Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in music?
JOO: I was in love with music from the moment I was born. At least, according to my parents. I loved all kinds of music. As a baby, I couldn’t stop listening to music and used to drive my parents crazy listening over and over to the same thing. When I was able to walk, I used to stop in my tracks when walking past a music store. So immovable was I, that my parents had no choice but to ask the shopkeeper if they could keep an eye on me while they went ahead and did their shopping. In those days, people trusted strangers to look after their kids! I was super happy just staying for hours listening to whatever was playing in the store. I started piano lessons at age eight, and two years later, by fluke, I entered the Yehudi Menuhin School. From that point on, there was never any doubt in my mind that I wanted to become a musician.
IGUDESMAN: I started to play the violin before I was born. Or so it seemed. I was born in St Petersburg – back then it was called Leningrad. And before that Petrograd. And before that Hetrograd, Metrograd, Sexograd, Retorgrad and Rome. But that was a long time ago. I come from a very musical family. My mother played the piano, my father the violin, my grandmother the cello, my uncle the oboe, my sister the banjo, my cousin the ukulele and his wife the didgeridoo. So it was kind of inevitable I would go into music. Shortly after my birth, I said to my parents: “Mummy daddy, I think maybe one day some time when I am older, I might perhaps want to learn to play the violin, maybe.” I was immediately locked in a room and tied to a music stand with a violin taped to my neck. Every time I started to practice, the dog started to howl. After a while my dad screamed: “Damn it, can’t you play something that the dog DOESN’T know?”
Who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?
JOO:Too many of them to list here. But from the musicians of the past:
Yehudi Menuhin. Glenn Gould. Leonard Bernstein.
All my teachers from Peter Norris, Seta Tanyel, Nina Svetlanova to teachers that I only had few a lessons with but gave me lifetimes of inspiration and knowledge such as Richard Goode, Oleg Maisenberg, and Ferenc Rados. My composition teachers Simon Parkin, Malcolm Singer, Nils Vigeland, and my English and Drama teacher, Kevin Jones. Kevin was a huge influence on what I do with my duo Igudesman & Joo, and when Aleksey and I recently wrote a book together about creativity, we asked Kevin Jones to write the “Afterword”. It was clear to us from the start that Kevin should have the final word about creativity.
Then, I must add people such as Monty Python, Spike Jones, Chaplin, Oscar Wilde, Ionesco as other major influences. And don’t get me started on the composers…
IGUDESMAN: For me it is basically the same as Hyung-ki. I should also include Prokofiev, who was my favourite composer when I was young. In fact as a composer I have often been compared to Prokofiev. Okay, to be fair, I was the one who made the comparison. Frank Zappawas also a strong influence as well as Queen and Pink Floyd. And from the violinists, I would have to say that my biggest idol was Gidon Kremer who we had the great pleasure and honour of working with for a few years earlier in our career. In fact, it felt quite sardonically satisfying to give Gidon a violin lesson on stage in a show we did together! Also, I do have to mention my oldest and besides Hyung-ki, my best friend Julian Rachlin who I grew up next to and who is now not only one of the greatest violinists and viola players alive, but also a brilliant conductor.
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
JOO: To refresh the minds of some people in the world of classical music.
IGUDESMAN: There are daily challenges literally daily. For example having to do this interview, while I have to finish writing a harp concerto for Magdalena Hoffmann, the wonderful harp player of the Bavarian Symphony Orchestra, who has been pestering me about receiving the part for weeks! But seriously, I am actually extremely thankful for having the ability to give interviews and having people interested in all the madness that we do as individuals and together.
Of which performances are you most proud?
JOO: Playing at the Hollywood Bowl- but not because of what you might think. It’s certainly not the history nor the prestige of the place, in fact, I never had any idea what the Hollywood Bowl was. My only reference to this place was a video I had of “Monty Python at the Hollywood Bowl” which I watched several times. The fact that the Pythons had performed there made this place the Holy Grail for me so being on that same stage as my Gods of comedy, with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, meant more to me than anyone could imagine.
