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Virtuosity, comedy and charm.

Igudesman & Joo, the virtuosic, inventive comedy duo, is scheduled to appear at the 2017 MTNA National Conference in Baltimore, Maryland. A mix of Charlie Chaplin, the Marx Brothers, Victor Borge and Monty Python, with some Glenn Gould and David Oistrakh, the duo Igudesman & Joo have charmed audiences of all ages worldwide. They can make you drop your jaw at their virtuosity, while seconds later doubling you over with giggling at their looney gags, during amazing feats of musical virtuosity.

While chatting with the warm and friendly Hyung-ki Joo (Igudesman was unable to be there), it was fun to learn more about the duo and what makes them tick. We have a wonderful treat in store for us at the upcoming MTNA Conference.

Esther Fellows (EF): Having followed your videos for some time, I'd love to find out more about you. From your website, I see that your first show, "A Little Nightmare Music" was created in 2004 and that you met at the Yehudi Menuhin School when you were each 12 years old. With Igudesman leaving to study in Vienna in 1989, and you, Mr. Joo, at Manhattan School of Music in 1990, what happened with you both between 1989 and 2004?

Hyung-ki Joo (H-kJ): Igudesman actually went to the Vienna Conservatoire in 1989 to study with Boris Kuschnir, and I stayed at Menuhin for another year before leaving to study in NYC at Manhattan School of Music. I made my musical debut at Barbican Hall with the Warsaw Sinfonia, which was conducted by Sir Yehudi Menuhin.

Our duo, Igudesman & Joo, has now been playing together for 13 years.

(Joo has performed at the White House, as well as co-founding a piano trio with violinist Rafal ZambrzyckiPayne and cellist Thomas Carroll. Their performing included a concert series at Wigmore Hall and winning the International Parkhouse Chamber Music Competition. He arranged and recorded Fantasies and Delusions, a classical album of Billy Joel solo piano pieces for Columbia/Sony. Igudesman has enjoyed performing, composing, arranging and recording a number of CDs, collaborating with Bobby McFerrin, Julian Rachlin, Joshua Bell and Gidon Kremer, to name a few.)

EF: When did the two of you become engrossed in the comedy act? Did the duo of Igudesman dr Joo begin when you were at the Yehudi Menuhin School?

H-kJ: The first thing we performed together was a composition that Igudesman had written called Bastard Sonata--it was the first piece he had composed. We were 15 years old at the time.

It was actually a legitimate piece, but got its name because someone scribbled "Bastard" on it, so Igudesman just took that.

This was the first (and only) time we ever drank before a performance. Someone had left lots of wine in the green room and at the age of 15 years, we drank it. I'd like to emphasize that it's the only time we've done that! Igudesman got to the cadenza and couldn't remember that he was supposed to come in. So I just kept on vamping until we both started laughing hysterically.

I know of some people who, after a long performing career, still have to be pushed onto stage in order to perform. Or drink a lot, or smoke a pack of strong cigarettes. While I don't judge them, it's not how I prefer to handle the issue of how I feel before going on stage. I would rather find a way to solve that problem than be vomiting before every performance or resorting to something that will alter my state of mind. That just doesn't seem consistent with the joy of playing music.

Our purpose, as Igudesman & Joo, is to enjoy music, and suffering through that kind of anxiety just isn't what we do.

To answer your question though, our first actual performance of us as our duo was at the Menuhin School Christmas party, December 1988. Then Igudesman left in 1989 and I left in 1990.

EF: I'm curions to know how Igudesman became interested in film directing and acting. What events took him on this route?

H-kJ: Actually, both Aleksey and I are equally into film, acting and directing--I am really the film buff, but it is Aleksey who has actually made Noseland.

Because we are constantly working on our films and editing our own work, we wind up doing quite a bit of directing and acting. Currently, we are dreaming of having our own TV series. We have many ideas that will really only work on TV. It all started with the stage show, basically at the Menuhin School Christmas party in 1988. If you think of all the things you've seen us do, just imagine them in a much rawer state, with less precision and you'll have a picture of what happened at the party. Since then, we have translated these ideas to work on stage and in film. Now our duo, Igudesman & Joo, will be devoting more time to the TV show, which is our next big project.

EF: The first video I saw of you two was Rachmaninov Had Big Hands. I loved the experience of Igudesman looking for the right board and your rhythmic tossing the boards back into the air. The toss and catch were beautiful. So fun and funny! It's a favorite for me.

H-kJ: Actually I had never played that Prelude, so it was strange for me to be playing something I hadn't done.

EF: How long did it take for you to work out Rachmaninov Had Big Hands?

H-kJ: Well that's a bit hard to say. First we went to a technician at Steinway and said we wanted to slam planks of wood on the keyboard without ruining it.

EF: Really ? What did he think of that?

H-kJ: Oh, he was very helpful. The technician assured us that we could do it and not damage the instrument. So we went to a carpenter/musician friend of ours who is very talented, and he built planks of wood for the act. When we started working on it, both of us had to wear helmets, and Aleksey had to wear protective gloves as well. It was like a construction site, blood and bruises to start out with. The first few times, it was touch and go.

EF: Is there felt on the planks?

H-kJ: Oh yes. There are these tooth-like projections of wood that play the keys and the projections have felt on them. Plenty of pianists would damage the piano worse. And then of course it took time to rehearse and get the timing down and the throwing and catching.

EF: Your timing choreography, scripting and the like, is fantastic. I could watch that video every day.

