For most people, classical music is irrelevant.
This is not news, I know, but last Friday night, I played a concert which suggested how to fix that.
The concert was with a group I’m proud to be a member of, the ProMusica Chamber Orchestra. Our guests were Igudesman and Joo, the sensational violin-piano comedy duo. They are both first-rate musicians and comedians.
Classical music’s biggest problem, in my opinion, is the fortress of formality we’ve walled ourselves off in – these two are taking a wrecking ball to it.
There’s so much to rave about with these two, but for me, their absolute disregard for traditional concert decorum is what’s best about the show. They began by stealing the orchestra’s applause after we played an overture. Then they started arguing about whether to play Mozart or James Bond – naturally, they put them together.
More mashups followed, including one of Rachmaninoff and Barry Manilow, and my favorite, a finale which combined Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” with Tchaikovsky’s 5th Symphony, “Autumn Leaves,” and “The Final Countdown,” by 80’s one-hit wonder Europe, (which inspired my new hairdo).
Classical musicians are always worried about being excessively showy – ask someone in the business about current piano star Lang Lang, for example, and you will likely be greeted with a pained look and lots of eye-rolling. “It’s about the music,” many will say, “not the performer.” There’s some truth to this, for sure, but our overly serious demeanor also can make for some pretty dull concerts.
On Friday, I was struck by how far out of our comfort zone the members of the orchestra were – we had to dance, sing, cry, make faces and headbang – and how easy it was to get us to do it. I felt like I’d been paroled (and been given a makeover).
There’s a long tradition of inside jokes in the classical music world, ranging from Haydn’s “Surprise” Symphony to Victor Borge and P.D.Q. Bach. These are very clever, and fun if you’re a classical aficionado, but probably don’t do much to bring in new audiences.
What makes Igudesman and Joo different, and in my mind, potentially much more valuable, is that you don’t need to be interested in classical music to like their act. Their comedy is current and mainstream, making fun of kung-fu movies and shows like American Idol.
Their act is also physical and full of slapstick – many times on Friday, Joo looked like he was channeling Harpo Marx.
This brings up another key strength of Igudesman and Joo – they’re also a throwback to the days when The Three Stooges could make fun of opera and everyone would laugh, not just music nerds. If we want to return classical music to that kind of cultural relevance, we’ll need to connect with people the way these guys do.
Now, I’m not suggesting that we need to make every performance a variety show – much of the concert experience is good for the music and the audience. However, Igudesman and Joo help us see how silly some of it is, much the way Jon Stewart skewers the news media, another group of people whose work is important, but would be both improved and more widely appreciated if they didn’t take themselves so seriously.
Back to that fortess of formality – we built it ourselves and we’ve gotten so used to it that many of us are afraid to go outside. Igudesman and Joo have knocked a big hole in the wall – grab a hammer and start swinging!