IGUDESMAN: I have to say, it may even have been our last performance at the RFH in London with the LPO. Not just because of the special venue but the audience.We had almost the entire Yehudi Menuhin School come to it, the school we studied in. And then our dear friends Sir Roger Moore and Terry Jones, who have meanwhile both sadly passed away.
Which particular works do you think you play best?
JOO:“Narcissus” by E. Gocomplex.
IGUDESMAN: I have to admit, that I have become an expert at interpreting my own music. That may sound like a bit of a joke but it really is not. I am very lucky to have published a multitude of works for violin, 2 violins, piano and violin, as well as chamber music and orchestral works on Universal Edition. And although I may be the composer of those works, I still have to discover them. I truly believe that often as a composer one has no idea of how to interpret ones own works. But after some years of playing them in concert, I believe I have cracked some of them. Although I absolutely love discovering young talent playing my music on YouTube.
How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?
JOO: Consult a crystal ball and try to foresee what I might want to be playing in 2 years time. Jokes aside, I’m very lucky that I am able to conjure up different types of programs, and my interests are so diverse, that almost everything works at anytime. I also love playing the same thing over and over again as one can get deeper into the piece, and I love the process and challenge to make a piece you’ve played so often make it sound like the first time you’re playing it.
IGUDESMAN: Together as Igudesman & Joo, we are very blessed to be able to chose our own repertoire. People (mostly) trust in our choice and programming. So we tend to give show titles with the description and maybe a few videos of some of the piece we will probably play, but the rest is up to us. Often we would decide Orchestra programs only a month or so ahead, while we are preparing parts. And when we have duo shows, we can even decide on the day. This is a great luxury that most people who perform in the classical music world do not get and we are extremely thankful for it. It gives us a way greater spontaneity. We have talked about this problem with many friends and colleagues. How on earth are we supposed to know if we feel like playing the Beethoven Spring Sonata in two and a half years time?
Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?
JOO: I’ve only performed there once, but I think it’s the most beautiful concert hall in the world – the Palau de la Musicà Catalana in Barcelona. In a way, I wish I hadn’t been playing so that I could have taken in the full experience of being a listener. I can’t wait to return there, either as a performer or as an audience member.
IGUDESMAN: I may have to chose the Vienna Konzerthaus, Vienna being the city we are based. It’s basically in our backyard. And it takes literally 4 minutes for me to cycle from my home to the Konzerthaus Vienna. Which is also a little dangerous, since at times when my concert is at 19:30, at 19:20 I may still be in the shower!
Who are your favourite musicians?
JOO: Most of them are dead! But from those alive today, I’m a big fan of Ebene Quartet, Barbara Hannigan, Tord Gustavsen, Leszek Mozdzer, Stefano Bollani, Gilles Apap.
I had a piano trio for seven years with Rafal Zambrzycki-Payne and Thomas Carroll, and they were some of the best seven years of my life.
I have also been really lucky to have shared the stage making music with special musicians such as Joshua Bell, Renaud Capuçon, Michael Collins, Martin Fröst, Janine Jansen, Gidon Kremer, Dame Felicity Lott, Viktoria Mullova, Lawrence Power, Julian Rachlin, Radovan Vlatkovic, Yuja Wang, the Belcea Quartet and members from the Alban Berg, Artis, and Ebène String Quartets, and many more!- and every one of those collaborations and performances are among my most treasured musical experiences.
IGUDESMAN: I think Hyung-ki has pretty much named a lot of my favourite musicians! From the dead ones, I would have to add Frank Zappa, Glenn Gould and Freddie Mercury fo sure.
What is your most memorable concert experience?
