Igudesman and Joo Bring Witty Humor To Classical Music At Symphony Center

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The classically-trained comedic duo Igudesman and Joo brought their antics to Symphony Center on Friday evening in A Little Nightmare Music, making their Chicago premiere. Continuing in the tradition by the late Victor Borge, violinist Aleksey Igudesman and pianist Hyung-ki Joo entertained the audience with an eclectic evening of classical, jazz and popular music. Since hitting the scene in 2004, the duo has spread their humor with the help of YouTube, accruing more than 28 million views.

Although Igudeman and Joo often perform “solo,” on this evening members of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra joined the duo, in many cases joining in many of the comedic bits. It’s probably one of the only nights you’ll see CSO members dancing while also playing their instruments.

From start to finish, the duo excited the audience with witty skits and virtuosic playing. With the opening skit, the duo debated whether they should perform Mozart or James Bond.  Eventually, Mozart “won” the battle and they began to play an arrangement of the first movement from Symphony no.  40.  But it didn’t take long for Joo to juxtapose the James Bond theme, which was cleverly heard in the right spots.

The next bit was inspired by “Rondo alla Turca” from Mozart’s Piano Sonata No. 11. But Joo had a different idea of how to perform the popular Mozart work.  First, they transposed the piece from minor to major.  However, it got really interesting when they decided to add a “b-flat” instead, making the melody sounds a little bit more “Oriental.”

Afterwards, the sad part of the evening was brought on by some Rachmaninov which quickly became a rendition of “All by Myself.”  After Joo started sobbing as he sang, the orchestra joined in the weeping by pulling out tissues. Some orchestra members added some dramatization by shaking their instruments.

The hilarity continued with a “live practice session” that teased the audience with a cow-inspired song sung by Joo while Igudesman used his violin to make cow sounds.  Then, Igudesman temporarily took over the show in the next bit entitled “Tango Loco.”  The tango-infused number combined the virtuosity of Paganini and the gymnastics from Sarasate with a dose of Dudley Moore.

After an entertaining rendition of Johann Strauss’s “The Blue Danube,” the first half came to end with the jazzy Uruguay, which was written and led by Igudesman. This was the work that got the orchestra to dance. In addition, one of the percussionists joined the duo at the front of the stage with a vibraphone solo.  (Unfortunately, we don’t know the guest percussionist’s name yet as nothing was included in the program.)

Igudesman and Joo ignited the second half with the theme from Rocky. What followed was a magnificent Nocturne by Scriabin. This was the serious moment from Joo.  It wasn’t comedic, but instead showcased a more serious and artistic side.  The Nocturne is presumably written for left-hand only since that’s how Joo performed it. It showed that not only could he make people laugh, but underneath all of the comedy, Joo is a “serious” classical musician.

Igudesman broke out his best Clint Eastwood in an arrangement of Fistful of Dollars. As the duo each wore a Stetson, the western movie theme was quickly transformed with a jazzy groove.  The awesome vibraphone player returned to the front of the stage for another solo.

Then came practice time for Igudesman as he worked on an Irish jig, which was quickly interrupted by Joo wearing a maid outfit and sweeping the stage with a broom. Joo forced Igudesman to dance as he swept all around Igudesman, including between his legs. Eventually, a solo dance number became a duet, and duet became a group as guest dancers joined the duo on stage.

Every classical comedic show needs some karate violin. In full karate garb, Igudesman roared onto the stage after Joo performed the MGM movie intro. Performing Tambourin chinois by Kreisler, Igudesman gave himself a workout by eventually swapping his full-sized bow, with one that was about one-third the size.

The final two skits were popularized with the help of YouTube. The first was Joo’s performance of Rachmaninov’s Prelude in C-sharp Minor where he compares his smaller hands with the composer’s larger hands. To get through the piece, Igudesman walks out with wooden planks with blocks sticking out to assist Joo play the chords that require large hands to pull off.

Before the duo headed into the encores, they concluded the programmed portion with an uproarious “I Will Survive.” The beautiful thing about this rendition is they switched up what many have seen on YouTube by making it a little more Klezmer. With the orchestra, the finale was put a seal on an entertaining evening.

Fortunately, it wasn’t the actual end. The two came out and performed two encores. The first was a beautiful duo without comedy.  Uncertain what the actual piece was, it was the “honest” moment of the evening with both of them on stage.

Appropriately, the final skit of the evening was a trio battle with the vibes players returning to the front of the stage. However, this time the trio rotated between playing vibes and piano by bumping the other off without missing a beat, literally. As the performance progressed, the rotation quickened as they bumped each other off in this riotous.

Classical music comedy works if the players cannot only make the audience laugh, but also impress with technical playing. The duo successfully did both. If there was a downside to the evening, it was that the house wasn’t sold out. Hopefully, Igudesman and Joo return with more comedy. It would be awesome for the duo to partner up with The Second City.  Although I don’t think it will happen, here’s to hoping.

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