The MTNA National Conference for which you'll be playing in March will have teachers from all over the United States and Canada. Can you say a bit about your early training? What role did your parents have in your musical training?

H-kJ: I began piano lessons with Beryl Kington in Norwich (about 3 hours up from London). After two years of lessons, Ms. Kington had to leave the country, so she arranged for auditions for me. My parents didn't know anything about music or the Menuhin School either. They went along with auditions because the teacher had said to do it. And as good Asian parents, they did what the teacher said to do. Once I was accepted at the Menuhin School, my parents were very supportive and understood that this was important and that I had talent.

I thought I would get kicked out of MSM on any number of occasions. I felt like the black sheep--on the lowest end of the scale. My roommate was much better than I was, as were others who I observed. I was fearful that I couldn't measure up. Somehow, I didn't get kicked out. After a few years, I caught up and began to have confidence in my musical life. Still there were others better than me, but I felt that I just loved music more than anyone else, even if I wasn't as good as some of the others. What mattered most was that I loved music so very much.

EF: When I have students who tell me that they want to be musicians, the litmus test for me is, "Do you feel like you would die without being a musician?" It is that of love of music that codifies it for students and me.

When I talk with my colleagues, both performers and teachers, they often mention their relationships with their first music teachers. In many cases, that teacher is pivotal in a person's musical life. What about you? Did you have any early teachers who had a profound effect on you?

H-kJ: Well, there was Beryl Kington. Was I particularly close to her? I suppose as much as any 8-year-old boy is to his piano teacher. I realize now how much she had to have cared about me to arrange for auditions for me. She took an entire day off teaching and traveled from Norwich to Menuhin School in Surrey with me for my audition. Now I know what a sacrifice that was, though I wasn't really aware of it then. I imagine my musical life would be quite different had it not been for her.

EF: That is very meaningful to me. It is a big sacrifice for a music teacher to take a day away from teaching to travel with their student to an audition.

On a related track, did you as students have any critical moments or experiences that precipitated your comedic outlook on music? You are so funny! How did it happen?

H-kJ: The beginning of our duo really began at the Christmas Party at the Menuhin School in 1988.

The shows that we, as Igudesman & Joo, put on, whatever they are, are just a more refined version of the Christmas party show. People who were at that party see our acts and say, "That's the Christmas party." We have a festive spirit that pervades everything. You know, we met when we were 12 and we both still feel that we are 12-year-olds. Mentally, at least.

EF: I watched a bit of your Feast of Duos (fantastic, by the way). It was a very light-hearted take on a very difficult and often painful part of musicians'lives. We can't seem to get away from the fact that, as musicians, competition is a part of our lives. Say more about what you hope to accomplish with this interesting competition.

H-kJ: This Competition is very close to our hearts. This is the antidote to all other competitions. We wanted to humanize competing, encourage creativity, and to make it a more holistic experience.

One of the things we got rid of was the age limit. Well, actually we do have an age limit. It is 88 years--if you're 89, tough, you can't enter. Everyone has to play the standard repertoire plus their own original work. We are endeavoring to help people get out of their comfort zones. When people don't make it to the finals, they become a member of the jury. There was this 11-year-old girl who didn't make it to the final round. She was very distressed and upset, and the parents asked us to help. The next day, she came back as a member of the jury. She was a really good judge, too. There was no angst about having not advanced the day before. When she was asked why she chose a particular contestant, she had very clear, good answers regarding what she was listening to and why particular contestants were chosen or not.

As a part of this antidote, in this contest, bribing is totally legal, but must be done openly and publicly. There are very specific guidelines for bribing, as follows:

All performers are encouraged but not obliged to bribe us, but it must be done officially, and in view of the public.

The bribes have to be local delicacies from their country of origin or from France.

The bribe prize bears absolutely no influence on the musical prize.

We all know that at competitions, as a competitor, you can play a bravura piece, do a fabulous job, and at the end, the judges just sit there. No clapping, no "thank you," nothing. In this competition, the judges actually talk to the competitors between their pieces. I think it is especially important that musicians not only know how to play their instruments but also that they have social skills and can converse. Think of the great classical musicians who not only played one instrument but often several, authored books, composed, painted, etc. But now, often musicians just spend all their time practicing.

If there is one thing that sums up the Feast of Duos, it is be creative. We were born to be creative. When we stunt that and just go through life, it seems so pointless. We all need to express ourselves. We must be creative and have fun in life. And in this competition, that's what we want.

EF: I understand that you have just released a new CD. Can you tell us a bit about that?

H-kJ: Our new CD was released in October 2016. It's our greatest hits revisited for audio CD purposes. We really wanted to have a concert album. So we worked out the line and so-called story of the CD. It's entitled You Just Have to Laugh, featuring actor John Malkovich. It's a surreal odyssey, in a genre that is playable and enjoyable for kids, with humor for adults. We always write on at least two levels, so that when there is a joke for the musical connoisseurs, there is something else for those who are not--there is something for everyone, beauty and humor. We wanted to write something that has parents feeling like kids again while their kids can't stop giggling.

EF: I certainly look forward to hearing the CD. And I'm looking forward to an evening of great fun in Baltimore!

Esther Fellows, NCTM, in violin, viola and piano, teaches privately in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and is president of Tulsa Accredited Music Teachers Association. She performs regularly with Signature Symphony and the Tulsa Ballet Orchestra.
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Title Annotation:2017 Conference Artist; Hyung-ki Joo
Author:Fellows, Esther
Publication:American Music Teacher
Article Type:Interview
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 1, 2016
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