When you attend a classical concert, there’s generally an agreed upon code of etiquette: sit quietly; try not to cough; clap at the appropriate times. But one classical duo has made it their mission to loosen up audiences by bringing comedy into the concert hall.
Like many professional concert pianists, Hyung-ki Joo studied at specialized music schools and conservatories growing up. When we was 12, he met violinist Aleksey Igudesman, and together the pair came to the conclusion that something was missing from classical music performances.
"We would go to concerts and we would be like, hang on a second, there's something wrong here." Joo says. "It feels like a funeral! The performers are taking themselves so seriously. And we both kind of felt, wait a minute, this has nothing to do with the joy and emotional vibrancy of playing music... and where's the humor?"
So the pair formed Igudesman and Joo. Today, the duo performs concerts all over the world that blend their virtuoso chops with madcap humor, acrobatics, and pop culture references. All these elements come to life in the duo's latest show, "Big Nightmare Music," which they'll perform this Sunday afternoon with the Nashville Symphony.
Igudesman and Joo perform music of Sergei Rachmaninoff.
Even though modern audiences might be surprised by the pairing of classical music and comedy, Joo says their show is partly inspired by what audiences would have experienced a few centuries ago.
"Franz Liszt used to step down from stage and go into the audience and have a drink of wine with them and chat with them and then go back. And he's considered the father of the recital," Joo points out. "And even the famous story of Beethoven's Violin Concerto — the soloist, in between movements, was doing tricks with his bow and playing upside down on the violin. So what Aleksey and I do is, in a way, kind of retro."
Joo says it was with the rise of uber-serious musicians like Gustav Mahler and Richard Wagner that concert hall etiquette inched towards formality, which he thinks has ultimately made classical music less accessible to audiences. Steven Brosvik, COO of the Nashville Symphony, hopes that Igudesman and Joo will appeal to audiences across the board — from seasoned listeners to those who think they might not like classical music at all.
Audiences aren't the only ones getting in on the fun. Joo say that classical musicians are way more fun that you think: "Silliness is second and first nature to so many of us... and I think that's one of the reasons why orchestras love us, because what we do is we allow them and encourage them and inspire them to be silly to let their inner child out. They'll be singing, they'll be dancing, and all kinds of madness will ensue."
Amidst all the silliness, Joo is quick to emphasize the duo's respect for classical music, and what they hope to achieve with their shows. "We’re not making fun of music, we’re having fun with music," he says. "We’re very happy if people find our stuff funny, but it’s not actually the main intent. The main intent for us is to create an entertaining afternoon and that people will leave feeling inspired to maybe want listen to more music."
Even if what they listen to next is a little more serious.