“Let’s party” is not the mantra that immediately comes to mind when thinking of a classical concert. But it’s the one that pianist Richard Hyung-Ki Joo and violinist Aleksey Igudesman abide by in their highly unusual, enormously entertaining comic approach to playing with some of the world’s top orchestras.
Igudesman & Joo, as they are known, blend shenanigans and Chopin, mischief and Mozart in dazzling displays of slapstick and tomfoolery that have not only audiences, but fellow musicians onstage bopping their heads and shaking in their tuxes with laughter.
From the looks of the YouTube clips that have drawn more than 35 million hits, these two could have forced a chortle out of even Wagner or Beethoven. But they are also virtuosos of the first order, which elevates their antics to a higher realm.
“The music always comes first for us,” Joo said, adding the sound bite that he uses to quickly describe the show: “Monty Python meets Mozart, ‘South Park’ meets Bach.”
Andrew Litton, the orchestra’s Sommerfest artistic director, recently conducted an Igudesman & Joo concert in Bergen, Norway.
“They are crackup funny, slapstick comedians and yet can really play their instruments,” he said. “Comedy is harder than drama and that’s what they make look so easy as they’re playing.”
The show is inspired, Joo said, “by things that go wrong at a concert, which can be more interesting than what was planned. In fact, we even make mistakes on purpose.”
Igudesman, born in the Russian cultural capital of St. Petersburg, and Joo, a Brit of Korean heritage, met as tweens at the Yehudi Menuhin School in England. Both felt that the world of classical music “took itself way too seriously,” Joo said. “Going to a concert shouldn’t be like going to a funeral. We wanted to change that. And also annoy our strict teachers.”
The like-minded boys became fast friends and writing partners, and in 2004 created their first show together. Since then, they’ve performed with orchestras all over the world, as well as working with musical superstars including Emanuel Ax, Joshua Bell, Bobby McFerrin and Billy Joel.
Anything can happen at an Igudesman & Joo concert. Superimposing Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony or Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” onto Gloria Gaynor’s disco anthem “I Will Survive”? Why not? In a sketch they call “Rachmaninoff Had Big Hands,” Joo is unable to play a piece because his hands are too small, so Igudesman starts throwing him 100 planks of wood carved to play difficult chords, all while never interrupting an expert interpretation of the piece.
Litton said the duo can be appreciated on many levels, whether you’re knowledgeable about classical music or not.
“It’s hysterical for anyone when they bring in the Eric Carmen pop song ‘All by Myself’ with Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto,” he said. “But if you’re a musician, your face will really be aching by the end of the first act with all the inside jokes.”
An added bonus for the musicians playing with them, said Litton, is that “their mandate is: This is for the orchestra, it’s their concert. We want them to have fun. In rehearsals they never show the orchestra the whole show, so the musicians’ reactions are fresh, they’re genuinely surprised.”
At a New Year’s Eve concert with the New York Philharmonic, the pair inspired members of the orchestra to fake-sob as well as dance salsa and Irish step. Let’s hope the Minnesota Orchestra musicians attempt to do them one better.