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Malkovich & Igudesman: Laugh to the music

The actor-comedian and his musical sidekick join the Oregon Symphony Orchestra for a wry and funny look at the slings and arrows of outrageous classical music critics.

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Aleksey Igudesman and John Malcovich take on the critics with the Oregon Symphony. Photo ©Julia Wesely

Vitriolic words and the music that inspired them will take center stage when Hollywood star John Malkovich teams up with violinist-composer-conductor Aleksey Igudesman and the Oregon Symphony for a unique comedy show – The Music Critic at the Symphony – at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall on Wednesday, June 12.

Concertgoers will hear acerbic, scathing, witty, and over-the-top comments delivered by Malkovich – in the guise of real critics – about the music of Dvořák, Beethoven, Debussy, Brahms, Rachmaninoff, Ravel, Schumann, and Kancheli. No composer is left untouched, untarnished, nay … unbruised. And listeners can have a grand time laughing about it.  

For this preview, I was able to talk with both Malkovich and Igudesman via Zoom. Being a card-carrying music critic, this was sort of a surreal experience. So, I started with the basics, like, how did they come up with the idea for The Music Critic in the first place?

“Quite a few years ago, I was at a music festival in Croatia with violinist Julian Rachlin,” said Igudesman, “and looking for an idea to collaborate with John. I wanted John to recite these horrible reviews of amazing pieces of music. The juxtaposition was so strong that I thought if you heard the negative reviews that the music would come across even stronger.“

“In 2008, we did a piece called Rotating Drummer Inside a Box, which was developed with my friend Alberto Inglesias, the Spanish composer whose film music has been nominated for several Oscars,” Malkovich added. “It had a toy mechanical drummer that would rotate in a box and appear and disappear. The text by Juan Muñoz sounds like Beckett, Pinter, and James Joyce.”

“We started with a chamber version of The Music Critic,” Igudesman added without a hitch, “and this is the first symphonic version. We have done it twice in Europe. So the performance with the Oregon Symphony will be the American premiere. The piece has taken on its own life. It has hidden meanings that I wasn’t aware of initially.”

I heard their debut chamber music program in Seattle last year, and reviewed it in my blog Northwest Reverb. Some of the biting reviews came from Nicolas Slonimsky’s Lexicon of Musical Invective.

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“Slonimsky’s book has many examples,” said Igudesman, “but I found other scathing reviews from other sources, including online. Take a little-known work called Beethoven’s Fifth. We managed to find some horrific reviews about it from today.”

So how did he come up with the selections for the show?

“The pieces we selected for the show are an amalgam,” Igudesman explained. “Partly, the pieces were chosen to fit the reviews. When I found certain reviews about great works, I thought that it would be wonderful to integrate them. It is not as interesting to hear the review and then the piece. What John and I have developed together is where to place those reviews so that they highlight what the reviewer hated about the work but in such a way that you can hear how beautiful the music is.”

“I think that this is really apparent with Debussy’s Prelude to an Afternoon of a Faun,” he continued. “It’s an absolutely astoundingly beautiful work that was hated by a myriad of critics. And each offending part was described eloquently and in great detail. We spent a lot of time to place the words to that they would underline exactly those parts in a special way. It works really well, because the result is grotesque and poetic at the same time.”

“I try to bring the same emotion that the critics bring to it,” Malkovich said. “The same passion and ability to be affected by the music. I try to bring that to the criticism. When you hear the music, you hear the criticism. It stays with you. You hear what’s being referred to. Beethoven is picked apart and you hear it in the music. What you might love about the music, the critic hates about the music. The reviews are deeply felt and very emotional. They are about very passionately held beliefs and feelings. Classical music excites those feelings.”

I had to ask about a piece on the program called the “Malkovich Torment.”

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“I have endured some heavy criticism,” said Igudesman, “mostly on the internet and not by professionals. But it’s eloquent if you can call WTF eloquent. A friend of mine found this review of John from Istanbul that was so passionate and elaborate and so special. I sent it to John for his approval before I started writing a piece around the review, and he enjoyed reading it.”

“It’s a beautifully written, hilariously tormenting review of The Infernal Comedy,” said Malkovich, “which I have done around the world with the Vienna Academy Orchestra. Since then we have become friends with this horrific reviewer.”

“The audience will be thrilled to learn that I will play an instrument of choice,” continued Malkovich. “The tuba. In my mind, I’m a virtuoso.”

There is a video of John attempting to show me the difference between a B and a B-flat by playing exactly the same note twice,” said Igudesman.

“Our show is not against music critics,” said Igudesman. “It is simply to highlight that there are so many different opinions and that’s it’s okay to have a strong opinion. You don’t have to take criticism so harshly. If you are going to put something in the public light, then you will be criticized. You are not always going to be adored. It’s like Oscar Wilde said, ‘There’s only one thing worse than to be talked about and that’s not to be talked about.’”

“I’ll also be conducting,” said Malkovich.

“From now on it’s Maestro Malkovich,” interjected Igudesman. “Perhaps to the dismay of the orchestra.”

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“We will have a lot of fun,” said Malkovich. “We will have some pleasant torture for the orchestra.”

“There are some pieces that I will play and conduct,” noted Igudesman. “One will be an arrangement that I did of some beautiful songs by Schumann, Dichterliebe. Tango GitanoGypsy Tango – a virtuoso work. The review’s about me. One should see what they hate about me. We are also doing Ravel’s Bolero in a special arrangement – we arranged it around the criticisms. The criticisms start with the piece, then proceed with how Ravel himself didn’t like the work very much. He said that it was an experiment that came from a bet that he had with someone.”

“He said that it was a masterpiece, but it had no music in it,” Malkovich added.

“We tell how Toscanini tried to save the work by playing it faster, much faster,” Igudesman said. “Then we talk about the role of a conductor. And that’s where the fun really begins. John analyzes how much or how little we need conductors.”

“You won’t believe what you experience when I start conducting,” said Malkovich. “Toscanini’s version is in the 14-minute range and Celibidache’s recording is in the 18-minute range. It’s funny that this music can be taken in such disparate ways and disparate directions. The criticism about both extremes is very well-written and fascinating when you hear the music right with it.”

“We don’t make fun of music; we make fun with music,” said Igudesman. “Through the laughter, the music is able to shine stronger.”

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Photo Joe Cantrell

James Bash enjoys writing for The Oregonian, The Columbian, Classical Voice North America, Opera, and many other publications. He has also written articles for the Oregon Arts Commission and the Grove Dictionary of American Music, 2nd edition. He received a fellowship to the 2008 NEA Journalism Institute for Classical Music and Opera, and is a member of the Music Critics Association of North America.
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