Aleksey Igudesman (violin) and Hyung-ki Joo (piano) walked onto the stage at St. George’s Anglican Church in Montreal with an aura of severity. The pianist was dressed in tails and the violinist was dressed in a formal white dress shirt and dress pants: nothing you wouldn’t expect from the usual suspects of classical music performers. The two had no smiles on their faces and their demeanors seemed to say to the audience: “You will now hear a very serious performance of very serious music”. They positioned themselves thoughtfully and began to play Massenet’s “Meditation” from Thaïs. This concert, on May 30th at the Montreal Chamber Music Festival, had begun as any classical concert would – until a cell phone went off in the audience during their playing (a plant, no doubt). The familiar ring that we all know so well caused the very serious musicians much anxiety, and all of a sudden, when it seemed they could take it no more, they began playing the ring tune themselves. They then proceeded to elaborate on the tune, and the result was a very cleverly constructed, very long, set of variations on a theme by a cell phone. The audience reacted with chuckles and guffaws. Even though it was a joke, the variations were really quite ingeniously constructed, and the musicians played them with such passion and excitement that one might think the music had been composed by any of the great masters. This joke would set the tone for the rest of the evening.
Igudesman and Joo have been taking the world by storm with their hilarious musical/theatrical shows, which combine well played classical music with tunes from pop culture, and which comment on the sometimes ridiculous idiosyncrasies of classical concert culture. For a professional musician, their jokes hit very close to home. For example, there was a whole segment where the pianist would not be satisfied with the standing position of the violinist, asking him to move fractions of inches every time he attempted to start playing. They never quite played a classical work all the way through – there was always some point at which they could not resist morphing a masterwork into a popular tune. They turned a Mozart symphony into the James Bond theme and a Rachmaninoff piano concerto into Eric Carmen’s 1975 hit All By Myself.
Even though most of what they played were comedic Frankenstein-like constructions combining multiple musical genres, I was struck with the very high quality of the playing. Certainly these musicians could rival any regular concert musician on the stages of the world. One of the most impressive displays came from the pianist, who performed one work alone, only with his left hand. His playing was incredibly sensitive, and his left-hand technique possessed all the accuracy and musicality that one would expect from the right hand. Of course, the reason he performed this work was because in a previous segment, the violinist had severed his right hand by closing the piano lid on it.
Beyond the instrumental playing, the duo also displayed great skill in other art-forms such as singing and dancing. In one segment, the two began dancing in perfect step as the violinist played a Riverdance-like tune. In another segment, the pianist played a work about a cow in the style of Randy Newman, and sung the whole way through in a voice that really sounded very close to Mr. Newman’s. Throughout the performance, the two were as committed to the same high quality of playing (and singing and dancing) as they were to their comedy. They never lost focus, and the audience was completely drawn in the whole way through as a result. Anyone would enjoy this show, but it is really designed for the classical concertgoing community, as many of their compositions and jokes seem to remark on how this world can at times take itself much too seriously. It was a great addition to an otherwise fairly expected classical music festival line up – a welcomed night of fun and light-heartedness combined with fantastic showmanship and music-making.