By JOSEPH DALTON, Special to the Times Union
First published in print: Thursday, August 13, 2009
If you think string quartets and violin sonatas are no laughing matter, meet Igudesman and Joo, the classical music comedy duo from Great Britain.
A couple of conservatory grads in their 30s, Aleksey Igudesman, a violinist, and Richard Hyung-ki Joo, a pianist, are the irreverent successors to Victor Borge and P.D.Q. Bach. Mixing beloved themes of Mozart, Beethoven and others with a Monty-Python-style physical humor, they’ve taken Europe by storm over the last four years and earned the respect of such deeply serious artists as Gideon Kremer and Emanuel Ax. But typical of musicians of their generation, they’ve found their largest audience online. YouTube videos of their concert antics have garnered more than 14 million hits.
Igudesman and Joo made their American debut earlier this year, and they’re bringing their show, “A Little Nightmare Music,” to the Saratoga Chamber Music Festival on Sunday afternoon and to the Cooperstown Chamber Music Festival on Tuesday night.
“I am first and foremost a classical musician. I don’t pretend to be anything else.” says Joo, a graduate of the Manhattan School of Music. “The reason I do ‘A Little Nightmare Music’ is because I’m so passionate about classical music.”
While he’s spending an increasing amount of time clowning around onstage, Joo has also performed concertos with the London and Royal Philharmonics and even played a Beethoven violin sonata with Yehudi Menuhin, the late star of the violin. The duo met at England’s Menuhin School, where they became friends in their early teens.
“One of our biggest influences was the school’s namesake,” Joo says. “Menuhin was not just one of the greatest violinists of all time but maybe also the first crossover artist, collaborating with Stephan Grappelli, Duke Ellington and Ravi Shanker. He was a humanitarian and very open-minded in how music was to be shared.”
In addition to getting advanced instruction on their instruments, both musicians also studied composition at the conservatory, where they were pushed to find their own musical voices. Little did their teachers know that comedy would be their reoccurring motif. Joo says that Great Britain is teeming with comedy, but he also cites as an influence existential theater, like Becket’s “Waiting for Godot.”
“We always had a dream to make classical music accessible to a wider and younger audience, to take out the snobbism and elitism, and to create an environment where people are not afraid to go to concerts,” Joo says. “We were also fascinated by humor or theater within music, and we realized that (comedy in the concert hall) was an art form that doesn’t exist in the dictionary but certainly works.”
As with the Capital Region’s own P.D.Q. Bach, Igudesman and Joo seek to create routines that speak to both the musical layman and the consummate insider. “For classical musicians, he’s a gem,” Joo says of Woodstock’s composer/humorist Peter Schickele, aka P.D.Q. Bach. “One of my favorite things of his was a Beethoven symphony with football-style commentary. … It’s an almost perfect analysis of the piece but done with sports terminology. That’s what we try to do: to write on each level so that those who have never heard Beethoven can appreciate what it is and others can also have an insight.”
Costumes, props, voice-overs, singing and musical references to popular culture all play a part in an evening with Igudesman and Joo. But beneath it all, there’s a deep respect for the music, if not the stuffy traditions that surround it.
“We’re very careful that we don’t make fun of music; we make fun with music, and that’s an important distinction for us,” says Joo.
Joo says he thinks it was pianist Martha Argerich who recommended them to violinist Chantel Juillet, artistic director of the Saratoga Chamber Music Festival.
Yet it’s the newcomers and the returnees to classical music that they most want to win over.
“We have a lot of people, kids and adults, who after coming to our shows have resumed their studies or have started picking up an instrument,” says Joo. “They’ve also gone out to buy CDs or tickets to operas and concerts.”
And for that, every classical music lover can be grateful.
A local freelance writer, Joseph Dalton is the author of “Artists & Activists: Making Culture in New York’s Capital Region.”