Pittsburgh Symphony performance gives new meaning to ‘comedy classic(al)’
Wit and humor in classical music is often relatively sophisticated, although there are pieces, such as Jacques Ibert’s “Divertissement,” that can make anyone laugh out loud.
Among performers, the late Victor Borge, who made his first appearance with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra in 1948 and his last in 2006, was the gold standard for a classical-music comedian.
His successors may be a duo whose performances have brought intense delight to audiences around the world, and to even the most sober musicians.
For example, conductor Bernard Haitink says, “Aleksey Igudesman and Hyung-ki Joo played at my 80th birthday celebrations. I nearly died laughing.”
Igudesman and Joo will star in “Big Nightmare Music” with Manfed Honeck conducting the Pittsburgh Symphony at concerts Nov. 28 and 30 at Heinz Hall, Downtown.
The program will include many of the duo’s most successful routines. One is called “Rachmaninoff had big hands” and uses the Russian composer’s solo piano piece Prelude in C sharp minor. The hilarious and inventive piece can be found on YouTube.
Violinist Igudesman is from Russia, pianist Joo from South Korea. They were 12 when they met at the Yehudi Menuhin School in London, but it wasn’t in a practice room, playing sonatas.
“I guess we met in the dining room. We probably fought over food. We still do,” Igudesman says. “One day, I decided to offer him some and that (specifically) broke the ice.”
Both were into humor back then, but what brought them together was a love of theater.
“I read a lot back then, when I was a teenager,” Igudesman says. “I read all of Bernard Shaw and Oscar Wilde and Chekhov, and a lot of Shakespeare, too. Then, we also were into Monty Python and Victor Borge. We went to a special school.
“(American-born violinist and conductor) Menuhin himself — Hyung-ki performed with him — was a very open-minded person, in a way. He played jazz and (Indian music) with Ravi Shankar. We grew up in a very open-spirited environment.”
They don’t deny they were inspired by older musical comedians.
“You can’t stop yourself from stealing from the best,” Joo says. “We do think of Victor Borge, Glenn Gould and Lenny Bernstein as kindred spirits — serious musicians who also ventured into stuff outside of playing and composing.”
Igudesman wrote a new piece for the Heinz Hall concert called “An Austrian in Pittsburgh,” a tribute to Honeck with an obvious tip of the hat to George Gershwin’s “An American in Paris.”
“When you write music, creativity is merely 10 percent, because you have to write the notes down,” Igudesman says. “People think artists have beautiful lives, walking around, drinking, being inspired. Really, that’s 10 percent. The rest is just as dreary work as anyone else’s.”
The violinist emphasizes that they don’t deserve special “laurels” for the complexity of what they do, because many things are complex. But he does put his finger on a special issue they confront all the time.
“When you mix humor and music. both things rely very much on timing, but musical timing and comedic timing come from the same place but are not exactly the same,” he says. “You have to play with two senses of timing if you want to not break the timing of the music, and we want the music to be beautiful.”
Mark Kanny is classical music critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7877 or [email protected].