United Kingdom Igudesman and Joo: A Little Nightmare Music, Aleksey Igudesman (violin), Richard Hyung-ki Joo (piano), Cadogan Hall, London, 9.3.2012 (GDn)
If you’re in any doubt about the amount of formality and ritual in classical music performances, you should take a look at Igudesman and Joo. About half of their act consists of lampooning what musicians do on stage when they are not actually playing. They make a big deal out of taking the stage, tuning up, engaging with the audience – even the piano lid has comedy potential.
If you haven’t guessed yet, this is primarily a slapstick routine. Classical music gives a context for what they do, and the composers of the Classical tradition provide a succession of fall guys, but essentially this is physical humour. That allows the two of them to deflate the pretensions of the classical music world, usually quite blatantly too. The central ingredient to their act is the fact that they can really play their instruments, and each other’s as well, as they proved in one number. They can also improvise, giving them the edge over most other classical musicians. And they can talk and sing as they play, which given the complexity of some of their acts clearly sets them apart from the musicians who presumably make up most of their audience.
Igudesman and Joo are big on YouTube, and I had seen about half of the sketches before online. But that really doesn’t matter – the material isn’t the point of the act, it is the performance that makes it funny. And they both have a real skill with audiences, the sort of affinity that elevates the live act well above the internet clip. Playing live may contribute to the development of that kind of skill, but really it is something that only comes from the comedy world, and however good these performers are as musicians, it is their stand-up skills that make the routine work.
Most of the numbers follow a standard format. A classical work is announced, usually Mozart (it’s a running gag), but no sooner has it started than some other piece starts to intrude, or some petty dispute between the players erupts, or the piano rebels…you get the idea. Considering the act is aimed at a musically literate audience (I assume), the low-brow nature of the comedy is both surprising and refreshing. When they do mash-ups of classical works and pop songs, the comedy comes from taking the classical composer (and yes, its usually Mozart) down a peg or two.
Fans of the act will be pleased to hear that most of the favourite numbers were included. We got I Will Survive played on the violin with a milk frother instead of a bow. And also Fur Elise karate chopped on the piano. ‘Rachmaninov had big hands’ (if you’ve seen it you’ll know what I’m referring to) was the centre piece of the second half. There was a great routine with a credit-card-operated piano, and a slightly less amusing one with an extra-terrestrial violin player.
But variety is what makes an evening like this tick along, and on average the quality of the music and the comedy was very high indeed. In the first half, Joo made a remark that this was the pair’s London debut; a quip, I thought, but it turned out to be true. How can this be? The pair met in London, when both were young pupils at the Menuhin School. Joo was even born in London. I’m not sure which country it was that fostered their talents (I’m guessing America), but it is a shame that they had to make a name for themselves abroad before the London stage beckoned.
They easily filled the Cadogan Hall, and with a crowd that was as enthusiastic as any I have seen. There was a great moment at the end when the audience gave the pair a standing ovation, to which their response was to sit down on the stage. But it goes to show that there is a huge demand for their brand of humour in the capital. Here’s hoping this will be the first of many visits.