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Violinist.com Interviews: Vol. 1

Our exclusive, one-on-one interviews with 27 of today's best-known violinists, including Hilary Hahn, Joshua Bell, Sarah Chang, David Garrett, Anne Akiko Meyers, Maxim Vengerov, and others.


Laurie Niles

'A Little Nightmare Music' hits Carnegie Hall, with Igudesman and Joo

April 10, 2012 at 4:39 PM

First they went viral, now they're going to Carnegie Hall.

That's right, "A Little Nightmare Music," with violinist Aleksey Igudesman and pianist Hyung-Ki Joo, hits Carnegie Hall next Tuesday, April 17. (Here is the Carnegie Hall site, for more info, and for their other dates -- including American stops in Alabama, New York, Virginia, North Carolina, Chicago, Montreal, California, Washington D.C. -- check their schedule here)

You may have seen -- or "liked" or "shared" -- some of their videos, like this one:

Who are these guys? Violinist Aleksey Igudesman was born St. Petersburg, Russia. Aside from his musical comedy performances with Joo, he performs with a trio called Triology, and is a prolific composer, writing and arranging film music with Hans Zimmer and also writing several series of violin duets, including Latin and More Violin Duets, Celtic Violin Duets, and Klezmer and More Violin Duets. He's also written several easy violin duet books for kids: Pigs Can Fly and
The Cat Scratch Book (which he calls, "10 violin duets, all about cats, to challenge, provoke and above all, enjoy." He adds: "These are not the most conventional children’s pieces. But I do not believe that children are conventional either.")

Pianist Hyung-Ki Joo, as he says in his biography, "is British, but looks Korean, or the other way around, or both." He jokes about having "small hands" and one of their skits is based on overcoming certain challenges presented by Rachmaninov. Joo also is a composer, and under the name Richard Joo, he also arranged Billy Joel's piano compositions for his 2001 classical album, Fantasies and Delusions.

Igudesman and Joo's paths crossed as 12-year-old students at the Menuhin School in England, and, as they told me several weeks ago over Skype:

Joo: From the first day we met, it was hate at first sight. This hate lasted for about a year, and it involved, basically, Aleksey beating me up. It was Igudesman beating Joo up, all the time.

Igudesman: In 'A Little Nightmare Music,' it's mostly the opposite way 'round. Maybe it's the pay-me-back for those times.

Joo: He was and is much stronger than I. It's a miracle that I can still have kids today. It's not a joke, there was a moment when one of us had a chair ready to smash over the other person's head, and the other had a music stand, ready to poke the other's eyes out. It was literally at that second, when a teacher walked in and said, "STOOOOP!"

Igudesman: Actually I think we even had people holding us back, physically, back then.

Joo: Have you seen Rambo?

Igudesman: It looks like Bambi, compared to what we had.

Laurie: So you've always had a certain chemistry.

Igudesman: Exactly.

Joo: Finally I decided: this can't go on. I would like to have my limbs to myself at some point. So I offered him some fish and chips, because I knew food is the way to his heart. And fortunately, he accepted.

Igudesman: Food was the way to my stomach.

Joo: That's true, actually. And then out. And so we broke fish and chips, so to speak, and from that moment on, we were inseparable.

Photo

Laurie: What made each of you start playing in the first place?

Igudesman: For me, all of my relatives were musicians. When I was a tiny little kid, I once mentioned that I might want to, one day….and before I could get the words out of my mouth, immediately they took out the whip. They started whipping me and screaming at me, "Practice! Practice!" Basically, it was the old-fashioned Russian way. For Hyung-Ki I think it was rather different…

Joo: Very different. I was apparently, from my earliest weeks, in love with music. My parents are not musicians, and they did not think or recognize that I might have some musical talent or inclination. They thought, 'Oh, he's just a baby that likes music.' As I got older and older, this attachment to music grew. I used to literally freeze at record stores; I was immovable, walking past the record store. On many shopping trips, they had to leave me at the record store, alone. The world was safe in those days, so you could do that. After about eight years of seeing me just totally glued to music, they thought okay, maybe I should start learning something. As far as I'm concerned, I couldn't have cared less what instrument I learned. I could have learned the clarinet, or the trumpet. But it just so happened to be the piano, because my mother played a little bit of piano when she was a kid, so she thought it would be so nice to have a piano at home. So that's how it started for me.

Igudesman: But talking about all this practice…we were forced to practice as kids, but we never realized how dangerous it could be. Practice can be lethal, we've realized by now; practice can be more dangerous than death.

Laurie: Really! In what way?

Igudesman: Well, in its danger-osity, I think.

Joo: You can't say danger-osity.

Igudesman: I just did. The thing is, all the time, everybody's so focused on practice that they forget that other things are really important in life, too, as a musician especially. This is how, really, what we're doing, came about. We always loved music, but we're also passionate about the theater, and about comedy, and we thought that there could be new ways of combining those different aspects.

