For Igudesman & Joo, demystifying classical music involves making fun with the craft, not of it

  • Musical duo Igudesman and Joo combine comedy and classical music in their performances.

  • The duo aims to make classical music accessible, so that once someone attends one of their concerts, they will never fear it again.

  • They make their India debut at the National Centre for Performing Arts in Mumbai on 30 November.

Musical duo Igudesman & Joo, comprising violinist Aleksey Igudesman and pianist Hyung-ki Joo, combine comedy and classical music in their performances, and are gearing up for their India debut on 30 November at Mumbai's National Centre for Performing Arts. In an email interview with Firstpost, they list instances of the openness and interactivity one found at classical music concerts, before elitism and snobbery creeped in to the space during the 20th century.

“There’s this well-documented account of when violinist Franz Clemens premiered the Beethoven Violin Concerto. In between movements, he did tricks with his violin, like playing the violin upside down,” says Igudesman. "Father of the recital", Franz Liszt, would jump into audiences for a swig of wine from one of their glasses, and then return to stage. “And apparently, women used to throw underwear during Liszt’s concerts,” he adds. At their concerts, Mozart and Beethoven had relaxed structures, improvising as they went along the performance. And Niccolò Paganini, in his concerts, indulged in an abundance of showmanship.

Inspired by this pre-20th century, pre-Richard Wagner-era way of performing, and feeling constrained by the seriousness with which the classical world took itself, Igudesman & Joo conceptualised their act. “Going to a concert often resembled a funeral rather than being a celebration of life, and while a lot of music is serious and tragic, the whole ceremony surrounding classical music need not be so serious and elitist,” says Igudesman. This seriousness is also the foremost reason for so many people, especially the youth, feeling intimidated by classical music. According to the violinist, they "dreamed of changing this".

The duo often explain that they’re making fun with the music, not of the music. Their aim is to make classical music accessible, so that once someone attends one of their concerts, they’ll never fear it again. “And partly it was just to annoy our strict teachers, which we were masterful at,” he adds.

 For Igudesman & Joo, demystifying classical music involves making fun with the craft, not of it

Igudesman & Joo. Photo credit: NCPA.

The two met as children at the prestigious Yehudi Menuhin School in England's Surrey. “I was in love with music from the moment I was born. At least, according to my parents,” says Joo, explaining that as a baby, he would spend hours listening to music that played at stores, while his parents shopped. He went on to spend seven years at the school, arriving there at age 10, and found himself "surrounded by geniuses – kids that were writing operas, and able to dictate any five-part modern fugues.”

Joo also dealt with the constant fear of being kicked out of school, and was bullied by his now partner, among others. Igudesman came to the school at age 12 and spent four years there. He was born into a musically inclined household, with a pianist mother and a violinist father, who was also his earliest teacher. “I remember playing games and dancing under the piano while my mother was practising and teaching,” recalls Igudesman.

Both fondly reminisce their time at the school, and the many influential teachers they had. Their composition and improvisation teacher, Simon Parkin, opened their ears and minds, also playing ridiculous games with them. “He would play us pieces, such as the Rachmaninov second piano concerto, but transformed, as if it was composed by Messiaen. This may sound a little dorky, but the idea is very funny to us as musicians,” Igudesman says. Then there was their English teacher who was “more inspiring than Robin Williams’ character in Dead Poets’ Society”, and at times, “as equally awe-inspiring as he was feared, much like Snape from Harry Potter". There was also Malcolm Singer, their composition teacher following Parkin. “Malcolm never imposed any compositional techniques on us. He pointed things out, encouraged us, asked us the right questions,” says Igudesman. In his classes, they analysed different types of music, from Igor Stravinsky and Mozart, to Queen’s ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’.

With all these influences moulding them, and on being inspired by the idea of toppling over the elitism that overshadowed classical music, the two decided to come together. “We have always been fascinated by the marriage of theatre, comedy, and classical music, and we were very inspired by several people who have done similar things before us, such as Viktor Borge,” explains Igudesman. On stage, they also focus on being interactive instead of standing in the dark, wearing black clothes. “In our shows with orchestras, we aim to highlight each musician in some way, and bring out individual hidden talents,” he adds. Their shows are written on two levels, “so that when there is a joke for the musical connoisseurs, there is something else happening at the same time for those who have never even heard of Mozart,” explains Joo. And while classical music can often be intense and serious, “everything can fit, as long as you provide the right context or dramaturgy,” the violinist says.

Igudesman & Joo use two analogies to explain their creative process: ping-pong and “add a parrot”. About the former, it goes that one of them has an idea and serves it, while the other hits back with such a spin that the ball completely changes direction. “Sometimes, the balls go to the side, or fall out of play, but those ideas can sprout new ideas, and side ideas, which themselves can turn into a whole thing of its own,” says Igudesman. And “add a parrot” is a term they derive from the Monty PythonDead Parrot Sketch’, where a customer tries to return a parrot that was dead and nailed to its cage, but the shopkeeper, seeing the unmoving bird in front of him, denies that it’s dead, and insists that its merely stunned. “An utterly absurd, yet brilliantly funny situation. As Igudesman & Joo we often ask ourselves, ‘how can we take an idea a step further and “add a parrot?”,’ explains Igudesman.

While performing, they also celebrate mistakes. “In fact, we don’t think of them as mistakes, they are opportunities,” says Joo, to be creative. In one instance, a part of their show comprised Joo sleeping under the piano and slowly waking up, and during one of their performances, he hit his head on the underside of the piano with a big thud. This incited a huge laugh and since then, banging his head has become part of the routine. “Some of the best moments that happen in our shows are born from mistakes,” says Igudesman.

Besides attracting a broader and more diverse audience than most other classical music acts, they have also received support from the professional music world. On stage, they have been accompanied by guests ranging from Emanuel Ax, to the late Sir Roger Moore, and from Julian Rachlin to Billy Joel. “The only person that did not understand our show was Wagner; but that might be because he is dead. As Mark Twain once said, ‘Wagner’s music is better than it sounds’,” Igudesman says.

Igudesman & Joo’s debut India performance will be at Mumbai’s National Centre for Performing Arts (NCPA) on 30 November. More information here.

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Updated Date: Dec 01, 2019 11:48:38 IST