Video Built the Classical Star
By Michael Cameron
There are two current trends in classical music presentation that are driven by a desire to connect with younger audiences, a reflection of the fear among many that the graying of contemporary audiences bodes ill for the future of the genre. There is ever-increasing adoption of visual media like YouTube to extend lines of communication beyond the live concert experience or traditional audio-only, hard-copy studio recordings. Another is a growing sense that the formalized, distant approach of musicians has strayed too far from the roots of classical music, which in many respects is more sanitized today than it was in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Of course neither of these concepts is, strictly speaking, new. Classical artists have used televised performances and talk-show appearances for over half a century, and even the YouTube phenomenon could be seen as long in the tooth in an era when decade-old technology might be considered obsolete.
Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center cellist Nick Canellakis and pianist Michael Brown met as fellows at Ravinia’s Steans Music Institute in 2008. They made a joint appearance last fall at the festival, and Canellakis is slated to join pianist Misha Dichter, violist Lawrence Dutton and violinist Mark Peskanov in a performance of Brahms’s G-minor piano quartet at Ravinia on June 20. This concert, like many of his duo concerts with Brown, adheres closely to the tried-and-true chamber music format audiences are most familiar with. But fans of Canellakis and Brown know that their interests are more expansive than these recital programs might suggest.
On a whim several years ago, Canellakis turned on a video camera during a rehearsal break with his colleague. They thought that a mock interview might serve as an interesting promo for upcoming concerts, but the dialogue soon morphed into an even less serious affair. “As we were going along,” remembers Canellakis, “the banter deteriorated, and we began to rip into each other. We put it up on YouTube, and it became quite popular with our friends.” Christening the series Conversations with Nick Canellakis, they were soon inundated with requests from fellow musicians interested in taking part in the joke, a formula that bears a close kinship with the “fake” interviews on Jon Stewart’s Daily Show and the recently departed Colbert Report. Alisa Weilerstein, Jonathan Biss—who has made his own extra-musical impact online through his demystifying of Beethoven’s piano sonatas—and the Emerson String Quartet are but three of the many artists who have subjected themselves to their playful self-ridicule.
The violin-piano duo Aleksey Igudesman and Hyung-Ki Joo are just as passionate and skilled in the classical canon as Canellakis and Brown, but their shows are designed as elaborately constructed farces, in part as an attempt to throw cold water on the austere pretensions that they believe suffocate what should be a joyous concert experience. From their current location before a concert in Hungary, and right after the premiere of their “Concerto Fantastique” in Dusseldorf, pianist Joo described a 2013 performance of “Big Nightmare Music” with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra as “one of the best nights of our lives.” The duo will perform the riveting companion piece, “A Little Nightmare Music,” at Ravinia on July 30.
If Canellakis and Brown find some inspiration in late-night political comedies, Igudesman and Joo’s models seem more far-reaching, and in some cases, surprising. One could guess correctly that Victor Borge, P.D.Q. Bach and Dudley Moore were important sources, but their list also includes such disparate figures as Trey Parker and Matt Stone of South Park and The Book of Mormon, Seth MacFarlane of Family Guy and Ted, the Monty Python troupe, Samuel Beckett, Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw, Leonard Bernstein and Glenn Gould, to name several from a much longer list. “We value good music and good craftsmanship, but we also like it laced with satirical or philosophical commentary. There is always an underlying message, but we don’t care at all if anyone gets that message.”
The term “classical crossover” used to rrefer to classically trained artists who bridged the classical-pop chasm without entirely giving up their roots, and often held out some expectation that their efforts in vernacular idioms might draw some into the more rarified world of the Western classical canon. The Piano Guys, who come to Ravinia on August 26, are a fine example of that original paradigm. Indeed, music by Beethoven, Vivaldi, Fauré and Mozart can be heard alongside renditions of radio staples by One Direction, Coldplay, OneRepublic and David Guetta in the group’s YouTube videos that can accumulate upwards of 30 million views each. But on a list of their most popular videos, hot on the heels of The Piano Guys’ version of Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep” are their interpretations of Bach’s First Cello Suite and Beethoven’s “Moonlight” Sonata. For other new crossover sensations, like violinist Lindsey Stirling, the popular arrangements are an end in themselves, and pieces like her Les Misérables medley don’t seem intended to stoke interest in her roots as a classically trained artist.