Joo: We've actually been practicing quite a lot recently, because we've realized, it's the only way to get to Carnegie Hall.

Laurie: Yes, and you'll be there April 17?

Joo: Yes. So we are practicing, and hopefully we'll still be alive by the time we get to Carnegie Hall.

Igudesman: Everybody says we are 'highly trained' musicians, and we are. We practice on top of mountains. The air is thinner, so when we go down to the level of the Carnegie Hall, it's going to be much easier.

Laurie: Sort of like the U.S. Olympic Training Center, in the mountains near Colorado Springs.

Joo: Yes.

Igudesman: Exactly.

Laurie: Were your first projects serious? Or were they …

Igudesman: We don't really make that differentiation, to be completely honest. Humor is a very serious thing, funnily enough. For us, it wasn't about just making jokes. We didn't differentiate between something that was more the humorous side or more on the serious side; everything had its full intensity. Because we never poked fun at the music; we made fun with the music.

Igudesman: We started doing different kinds of things from the age of 12 or 13 -- whenever it was we were at school. Ever since we were young, we very often found that going to a concert resembled more of a funeral than a celebration. We thought that was wrong, because the music itself is wonderful, it's fun, it's full of life. Classical music is so versatile in so many ways, but the whole concert atmosphere felt so stiff. It's not surprising that many people, young people especially, might be a little bit frightened of going to the concert hall.

We thought, that can't be quite right. What could we do to break that? We did some research, and we realized that this is not the original tradition, especially in the 19th century, where so much of that wonderful music comes from. Traditionally concerts were much more fun. The great pianist, Liszt, used to speak to the audience, he even used to go drink wine with members of the audience during the performance. During the first performance of the Beethoven Violin Concerto, actually between the movements, the violinist famously did some tricks, playing the violin upside-down. So this was a given, back then! But somehow in the 20th century, it became this ultra-serious thing, which we don't really believe fits the music. In a way, we are very retro.

Joo: In school we had wonderful teachers who were very encouraging and very inspiring, in our playing and in our composing -- we are both composers. Whenever we had a chance -- at a Christmas party, or a cabaret or something -- we just thought, let's try to put on a concert the way that we would like it to be.

Laurie: How did this particular show, 'A Little Nightmare Music,' evolve?

Joo: We started writing this particular show almost exactly eight years ago, but the show has evolved dramatically since then. At the beginning of 2007, a few of our Youtube clips went viral, and now we're at 28 million views. That's really what put us on the map -- we owe a lot of our success and recognition thanks to the Internet.

Laurie: I was also curious about your composing.

Igudesman: We're both very prolific composers but of course, I do write a lot of things especially for the violin. I have a lot of published music on Universal Edition -- violin duets in many different styles. Also, in 'A Little Nightmare Music,' I always like to play a solo violin piece, which I like to write myself. Hyung-Ki also likes to compose for our show. For most of the music, it's the two of us arranging it, or transforming it, or dis-forming it, in various ways. We are hoping, also, to release some of our music soon, as Igudesman and Joo.

Laurie: I noticed there were a lot of 'in' jokes for violinists and pianists. I think it's especially fun to watch, as a violinist.

Igudesman: We try to write on different levels, so that not just the geeks -- like we all are, especially the violinists -- understand. We try to write so that somebody who has no idea about music can still have fun, laugh at it, and be enchanted. But of course there are those hidden things, so if you are a violinist or any type of musician, you will discover many little things. In fact many people like to go see our show, "A Little Nightmare Music,' quite often because first of all, we always develop the program and play different things, but also, there are so many hidden things to discover. And of course, we're going to have some really special things for Carnegie Hall.

Laurie: I hope I get to see you when you're in Los Angeles, at the Hollywood Bowl.

Joo: That will be excerpts from our other show, called 'Big Nightmare Music'…

Laurie: Yes, the Hollywood Bowl is a little, intimate venue…

Joo: Because venue is bigger, and we'll be performing with the LA Phil, we had to turn a 'Little Nightmare' into a 'Big Nightmare.'

Laurie: You have a lot of tricks in these shows. Tell me about the bow that you suck up into a vacuum and such. Are you playing on a really nice violin when you're doing this show?

(They laugh)

Igudesman: I'm playing on a beautiful Santo Seraphin 1717 violin, which is on loan to me by the Erste Bank, an Austrian bank. So yes, I am playing on it. But there's nothing bad that happens to the violin, throughout the show.

Joo: There's also nothing bad that happens to the piano. Everything that we do has been approved by Steinway technicians. There's no harm to any of the instruments! Now as for the animals we have backstage, that's another story…

Igudesman: When he says 'animals' he does apply that to me, of course.

