Igudesman & Joo preview: Classics meet comics

Musical humorists combine classical music and comedy at Chamber Music Northwest


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 and Joo perform Monday at Chamber Music Northwest. Photo: © Julia Wesely.

Igudesman and Joo perform Monday at Chamber Music Northwest. 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, the Hong 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 next March, 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 perform  “A Little Nightmare Music,” Monday, June 20 at Reed College’s Kaul Auditorium. Tickets are available online. Be sure to read ArtsWatch’s interview with Hyung-ki Joo.

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. It is her passion to connect living composers with young piano students and their teachers by co-chairing the “In Good Hands” concert sponsored by Cascadia Composers. This year’s edition happens Thursday, July 16, at Portland’s The Old Church. 

Want to read more about Oregon music? Support Oregon ArtsWatch! 
Want to learn more about contemporary Oregon classical music? Check out Oregon ComposersWatch. 

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