JOO: Playing as soloist in Beethoven’s 4th Piano Concerto with Yehudi Menuhin conducting the Warsaw Sinfonia. It was his 80th Birthday Concert at the Barbican Hall, and after having had gone through a few rough years, where I even contemplated giving up music, this concert reminded me why I could never have a life without music.
IGUDESMAN: Perhaps it was our Carnegie Hall debut where we had Joshua Bell and then Billy Joel join us on stage for pieces. Strangely enough it did not feel scary but arm and welcoming to play on that legendary stage!
As a musician, what is your definition of success?
JOO: Being able to understand what the music means. And then, if you’re lucky, and work hard, at some lucky points, you are able to transport that meaning.
IGUDEMAN: Being able to do what you want to do. Play the repertoire you want, with who you want. Write the music you want to write. And above all, live the life you want to live, always full of love and creativity.
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
JOO: Be yourself. Everyone else is taken.
IGUDESMAN: Every musician is like an own company. And I don’t mean that in a pragmatic way. It means one has to be creative on many fronts. One has to love the music, live the music. But also one has to understand how to communicate with people, how to market oneself, how to promote yourself as a “product”. And to find out what your USP is – your unique selling point. Trust me, we all have one! To be a musical entrepreneur is the way forward for everyone.That is also why I am a co-founder of the online platform “Music Traveler”, where one can find rooms to play, practice or record online anywhere in the world. We started in Vienna where we have over 100 venues, but are coming to the UK soon. This enables professionals as well as amateurs to have a space to play anytime anywhere. And we are very lucky to be supported by great artists like Yuja Wang, John Malkovich, Billy Joel and Hans Zimmer who even invested in Music Traveler! Both Hyung-ki and I are actively promoting the wonderful platform which improves the world of music.
Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?
JOO: On a tennis court giving a teenager a tough time on the tennis court.
Other than that, working with youthful orchestras and musicians.
And continuing to explore and being creative with my long-standing collaborator and partner-in-crime, Aleksey Igudesman.
IGUDESMAN: I would love to explore the genre of making movies and documentaries more. I have already directed the Mockumentary “Noseland” featuring Roger Moore and John Malkovich, besides many music videos. There are numerous film ideas, especially linked to music and musicians that I want to produce, direct and enable. My pet peeve is seeing musicians being portrayed by actors who can not play the instrument. I certainly want to change that. So I plan to live in Los Angeles for a time, which may well be in 10 years. And a couple of Oscars would be quite nice. Our friend Vangelis likes to use his as a paper weight, so I would like at least two to prop up my books.
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
JOO: No idea. But when everything is flowing and you only see and feel kindness everywhere, that’s a pretty happy state to experience.
IGUDESMAN: Happiness is not a constant. It is a temporary feeling of pleasure and contentment which has to be earned on a daily base. One can not chase it. It comes to you. And mostly when you are being true to yourself and maintain constant creativity in your life. With creativity even interviews can be enjoyable!
What is your most treasured possession?
JOO: I’m trying to get rid of possessions.
IGUDESMAN: My friendships and relationships in my life. Even though the people do not belong to me, my friendships and relationships do, as long as I nurture and cultivate them.
What is your present state of mind?
JOO: Thinking about what the next question is going to be…
IGUDESMAN: Excitement about our next performance in London on the 4th of March at the Royal Festival Hall. Having Erran Baron Cohen, the brother of Sasha [creator of Ali G and Borat] and composer of the Borat soundtrack will be super exciting. And to do the rather insane show “Clash of the Soloist” in London is something that is literally on my mind now, since I am about to rehearse it with Hyung-ki and Thomas Carroll, our dear friend and great musician, who will conduct the performance with the LPO at the RFH!
On Wednesday 4 March the London Philharmonic Orchestra play it for laughs with comedic duo Igudesman & Joo.
The pair are masters of the art of mashing up classical music masterpieces with their own unique twist.
They join the orchestra for an evening of creativity, madness and hilarity with their two acclaimed shows Clash of the Soloists and Big Nightmare Music.