Jeremy Nicholas meets the mighty musical comedy duo Igudesman and Joo
Their idols are Victor Borge, Dudley Moore, PDQ Bach, Monty Python – and Mozart. They’ve been touring their show A Little Nightmare Music since 2004. And when I was first introduced to Igudesman and Joo via the web (years before YouTube), it was through footage of a clever routine involving blocks of wood and Rachmaninov’s C sharp minor Prelude. Very slick. Very funny.
Then there was a 2006 DVD of their full show shot in the Musikverein in Vienna. This was more hit-and-miss. Aleksey Igudesman was clearly a whizz on the violin, Hyung-ki Joo obviously knew his way around the piano. It was different, it was amusing – but some sketches went on too long, others had no focus, and others still were simply not terribly good. They sorely needed someone to pull the show into shape and raise it above the level of a student review. The biggest pluses were: a) the show was largely visual and so could be taken to any country in the world; b) Igudesman and Joo were born performers with bags of charm; and c) like all great double acts, they were chalk and cheese.
Fast forward to March 2012 and the Cadogan Hall, the venue for their London debut. Normally I run a mile from anything described as ‘madcap’ or linked to Monty Python (‘Madcap Musical Virtuosi’…‘Mozart hijacked by Monty Python’ says the press release). Normally it guarantees tolerant smiles and raised eyebrows. Not these two. Six years and 28 million hits on YouTube later, boy, have they come on. Now the show is polished and crisp. They work the room, work the laughs and, along the way, demonstrate what remarkable musicians they are. When Joo has his right hand chopped off by the piano lid (a silly mistake on Igudesman’s part…or maybe revenge?) we’re treated to a magical performance of Scriabin’s Nocturne for the Left Hand. Igudesman, for his part, can make his 1717 Santo Seraphin violin sound like Heifetz one moment and Jack Benny the next. They end the evening – not before their Rachmaninov Prelude-with-wood-blocks and I-Will-Survive routines are welcomed by the audience like old friends – with a virtuosic high-speed reprise of all the show’s highlights. They tear up the place. Two standing ovations. No wonder big names such as Gidon Kremer, Emanuel Ax, Yo-Yo Ma and Joshua Bell are queuing up to appear with them in other versions of the show.
Igudesman, 38, and Joo, 39, were 12 when they met at the Menuhin School in Stoke d’Abernon, just 20 miles south of Sloane Square where we’re having a drink. ‘We had great teachers there who inspired us and encouraged us to do our own thing,’ says pianist Joo. ‘We felt, back even then, that although we loved classical music, its world had very little to do with the spirit in which it was created. We feel that going to a concert often resembles going to a funeral. We wanted to get rid of this whole ceremonial thing and make it more accessible.’
Does this approach really work? Does someone who listens to ‘Nessun Dorma’ rush out and buy a ticket to Turandot? Will an evening with André Rieu lead you to Bruckner? ‘We’re passionate about the music,’ counters Igudesman. ‘We don’t make fun of the music, we make fun with the music.’
‘For us,’ Joo interjects, ‘the music comes first, then the humour. And we know from the feedback we get that our audiences will, for instance, go out and buy a disc of Rachmaninov after hearing his music for the first time. Or they write and say “I have started to learn the clarinet” or “I’ve taken up piano lessons again”.’ The duo are also passionate about their musical workshops ‘8 to 88 – Musical Education for Children of All Ages’. Here they encourage participants – many of them music students – to loosen up and leave their inhibitions behind. They talk about things like theatricality, improvisation and even how to walk out on stage. ‘While you may be able to play the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto,’ says Joo, ‘you may not have had time to practise your social skills.’
‘And a career is at least 50 per cent social skills,’ adds Igudesman, who was brought up in Leningrad before the family left for Israel in 1979. Both his parents were musicians: his late father was a respected concertmaster, while his mother teaches piano, currently in Vienna.
Joo’s background is less predictable. His parents hail from Korea but in the early ’70s came to the UK. His father opened a Korean restaurant (it failed) before becoming a martial arts instructor and later an acupuncturist. Joo had his first piano lesson when he was eight. Only two years later he was sent to the Menuhin School. ‘I was kicked around a lot – mainly by this guy.’ He looks sideways at his sidekick.
Both established themselves as successful classical musicians before turning full time to comedy in classical music. Joo, who studied further at New York’s Manhattan School from 1990-93 and 1997-99, was playing concerts as a soloist, and with his own piano trio, Dimension, appearing at the Wigmore Hall and other venues. Igudesman had a string trio (Triology), recorded for Sony/BMG and composed. ‘The job of a classical musician is one of the most difficult,’ says Igudesman. ‘Not just technically, but psychologically. One is constantly compared with others – not just by critics but by audiences – and much more rigorously than sportsmen, for instance, who can be assessed on the points they score. With a musician it’s either “He’s awful” or “He’s great”. We have the incredible privilege of being outside of that. Classical musicians like us because – although violinists, for example, might be jealous of each other – I’m no threat. It’s the same with Hyung-ki and pianists.’
They have worked with several directors but primarily direct themselves. ‘Of course we recognise the importance of a third eye and ear, so we’re always bouncing ideas off others,’ says Igudesman. ‘We have several very scathing friends whom we trust.’ Although they rely very little on the spoken word during a show, they can speak that little in English, French, German, Italian, Spanish, Russian or Korean, depending on where they are. How do people from different countries and cultures react? ‘We adapt slightly wherever we are and try to work on several levels at the same time,’ says Joo. ‘The last thing we want to do is estrange people or do insider jokes for classical musicians. Our prime motivation is actually selfish: we want to make each other laugh.’
As if to prove the point, when I ask Igudesman why so few classical musicians can ‘do’ humour, he comes up with a bon mot that makes both of them (actually, all three of us) fall about. ‘The main problem with classical music and humour is that very often it’s musicians who aren’t very good doing comedy that’s not very funny.’ That’s the Igudesman and Joo secret: two very good musicians treating music as seriously as they do comedy; two friends who are genuinely generous with each other – and life-enhancing company on and off the stage.
This article originally appeared in the June 2012 issue of Gramophone (North American edition)