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Skilled pianist, violinist find comedy in classical songbook

The comical music videos violinist Aleksey Igudesman pianist Hyung-ki Joo have become favorites YouTube.

The comical music videos of violinist Aleksey Igudesman and pianist Hyung-ki Joo have become favorites on YouTube.

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Igudesman &
Joo: ‘A Little Nightmare Music’

When: 10:30 p.m. May 26

Where: Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan

Tickets: $18

Info: (312) 294-3000;

Updated: June 29, 2012 9:16AM

Have you heard the one about the Russian violinist and British pianist who meet in at a high-end London music school and decide they want to form a comedy duo?

Well, it’s no joke. That’s exactly what Aleksey Igudesman and Hyung-ki Joo did in 2004, and they have become YouTube sensations, with their zany clips garnering more than 28 million hits.

Always eager to lure new audiences to its halls, the classical world has latched on to the duo’s appeal. Igudesman & Joo are increasingly in demand all over the world, often performing with such major artists as violinist Joshua Bell and Gidon Kremer.

They will make their Chicago debut May 26, as part of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s “Keys to the City” piano festival, which begins Thursday and runs through June 12. The concert is set for the unusual time of 10:30 p.m. “By having it as a later evening event, it attracts a different audience and showcases classical music in a more hip, less formal environment,” said CSO spokeswoman Maggie Berndt.

The duo is also scheduled to perform short sketches at 1:50 p.m., 4:30 p.m. and 6:40 p.m. during Chicago Piano Day, a free event hosted by actor David Hyde Pierce on May 27 at Symphony Center.

Although comedy and classical music might seem like an oxymoron, celebrated humorists have fused the two, notably Victor Borge and “Professor” Peter Schickele, the tireless promoter of the music of the lost composer P.D.Q. Bach.

Igudesman & Joo, both 38, are quick to express their admiration for these older comic masters, whom they acknowledge having studied and at least partly emulated.

“When it comes to people who have mixed comedy and music before,” Joo said during a phone interview from Vienna, “of course, Victor Borge and P.D.Q. Bach, they’re giants, and it’s hard to avoid [comparisons] to them. There are times when we’ve really believed we’ve come up with an original idea, and then we see some YouTube clip, and, we go, ‘Ah, Borge thought of that already.’ ”

But most of what they have done, the two have had to figure out on their own — usually through trial and error and sometimes dumb luck.

“In live performance, we make mistakes,” Joo said, “and often these mistakes get more laughter or they prove to be more effective. So we end up trying to insert these into the show. Basically, our show is just one giant mistake.”

The two musicians met at age 12 at the Yehudi Menuhin School in England; beyond a love for music, they realized they shared a fondness for theater and comedy — ingredients they ultimately turned into their unconventional career.

In 2004, Igudesman & Joo developed a show titled “A Little Nightmare Music.” In Chicago, they will join acclaimed concert pianist Emanuel Ax for a variation of that ever-changing program, which the two regularly perform alone and with an array of guest artists and orchestras.

While the offering contains musical puns and insider jokes, Igudesman & Joo throw in plenty of slapstick and general clowning around, so that all audiences, no matter how versed they are in classical music, have something to enjoy.

The two supremely skilled musicians stay as focused on their musicmaking as they do on their comedy. Behind all the laughs is the very serious mission of winning new audiences for this art form they both love so much.

“We always say that we don’t make fun of the music,” Igudesman said. “We make fun with the music.”

Kyle MacMillan is a locally based free-lance contributor.

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