This Friday, the classical music and comedy duo Igudesman and Joo perform A Little Nightmare Music at the Community Presbyterian Church in Ventura. The concert is part of this year's Ventura Music Festival. KUSC spoke with Igudesman and Joo before a previous Southern California appearance and got the scoop on their potent blend of comedy and classical music.
As a 12-year-old student with a talent for piano, Hyung-ki Joo was picked on by classmates -- "Classical musician tend to be beat up, it's somehow not cool." He thought life would be better at the Yehudi Menuhin School in England, where all the students were musicians. But violinist and fellow student Aleksey Igudesman took an instant dislike to Joo, teasing and taunting him relentlessly. Tired of being a punching bag, Joo tried disarming Igudesman with a plate of fish and chips. The peace offering worked. The two became friends, and that friendship eventually became a globe-trotting career as the classical music and comedy duo Igudesman and Joo.
An Igudesman and Joo show includes works by the undisputed masters of classical music composition, but there is always a twist. In one bit, Igudesman stands behind Joo holding a teetering pile of wooden boards. As Joo plays a Rachmaninoff piano concerto, Igudesman tosses the boards to Joo, who slams them down on his piano. The boards are fitted with pegs wider apart than Joo’s fingers can stretch. This, says Joo, allows him to play “big-handed” repertoire with his comparatively small hands—“ONLY hands small, thank you.” Later in the show, with Joo still at the piano and Igudesman wearing a tuxedo, they start again with Rachmaninoff, but the music morphs into the power ballad All By Myself.
The ideas for bits often come from real life, says Joo. “You see all kinds of things happening at a concert and we love things that go wrong, which is why we called our show A Little Nightmare Music, because it’s full of these little nightmares… cell phones go off, people start taking photos, the lights go out. We love to incorporate things that happen in real life and try to make some fun out of them.”
The duo has been touring the globe with A Little Nightmare Music since 2004, but the act is changing all the time, thanks to inspirational calamity.
Says Igudesman, “when things go wrong in our show, they’re even funnier than the things that go wrong on purpose. So the more things go wrong, the better in a way. We take those things that go wrong and incorporate them into the things that have already gone wrong.”
The tone of an Igudesman and Joo show is light, but Igudesman is quick to point out that their jokes aren’t at the expense of classical music.
“We absolutely love classical music. We don’t make fun of the music, we make fun with the music. We’re essentially musicians, but we also love the world of comedy and the world of theatre, so we try to mix it all up in one bag and shake the world of classical music up a bit.”
Joo agrees that a making a concert more casual isn’t a disservice to the music. “It’s not to say the music isn’t serious,” he says, “but that doesn’t mean that the whole environment around it has to be taking itself too seriously. This is one of the reasons why we came up with A Little Nightmare Music. Also, we found that the classical music establishment was scaring the young audiences away, and not just the youngsters, but also the non-subscription classical connoisseurs. We felt passionately that classical music could appeal to almost everyone and we wanted to tap into that public.”
It goes without saying, points out Joo, that a deep knowledge of comedy isn’t a prerequisite to enjoying jokes. And yet, there is a prevailing sense that only those who have studied classical music can enjoy it in performance. Igudesman and Joo hope that by combining comedy and classical music, those boundaries will start to erode.
“We noticed that when you make people laugh, then when you start to play something serious, their attention is focused,” says Igudesman. “You certainly don’t need a background to enjoy classical music, because the music speaks for itself, that’s what the music is devised for. People who think, ‘Oh, I won’t get classical music,’ should come to our performance, because they will certainly get it there.”
While Igudesman and Joo use modern innovations like ringing cell phones and a piano that demands a credit card be inserted before it can be played, combining humor and music isn’t a new concept.
Victor Borge made a career out of mixing jokes with concertos and achieved incredible popularity over his nearly 75 years of performing. In 1942, just two years after he moved to America, he was named Best New Radio Performer of the Year. Later, he took his act to television and performed with serious musicians like opera singer Marilyn Mulvey, falling off his piano bench in mock surprise when she hit a high note.
Charo, the buxom blonde best known for her catch phrase “cuchi-cuchi” is also a classically-trained musician. In her native Spain, she studied with one of the kings of classical guitar, Andrés Segovia, and she’s twice been named Best Classical Flamenco Guitarist in the world by Guitar Player magazine.
Igudesman and Joo say the tradition of mixing music with humor goes back even farther than Charo and Borge.
“Music used to be less serious, “says Igudesman. “At the time of Beethoven and Mozart the music world was much more relaxed. There were a lot of concerts going on where people might do a magic trick between symphony movements and there would be so much more fun going on. Today it’s all a little bit stiff and that’s why we’re trying to liven it up a little bit.”
Joo says livening up the concert-going experience isn’t a hard sell, even when they join forces with major orchestras.
“We have a show called BIG Nightmare Music,” he says, “which is a show we do with symphony orchestras and chamber orchestras. This really tickles us. The symphony orchestra as we know it today is this institution of respectability and immovability. It’s so fascinating to see the transition from the first hour of rehearsal to the very last hour of rehearsal and then from that to the concert, because you see all these adults suddenly having a carnival. We love that. Sometimes when we’re on tour with an orchestra, by the 5th or 6th concert, they’re the ones that are really going nuts and they’re doing all kinds of things behind us and we love that. There is nothing more exciting that seeing 60, 80 people having fun and making music.”