. A lot of university students, musical connoisseurs, people who’ve never walked into a concert hall — it’s a mixture of multi generations and multi backgrounds.

We write on many levels. We try to appeal to as many different audiences as possible. Our whole thing is,  ‘let’s not alienate audiences.’ We cannot resist musical jokes for insiders because we are musicians, but we’re aware that not everyone understands them so we add another level that others can understand. For example, in “A Little Nightmare Music,” we have this joke about Rachmaninoff, and for someone who knows Rachmaninoff and knows that piece we’re playing, they will understand that those chords are just so big — there’s even one chord notated that’s impossible to play. Those who have no idea about that will see some slapsticks acrobatics, visual humor and physical comedy that’s really for everyone.

Music is about communication. We believe that music is one thing that connects the world, through the science of tones and harmonies. We play music at all our ceremonies, we sing “Happy Birthday,” we have music at funerals. Music joins people —  it is the thing that binds people. You could get someone from Siberia and Dakar together and they’d make music somehow. It’s a very powerful thing.

Laughter is also powerful and universal. A lot of Holocaust survivors, when they were asked, “How did you survive?”, they all answered “Music and laughter.” Those are the two things that carried them through. There are stories of concentration camp prisoners sneaking down to the basement to rehearse Verdi’s Requiem. They’d make music when they were fearing they’d be shot if caught.

We’re in the very fortunate position of doing music and laughter. Wherever we are, there is the common ground.

Igudesman & Joo perform  “BIG Nightmare Music,” at 7:30 pm Sunday, March 6 at Portland’s Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall. Tickets are available online

Dianne Davies is a Portland pianist who is hungry for the stage and performs her comedy show “Dianne Davies has Fallen off her Bench.”  Her show has traces of Victor Borge, Liberace and Tom Lehrer to current stars like Igusdesman & Joo and P.D.Q. Bach.  The rest of the time she performs new repertoire by living composers.

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Want to learn more about contemporary Oregon classical music? Check out Oregon ComposersWatch. 

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