Another group of soloists in the latter category is the red-hot duo 2cellos, perennial competitors with Stirling on Billboard’s Classical Crossover chart. But with the near-total reliance of the duo and Stirling on pop-tune arrangements, the only remnant of Western classical tradition in their shtick is the instrumentation, and even that is often obscured by a maze of electronica and Vegas-level production values. It’s not likely that their legion of fans will seek out Vivaldi’s Concerto for Two Cellos after hearing the duo’s souped-up version of the James Bond theme “Live and Let Die.”
Yet even the relatively contemporary Bond persona has receded into the past for many in the younger set. Joo related an anecdote involving a conversation with two girls after a gig in California. The show included a mash-up of Mozart’s G-minor symphony with another tune from a James Bond flick. They assumed that the familiar movie track would provide a bridge to the more “serious” world of a classical, symphonic standard. Instead it was the Mozart melody that was known to them, and they expressed curiosity about the identity of “that Bond person.”
The story raises the questions of if they feel the need to tailor jokes to particular audiences or fear that too many of the gags might be understood only by the musical cognoscenti. Joo confided, “This is something we consider frequently. We don’t want to alienate audiences, and we don’t want to be hypocrites. If we can’t resist an insider pun, we make sure that we balance that with more obvious and even slapstick humor.” This dual approach is easy to detect on such classic Igudesman/Joo gags as “Rachmaninov Had Big Hands.” Musicians may be well aware of the difficulty most pianists face when confronted with some of the Russian composer’s massive spans, but it’s likely that few of the five-million-plus who have viewed this video don’t get the joke until they see Igudesman hand Joo an apparatus of long wooden planks to play the gargantuan chords in Rachmaninoff ’s Prelude in C-sharp Minor by strategically slamming it on the keyboard.
One area of classical controversy that often rears its clamorous head in discussions with these artists is the modern prohibition of applause between movements or, heaven forbid, in the midst of the performances themselves. Igudesman and Joo are quick to remind their audiences that this taboo is a relatively modern convention, born of a wish by composers like Mahler and Schoenberg that nothing interrupt the pure flow of their music. New Yorker critic Alex Ross explored this tradition in his essay “Hold Your Applause: Inventing and Reinventing the Classical Concert,” and conductor Erich Leinsdorf remarked that “the notion, once entertained by questionable historians, was that an entity must not be interrupted by the mundane frivolity of handclapping. The great composers were elated by applause, wherever it burst out.”
Igudesman pulls no punches in his disdain for the embargo: “Composers like Mozart were upset when their music wasn’t interrupted by applause, not when it was.” Joo even goes so far as to suggest that musicians themselves dislike the modern concert format so much that if the tables were turned, they would avoid their own performances. While this may seem like a stretch, and would no doubt provoke stern denials from many artists, there does seem to be a growing expectation that in intimate spaces at least, some kind of verbal dialogue with audiences is expected: “There is something very wrong when people come to a concert and fall asleep, which of course is a very expensive nap!”
All four of these artists are superb musicians, but both duos put on public faces that deviate from the norm, and they are eager to wallow in an often wicked sense of humor. Yet it’s there that the similarities in their public personas end. Canellakis and Brown thrive in serious music presentations, while Igudesman and Joo seem (happily) unable to take anything seriously. As it happens, the latter pair is the subject of one of the Conversations with Nick Canellakis. As Joo casually and loudly munches popcorn, Brown makes an attempt at a genuine compliment.
BROWN: You find a way to bring music to a wider audience, but with a great deal of sophistication.
IGUDESMAN: That’s exactly the kind of boring, nondescript comment that we get from most interviews, blah, blah, blah …
CANELLAKIS: C’mon, you’re in it for the scratch, like we are. Next, I’ll ask you a question I’m sure you’ve never been asked before: Where did you guys meet?
After watching this YouTube video and the guff ws faded, this writer realized that he had asked both duos this identical, mundane question and felt duly chastened. And yet this was all in good fun, a ritual all four artists wish musicians would indulge in more often.