Chamber Music Northwest interview: Hyung-ki Joo

Igudesman & Joo pianist connects with broad audiences through music and laughter.

“Why are chamber music presenter series like sheep?” asks pianist Hyung-ki Joo. “If you look at the presenter series all over the country, they’re all the same.” On Monday, July 20, Chamber Music Northwest breaks from the herd by bringing today’s leading classical music humorists, Igudesman & Joo — superb players who also reach broad audiences by combining classics with comedy. ArtsWatch’s interviewed Joo about the  duo’s delightfully dizzy approach to classical music and humor, and what other presenters and performers can learn from their experience. Be sure to read Dianne Davies’ ArtsWatch preview of the show, too.

Photo: © Julia Wesely

Igudesman & Joo perform Monday at Chamber Music Northwest. Photo: © Julia Wesely.

Origins of their act and philosophy

We’re both very passionate about music. At the Menuhin School, we had fantastic music teachers. One, Peter Norris, was a very big influence. He had a Yoda like approach he got from his time studying with [the great French music pedagogue] Nadia Boulanger. “Never play one single note without meaning it,” he told us. We grew up with this idealistic music making approach. We had many fantastic teachers [including] a drama teacher. He was a big inspiration and still is. Every Christmas, there’s a cabaret party at school. The first time we did a skit was there, when we were about 15 years old. We enjoyed the experience so much that we did the next two Christmas cabarets. It was clear then that we would continue after we got out of school.

We both felt classical music was dying because it was taking itself way too seriously and if it continued to present itself in this way, there was the potential that no one would come to concerts anymore. People don’t dare to move and don’t dare to clap at the wrong time. We felt this is wrong — this music is full of life and passion. It’s dramatic and passionate, and it should be celebrated and not exist in this atmosphere of death.

What we do is not that innovative; it’s quite retro. We discovered in researching music history that Schumann and Beethoven performed in a lively manner, and the music was interspersed with poetry readings, magic tricks — performers would go into the audience and have a glass of wine with the listeners and then go back and play. These were the performers that were inspirations to us.

We just wanted to create concerts that we would want to go to ourselves. We didn’t want to be rebels. But since we can’t bend the rules of this tradition, we’ll make our own tradition. We noticed that once we mixed our concerts with humor and theater, then when we played a piece of classical music, their perception of what we were playing was a million times higher. People would really listen with a high degree of attention.

Advice to other presenters and performers

We encourage presenters: “please be creative with programs.” Who the hell devised that formula of symphony-concerto-overture? Why are chamber music presenter series like sheep? If you look at the presenter series all over the country, they’re all the same.

We’re not saying our way is the way, but it is a way. Even if performers would just come on stage and say hello and humanize themselves and say a few words about the piece, already there’s a certain barrier that’s been broken and the audience has already relaxed. Then when they sit down and play Schubert, if they’re able to crack a little joke, the audience can see a connection to the performer. Audiences want to feel connected and entertained. This kind of elitist barriers we have now will just put people off.

Connecting with audiences

If there’s no audience there, then we’re playing for no one. If you want to be at home and glorify music, that’s fine, it’s a virtue. But the moment people have paid for a ticket or are paying with their time and sharing their experience with you, then I think you owe it to them to make them feel included. If you’re including them, then they’ll feel connected.

Our audience is a very mixed audience. We’re very proud of that. We see people as old as three years old and as young as 88 years old. A lot of university students, musical connoisseurs, people who’ve never walked into a concert hall — it’s a mixture of multi generations and multi backgrounds.

We write on many levels. We try to appeal to as many different audiences as possible. Our whole thing is,  ‘let’s not alienate audiences.’ We cannot resist musical jokes for insiders because we are musicians, but we’re aware that not everyone understands them so we add another level that others can understand. For example, in “A Little Nightmare Music,” we have this joke about Rachmaninoff, and for someone who knows Rachmaninoff and knows that piece we’re playing, they will understand that those chords are just so big — there’s even one chord notated that’s impossible to play. Those who have no idea about that will see some slapsticks acrobatics, visual humor and physical comedy that’s really for everyone.

Music is about communication. We believe that music is one thing that connects the world, through the science of tones and harmonies. We play music at all our ceremonies, we sing “Happy Birthday,” we have music at funerals. Music joins people —  it is the thing that binds people. You could get someone from Siberia and Dakar together and they’d make music somehow. It’s a very powerful thing.

Laughter is also powerful and universal. A lot of Holocaust survivors, when they were asked, “How did you survive?”, they all answered “Music and laughter.” Those are the two things that carried them through. There are stories of concentration camp prisoners sneaking down to the basement to rehearse Verdi’s Requiem. They’d make music when they were fearing they’d be shot if caught.

We’re in the very fortunate position of doing music and laughter. Wherever we are, there is the common ground.

Igudesman & Joo perform  “A Little Nightmare Music,” Monday, June 20 at Reed College’s Kaul Auditorium. Tickets are available online

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