Aleksey Igudesman Explains How He Makes Classical Music Accessible Through Humor

Igudesman & Joo are classically trained musicians who put a modern spin on their musical presentations. Besides the musical virtuosity the two men have, they sprinkle comedy and pop culture into their performances and add unexpected twists to keep the crowd on the edges of their seats. 

The duo will release their first CD this summer entitled You Just Have To Laugh. A 20-city U.S. tour, including the stop in Mesa, is in support of the upcoming release. The duo might be classically trained, however, they do not keep within the realm of strictly classical music, by any means. They dabble in many genres, including stepping in country, heavy metal, pop and other styles while interjecting their brand of humor. It has been said that Igudesman & Joo take what is perceived by some as "high brow" music and interpret it to a wider and sometimes younger audience. Violinist Aleksey Igudesman often performs in boxer shorts, setting the tone for the comedy to follow.

Some of the show's skits include "Photographer," which is a play on things that can go wrong during a concert. The well-timed pauses and tension keep the audience on high alert. On "Violaerobics" a leotard-wearing Joo leads the audience in a Richard Simmons-inspired fitness workout. "Remote Control" showed off the dexterity of a backing orchestra by whimsically using a remote to switch between various composers on a hair's notice.

We had the chance to talk with violinist Aleksey Igudesman about the show to get some insight into what makes this duo click and how they became the Internet sensations they are today. 

How would you describe your show to someone who has never heard of you?

In one sentence, a perfect way to describe our show is "Bach meets South Park." It's based in classical music but branches out into many genres of music such as rock and rap with all sorts of humor. We have a wide audience of folks of all ages who enjoy many different musical genres. Last night we played for 2,700 people in San Francisco that loved the performance. 

When did it all come together in terms of social media when you realized that you were really making a name for yourselves?

Over ten years ago we put on a few clips on YouTube and they exploded. We weren't strictly classical, but there was no one like us at the time. Today you have cats playing the piano which will always get more views than us, but at that time it was different. It was strange and funny at the same time because we became much more famous than we actually were. We would be randomly recognized on the street by people who thought we were wildly famous when, in fact, we were still struggling. It took a lot of years for reality to catch up to the fame people thought we had in theory.

What is the musical training for each of you. And what about musical inspirations?

We both went to a famous boarding school for gifted musicians in London, the Yehudi Menuhin School. That is where we met at age 12. I also spent time studying at the Vienna Conservatory. Even way back when we met we knew we wanted to do something out of the ordinary with our brand of music. We wanted to change things around. Musical performances, especially classical ones, can sometimes be very serious; almost like a funeral, and we wanted to have a different approach.  Through humor a lot of tension can be dispersed.

We draw inspiration from many different sources; musical and otherwise. Victor Borge was a definite influence as he married music and comedy as we do. We are inspired by great musicians from all genres. I am very influenced by bands such as Queen, Pink Floyd as well as the masterful musicianship of a band such as Dream Theater. People like Trey Parker and Matt Stone are also very influential because of their irreverent way of being combined with their strong affinity for music.

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Tell me a story of when something went unexpectedly wrong. What was it and how did you work through it?

We love mistakes; we see them as opportunities. When we work with orchestras, we always say if there is a mistake, it's a wonderful thing! It's really a "life philosophy" for us. There should be no reason to panic; it's just a case of "how can we make the best of this situation?" Sometimes one show's mistake will become another's show's skit. In one of the pieces, there's a number where we feature the piano, and pianist Hyung-Ki Joo tries to open the piano and it won't open; it says "please insert your credit card."  The piano effectively turns into a machine. A lot of subsequent roadblocks slow him down and prevent him from playing the piece. Just like calling a large company and getting the phone directory, Joo has similar options when trying to access the piano. "For heavy metal, please smash the piano. For classical music please play this certain piece." He played a part wrong; a voice comes over the loud speaker proclaiming "please play the part better next time." In the piece "Do You Believe in Gravity" Aleksey keeps bowing in front of Joo so Joo can't get his applause. Frustrated, Joo takes Aleksey's bow and violin and runs off with it. 

Billy Joel appeared on stage during your encore at Carnegie Hall recently. Please describe that experience.

He has been a friend of ours for over 20 years.  He's a big lover of classical music.  For being a big rock star, he loves Beethoven! After Billy went on hiatus from writing pop hits and wanted to try his hand recording classical music, it was actually Hyung-Ki Joo who helped Billy record some of his classical music for his classical CD that he released. We were aware Billy was going to be at the show and it was actually Billy who asked if he could jump on stage and do something fun. What we did together was an interesting new version of "Baby Grand", a song Billy originally recorded with one of his early heroes, Ray Charles. We morphed and changed the number to include many different components from the original, keeping consistent with our blend of music and humor.

We finally recorded our own CD called "You Just Have To Laugh" which is set to release in the coming months. The challenge was how to transfer the humor from the live show onto the CD which we think we did quite well. We didn't want to record separate numbers; but instead produce a concept-type album that tells a story throughout. We came up with a story line that blames our "manager" for all the strange, crazy things we do. The "voice" of the manager on the album is played John Malkovich, an appropriate personality for the role.

Igudesman & Joo are scheduled to perform at Mesa Arts Center on Tuesday, March 22.

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