Alexey Igudesman and pianist Hyung-ki Joo brought their classical comedy routine, “And Now Mozart.,” to the Shalin Liu Center Saturday night. An hour after they finished, the pair, and a raft of other musicians giving serious concerts in Rockport this weekend, reversed the formalities with a “Classical Cabaret,” an un-stuffy innovation by Festival Artistic Director Barry Shiffman.
Like Victor Borge, Dudley Moore, Gerard Hoffnung, Anna Russell, Rainer Hersch, and Peter Schickele before them, Igudesman and Joo have been injecting comedy into classical music events, honing their comic elements, and elevating their musical sophistication for over a decade. Their work has been documented on YouTube over the years; as challenging as it is to keep playing the same pieces of classical music over and over again and keep them sounding fresh, it’s even harder remain funny after multiple hearings of your routines.
The duo’s opening “Mozart/Bond” sketch plays on the classic joke of mashing together two similar but unrelated tunes, like the opening of Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 in G Minor, K. 550 and Monty Norman’s James Bond leitmotif. They have added material over the years, including a bantering argument about whether they’re playing Mozart or James Bond music. Their flattering references to the musical sophistication of the audience amusemeof everyone (you can hear a German language version of this HERE).
In “Alla Molto Turca” (with a James Bond to boot), the pair puts the famous tune of the Rondo alla turca from Mozart’s Piano Sonata K.331 through a modal transformation, transposing a minor to A Major and playing with a flat second (B flat instead of B natural). In that mode, the tune sounds authentically Turkish, and the musical joke is punched up with flattering references to the performance venue (though the Shalin Liu hall is so stunning that it’s hardly flattery) and mocking swipes at New Age tropes like feng shui and chakras.
“All by Myself” isn’t a parody. Eric Carmen drew inspiration for the 1975 hit song from the slow movement of Sergei Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in C Minor, Op. 18. Playing the movement and working in the song’s lyrics is merely a demonstration of the song’s roots. Igudesman’s droll spoken echoes of Joo’s increasingly distraught singing adds a little to the comedy, but I am not so fond of the routine’s steady degeneration into whimpering, sobbing inaudibility.
Joo introduced the next segment as a rehearsal of “new material.” He started playing a song in a Tin Pan Alley style about the adventures of Bessie the Cow. Igudesman added in musical onomatopoeia, using the bottom strings to mimic a cow’s lowing to quoting Bernard Herrmann’s soundtrack to Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho for the cow’s death. The rehearsal of additional vocals mocked singers who struggle to find the note or the beat in mid-tune, and a chance for audience participation. The bit wasn’t particularly classical, and it didn’t strike me as particularly funny, so the “work in progress” disclaimer was accurate.
An extended riff on George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue proved more amusing. The comic interjections included the introduction, a series of worsening puns ending in a reference to “Spanish Fly,” musical detours with references to 1950’s Louis Armstrong, Henry Mancini’s theme to Peter Gunn, and flamenco dance. Physical comic hijinks included Igudesman using leering come-hither looks to add silliness to one of the Rhapsody’s big tunes, and a high-speed climb up the keyboard that caused Joo to fall off the bench (Victor Borge would have fixed that with a seatbelt on the piano bench). Arecurring jokeinvolved Igudesman positioning himself for his bow in front of Joo, blocking the view of the pianist who was relegated to the traditional role of “accompanist.” While the act could use some tightening and development, it allowed Igudesman to show his violinistic chops with a succession of fast scales and double stops.
Joo’s original song by Joo, “You Just Have to Laugh disclosed interesting insights into the ties between comedy and tragedy, and the occasional clever turn of phrase, like using “miserable bastard” to rhyme with “trail of disaster.” But for my taste, nothing in the song hit the funny bone deep, making you appreciate the miracle of “Make ‘em Laugh” from Singing in the Rain.
The payoff for Igudesman repeatedly upstaging Joo during the bows came next, when Igudesman started playing a challenging violin work and Joo stomped on stage and took away his bow. Igudesman grabbed an extra bow, conveniently stashed in the piano, and started playing again, only to have Joo take that bow away, also. The Russian violinist then pulled a third, tiny bow less than a foot long out of the piano and proceeded to put on a display of technical fireworks, double and triple stopping, playing all manner of fast scales and percussive passages with a ludicrously small bow.
The group returned to some of their best material for the last few sketches. First was the routine that brought them to my attention in 2006, “Rachmaninov Had Big Hands” (). This routine looks like an older Rainer Hersch gag in which a succession of sticks with dowels glued on are used to play the wide-spanning chords in Frédéric Chopin’s Prelude in c minor, Op. 28, No. 20. But Igudesman and Joo elevate this joke to the sublime by adapting it to Rachmaninov’s even wider-spanning Prelude in C-sharp Minor, Op. 3, No. 2. Their ability to synchronize the succession of recurring — but never quite identical sticks — without breaking the line of the Prelude remains impressive. This remains one of their finest routines.
They concluded with “an old Russian song, I Vill Survive,” a routine begun a decade ago, transmuting Gloria Gaynor’s 1978 disco anthem through warhorses of Tchaikovsky, Vivaldi, and others. Their reworking of this for “And Now Mozart” puts a focus on the Master of Salzburg. The melodies that I recognized in rapid succession include the Overture to Le nozze di Figaro K.492, the first movement of the Piano Concerto No. 21 in C Major K.467, the Variations on “Ah vous dirai-je, Maman” K.265, operatic recitative in Mozart’s style, Dido’s Lament from Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, the fugue from the first Kyrie of Mozart’s Mass in c minor K.427, the first movement of the Piano Sonata in C Major, K.545, “Der Hölle Rache” from Die Zauberflöte, K.620, followed by an audience sing-along. The choral contrapuntalist in me particularly appreciated the daftness of the Mass quotation.
