Thursday, March 24, 2011

Berklee: Igudesman and Joo Make A Little Nightmare Music

Igudesman and Joo at the Berklee
Performance Center Saturday
Aleksey Igudesman and Hyung-ki Joo are classically trained virtuoso musicians, knowledgeable and versatile. They have worked with big name musicians across genres – violinist Iguedesman with Bobby McFerrin and film composer Hans Zimmer, Joo with Billy Joel, for whom he arranged his classical compositions. They have serious credentials, but the show they are bringing to Boston for the first time Saturday at the Berklee Performance Center is anything but.

A Little Nightmare Music is a two-man revue of sorts, showing off Igudesman’s and Joo’s skills as players, but also a silly stew of classical music, broad physical comedy, parody, and pop culture references. It’s a mash-up of Rachmaninov, Mozart, “I Will Survive,” “All By Myself,” and the Beatles. They pair have been performing together since they were 14, and put together their first stage show in 2004. Their YouTube fans number in the millions, and they have sold out their New York City show.

I interviewed them by e-mail while they were busy touring and getting ready to invade the States.

How did you choose Boston for your US debut?

JOO: We throw darts randomly at the map of the world. No, seriously, Boston has been a dream for us to play for a long time. Aleksey's bow is made by a wonderful Boston bowmaker called Roland Benoit, whom he will meet for the first time. And we are both fans and friends of the Boston based great pianist Gabriella Montera, who will hopefully also attend the performance.

The US in general is a place we have always wanted to perform as so much of our inspiration has come from American sitcoms and comedians! The audience in the US s also extremely open minded, appreciative and very warm, a rather fabulous combination!

How receptive are classical music fans to the humor?

JOO: We have been very blessed, with good critics from the press and positive response from the public and especially from great musicians. Whether this will stay this way, we will see! The public is understandably enthusiastic: the regular concert breaks out of its routine and goes off into a new fresher direction, with humour and music that we hope to be fun and original, but yet of high quality.

From the professional side, we have had wonderful feedback so far, even from great artists such as Julian Rachlin, Janine Jansen, Mischa Maisky, Emanuel Ax and Gidon Kremer, all of whom we have had the great pleasure of performing with and including in various humorous ways in our performances.

Do you have to show a certain level of knowledge and virtuosity to get the classical audiences to respond, do you think? To show that you take it seriously before you can have fun with it?

IGUDESMAN : We believe its important to show that one can play before the fun begins. But classical music has many faces. It can be serious, it can be funny, it can be highly emotional, or simply light and entertaining. Opera is a mix of many things. Perhaps what we do is like an own kind of "piccola opera buffa moderna." We sing, we play, we speak, we even dance at times.

Interestingly enough, when working on a "humorous" program, the preparation is even more serious than a "regular" concert. This has many reasons. The "timing" of a humour is just as vital as the timing of the music, so one is constantly working on more than one level. There is also the theatrical and the visual aspect. Then again one has to feel so comfortable in the music, that the humour has space to feel natural and vica versa, so virtuosity is required on many levels. And this has to be practiced and rehearsed separately and together. So it is double the work, but often also double the fun!

Do you remember the first piece the two of you performed together?

JOO: The first piece we ever played together was when we were both 14 years old. It was a piece written by Aleksey called "Bastard Sonata," which by now is published on Universal Edition. It involves a short improvisation section, where, in the first performance, Aleksey lost half of the hair on his bow and forgot to come in after that.

How about the first piece into which you injected humor?

IGUDESMAN: We tend to try to find humor in music, rather than inject it, most of the time. If one were to pick up a historical account of how music was performed in the last three centuries, one may be astounded as one would see that the performance of classical music of the past has no resemblance whatsoever with today's performance. This is not to say that the way in which classical music was performed and received at those times is ideal but one thing is certain: there was a lot more spontaneity and fun in those times and less of a barrier between the performers and the public. But we digress - the first piece with humor was probably also Alekseys "Bastard Sonata."

Is there much speaking in the show? Does it overcome language barriers in that way?