Whatever we do, however crazy it is -- the dancing, the jumping around -- it's actually very controlled, very practiced. Accidents that tend to happen do not happen onstage, usually. Real accidents happen when one is not aware of what one is doing, and that is very often backstage. So many performers have banged their violins, or during rehearsals, just left them somewhere and they've crashed down when one was not aware. Onstage, at every point, we're so careful with our instruments. The more crazy things we do, the more careful we are, so we're really not worried about our great instruments.

Laurie: How about that bow?

Igudesman: Oh the bow is fine, too.

Joo: The vacuum cleaner's fine, too, by the way. We use only the best, and it's all good-quality vacuum cleaning.

Igudesman: I'm very happy to play on a modern bow by Benoit Rolland, he's a Boston-based bowmaker. Great violinists like Julia Fischer and Anne-Sophie Mutter play on his bows. He is, I believe, one of the greatest, if not the greatest, bowmaker alive today.

Laurie: Did you have to take Irish dance lessons?

Joo: We worked with a choreographer. We had the original idea, but as creative as we are, dancing is not our first forte, let's say. So we hired a choreographer to finesse our ideas. We're working on a new show called "And Now Mozart," which will be premiered later this year in the Mozart Hall in Vienna. We've got all kinds of ideas that incorporate other types of dance -- tap dance and tango and so on. We've been taking some tap-dancing lessons. The tap-dancing and tango might creep into our show, if we're good enough -- or if we're bad enough! Whichever's funnier.

Laurie: Do you have to adjust your playing a little bit, when you are dancing? I was getting out of breath just watching it, thinking about the bow, and gravity.

Joo: I'm not a violinist myself, but that might make me more qualified to talk about this. We started off this new year by setting a world record: 100 dancing violinists on stage at the same time, playing and dancing.

Joo: We had 100 violinists from all over the world, who came to Vienna. Of course, I don't play the violin. I Riverdance, but with a broom. But seeing that 100 people from all over the world, from different walks of life, could actually do it, proved to me that it's difficult, but not impossible.

And the reason why we set this record was not to create some ego prize-winning stature for us. The record was dedicated to UNICEF. We'd like children and young musicians, musicians of all ages to be more creative, and to go out and set their own world's records.

We also have a workshop called Eight to Eighty-Eight, which is a workshop for musicians of all ages and it's a workshop we love doing. We've done it in all kinds of places, we're going to do it later in the year at the Kennedy Center, at Yale, at Dartmouth and at many other institutions. We look at at aspects of music training that are never really talked about at Conservatories, things like improvisation, choreography, the psychology of performance, staging and presentation, different styles of music, humor -- basically any and all the above, and anything they bring as well. Students often bring their own wacky ideas, and we love that. We love having the chance to work with young musicians and get them to think outside of the box.

Laurie: So the only requirement is you have to be between the ages of Eight and 88?

Igudesman: Past the age of 88 you can get in, with bribes.

Joo: When we did our workshop at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music last year, we had a nine-year-old and an eighty-four-year-old violinist.

Igudesman: That's pretty much the spectrum.


From Skylar Nguyen
Posted on April 10, 2012 at 7:01 PM
I love this two, I first discover them by seeing an article in the Steinway and Son Magazine and can't stop watching their clip since. It's like a daily ritual now :)
From Simon Streuff
Posted on April 10, 2012 at 11:41 PM
Best musical Moment I discovered long time, when all the young people start the riverdance while playing... looks like fun!!
From Mendy Smith
Posted on April 11, 2012 at 2:23 AM
I love those guys! They really know how to bring the latent humor out of classical music.
From Jesús Fernández
Posted on April 11, 2012 at 2:47 PM
Un fortunately, it's not funny to me. I think Pagagnini are better
http://youtu.be/j_dKCrKJR7Y
From Diane Allen
Posted on April 11, 2012 at 3:28 PM
The shackles of formality are broken!

Ah! The freedom of playing barefoot in shorts!

I look forward to my next performance!

Smiles! Diane

From Lisa Van Sickle
Posted on April 11, 2012 at 4:14 PM
They were here a couple of months ago, and my husband, son, and I went. If they are anywhere in your area, GO! They are such good musicians that things that would fall flat in less skilled hands are hysterically funny. At least half the audience was made up of serious amateur and professional musicians, all having a great night out.
From Benedict Gomez
Posted on April 11, 2012 at 10:29 PM
I dont umm.... I err.... ehhh.... I dont get it.
From J Brunson
Posted on April 12, 2012 at 8:19 PM
These guys just left our studio.... they are every bit as hilarious in person and off camera as they are on stage.
From Momoko Takahashi
Posted on April 13, 2012 at 10:10 PM
I was laughing until I got to their piano lesson. Then I remembered all the lessons that I had that ended similarly. Then I cried (no, just kidding).
From Don Sullivan
Posted on April 15, 2012 at 11:16 PM
Thanks, Laurie! Great musicians and great interview! I became a fan when they first went viral. I love their skits. I hope they come to Cleveland. Severance Hall would be a great venue for them! Thanks again.

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