After a rousing round of applause from the standing-room-only crowd, Igudesman and Joo returned for an encore, a comic riff on Charles Gounod’s Ave Maria (the countermelody added to J.S. Bach’s Prelude in C Major, BWV 846; HERE). The performance includes a delicious spoofing of the bizarre, nonsensical metaphors that work their way into performance coachings, with a side trip through Astor Piazzolla’s tangos.
Igudesman and Joo’s irreverence punctures the stiff formality of the classical concert, and the mingling of pop songs reminds us that many melodies share common rhythms and harmonies and can be swapped with amusing results. Their creative comic talent, breadth of musical knowledge, and brilliant technique creates a unique performance that deserves the rousing standing ovation it received that night.
An hour after this “informal music in a serious setting,” those in the audience with hearty endurances (or like me, who took an afternoon nap before coming to Rockport) filed upstairs to the third floor reception hall for a Classical Cabaret. Hyung-ki Joo and Alexey Igudesman joined Festival Artistic Director Barry Shiffman, cellists Colin Carr and Paul Watkins, and the Dover String Quartet for “serious music in an informal setting.” The performers were dressed casually, and said a few words about the music to follow, competing with each other to insert assorted musical malapropisms in the style of Victor Borge into their remarks.
Cellist Colin Carr, fresh from his survey of the six Bach Cello Suites (BMInt review HERE), began the Cabaret with a solo Caprice by “the Godfather of modern cello technique,” Carlo Alfredo Piatti, Op. 25, No. 7. A tune in the low strings alternated rapid-fire with dense figurations in the top register, and Carr played it effortlessly at a breakneck pace, even veering the composition into “Happy Birthday” for two of the patrons. Then, Joo joined Carr for a straight-up, gorgeous rendition of the third movement Andante from Rachmaninov’s Sonata in g minor for Cello and Piano, Op. 19. Carr’s robust, big-boned cello tone suited the soaring melodies well, and Joo provided alert, sensitive support, standing up for points of emphasis and sparkling in Rachmaninov’s tricky piano writing without ever eclipsing his cello partner.
Shiffman then explained that with the Dover Quartet playing on Friday night and Saturday morning, Colin Carr playing on Thursday and joining the Emerson Quartet on Sunday afternoon, he had three master cellists at hand, and all jumped at the chance to play David Popper’s Requiem for Three Cellos and Piano, Op. 66. Emerson Quartet cellist Paul Watkins said that after Popper died, he wrote this Requiem. More accurately, the piece began as a movement for three cellos and orchestra, but Hyung-ki Joo came up to play a piano reduction of the orchestra part. The music is slight, but with three master chamber musicians at play, the sonorous cello textures were thick with exquisitely tuned overtones, whether played as a solo by Watkins, echoed by Carr, or accompanied by Dover Quartet cellist Camden Shaw. In solo moments, homophonic chorale-like textures, or three part counterpoint, it was a feast for the ears for cello lovers like me.
Then, Aleksey Igudesman showed his (semi-)serious side as history’s most prodigious composer of violin duets. He played three of them, abetted by Shiffman switching over to a violin. They played the “Melancholy Waltz,” a two-part deconstruction of a Chopin composition that I didn’t recognize in its modified format; the “Crazy Waltz,” an original composition in which the two players rapidly swapped lead and accompanying parts and played a few deliberately laid out mis-alignments for laughs; and “A Little Blue Danube Waltz,” also known as “The Blue Danube Waltz in just over a Minute,” in which Johann Strauss Jr.’s most famous composition was subjected to a feat of remarkably virtuosic compression.
Finally, Joo accompanied the Dover Quartet (violinists Joel Link and Bryan Lee, violist Milena Pajaro-van de Stadt, and cellist Shaw) for the second and fourth movements of Robert Schumann’s Piano Quintet (“written for Piano and Quintet”) in E-flat Major, Op. 44. The result was a gem of a chamber music performance. The quartet members played with tight ensemble, watching each other and their pianist like hawks, playing with rhythmic urgency in moments of unanimity, model contrapuntal clarity in Schumann’s fugue and canon segments, and stunning overtone-rich beauty in the big chords. Playing independently with these ensembles, Joo and Igudesman showed that there’s more to them than slap-stick and screechy falsettos; they are serious musicians who take their art, but not themselves, seriously.
Listening to these shows, one after the other, set me musing about the challenges facing classical music organizations with dwindling audiences. Surely, one contributing factor is the intimidating High Church-like atmosphere of the concert hall, with its arcane rules of when to clap and when to keep silent, to hear music presented with stultifying seriousness and weighty reverence. Perhaps there’s something to be said for playing a little faster and looser with those cherished shibboleths, to remember the links between the timeless and the popular. My companion commented that the Cabaret brought down the barriers between the listener and the musicians: the performers were dressed casually, not elevated on a stage separate from the audience, in a space where people were free to eat and drink as they pleased. Groupmuse has done a similar thing in living rooms across America. Perhaps more mainstream classical presenters can tone down the formality and add a little frivolity.
Igudesman and Joo continue their tour, heading out to Germany and Italy, but returning to upstate New York at the end of July. The Rockport Chamber Music Festival wrapped yesterday, but the Pinchas Zukerman Trio will be in town on Sunday, August 5th, and there will be opera in HD through the summer.
James C.S. Liu is a physician by day and a baritone and music enthusiast by night. He lives with his wife and daughters in Cambridge, Massachusetts.