IGUDESMAN & JOO: Our show is an international show and uses little language. Whatever language might be used, it is secondary to the presentation. It is not important to understand the humor of a sketch, however, we do our very best to adapt those bits of language into the local language, wherever and whenever possible and we have managed to perform the show in French, German, Italian, Spanish, Russian and even Korean and even used bits and sentences in Japanese, Malaysian, Mandarin and Cantonese! What is wonderful for us is the way the different parts of the world react to different parts of the show. Humor is the same everywhere, but every culture has its own "preferences" Some nations laugh more about the slapstick, where as others prefer the musical or the linguistic jokes.

You’ve played for a wide variety of audiences – what pop culture touchstones have transcended cultures, have you found? Has it ever surprised you that a reference to a specific song, say “I Will Survive,” worked with a specific audience?

IGUDESMAN : "I Will Survive" has become a very significant song for us. We have managed to transcend cultures in that song, simply because the harmonic structure is such a common one. And that is not saying its bad. Just the opposite. A lot of great music is based on the same chord structure. And at one point in the song, we combine Tchaikovsky, Chopin, Bach, Vivaldi, "Autumn Leaves," "Killing Me Softly," and many other songs of composers that are based on those chords. For us, it signifies that it all comes from the same roots and that pop, jazz, ethnic and classical music are much closer linked than one thinks. In our eyes, this song also stands for the survival of classical music in particular and music in general. And why does Aleksey sing it with a Russian accent, you may well ask. You may ask that.

Who are your influences musically, and comically?

IGUDESMAN : Already back at the Yehudi Menuhin School in England, where we met at the age of 12, we were always listening and watching great comedians, parallel to great performers. We were influenced by people who were both, wonderful musicians and had a great sense of humour, such as Victor Borge, Dudley Moore or even Glenn Gould, who did some sketches for Canadian TV, which many people don’t know. Even the great violinist Yehudi Menuhin himself, who Aleksey was lucky enough to have lessons with, spread the word of being open to all things around and not just "classical music" itself.

We have always been very close to the theater, the cinema and acting. As a teenager Aleksey went through a phase of reading the entire works of Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wilde and Anton Chekhov. We have both done many projects on and off stage, written music for the stage and the screen and acted in shows and plays.

It is difficult to say which composers influenced us the most, but the Russian neoclassical movement has always been a big inspiration to both of us. Aleksey listened to anything he could get his hands on by Prokofiev and Hyung-ki, has always been a big admirer of Stravinsky - he even won the Stravinsky piano competition at a very young age. But we have also been influenced by various types of non-classical music, like Frank Zappa, Queen, The Beatles, Pink Floyd and Billy Joel, who Hyung-ki has worked closely with for many years.

You also work for other people, like Hans Zimmer or Billy Joel. Do you have to approach that sort of work for hire with a different mindset from what you do for yourselves?

JOO: Primarily we are passionate musicians (besides being absolute loonies, that is). All music we play or write is done with complete and utter dedication, whether it is with or for Hans Zimmer, Billy Joel, or the girl next door who has asks us to sing a lullaby to her baby. And all creative work requires our full dedication which we always give. We try to have an open mind for all work, breath deeply into our chakras, stand on one foot and chant old Hebrew songs, but then again, we do that before every show anyway!

Have you seen that you’ve opened up classical music to people who otherwise hadn’t responded to it? Have you gotten feedback from fans to that effect?

IGUDESMAN & JOO: We have a lot of feedback from fans and people who didn't give a damn about classical music and now are into Rachmaninov and Mozart! Needless to say we are overjoyed about that! From a young age on, we felt that the whole business and ceremony surrounding classical music was way too serious for its own good and found that people were afraid to go to concerts. Some of our aim is to dispel this fear by making classical music more accessible to the public.

We would like to say that our audience is mostly female and between the ages of 18 and 38, but that would simply not be true. It truly is as varied as advertised, which is, in actual fact, a beautiful thing. Any age, race, sex, species can enjoy our show. You can be musically educated or not, a lover of classical music or of heavy metal.

Igudesman and Joo: A Little Nightmare Music: 8PM, $37-$67. Berklee Performance Center, 136 Massachusetts Ave, Ma. 617.747.2261

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