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Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Concert Review: Sweet and Sour Notes

Yuja Wang teams with Igudesman and Joo at Carnegie Hall.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Wrapture: Yuja Wang (center) is unboxed by Aleksey Igudesman and Hyung-Ki Joo.
Photo © 2019
Last night's performance at Zankel Hall teamed virtuoso pianist Yuja Wang with the comedy stylings of Iggudesman and Joo. The comic duo (full names Aleksey Igudesman and Hyung-ki Joo) rose to prominence through a series of YouTube videos. They seemed unlikely stage companions for the virtuoso pianist (this concert is part of her ongoing Perspectives series)  although this collaboration is not new. At the start of the concert, the duo announced that Yuja Wang would not be coming onstage. Rather, out came Mr. Joo in one of her signature outfits: minimal chest wrap, short skirt and entirely too much leg.

The show, titled "The Clone", was an extended riff on E.T.A. Hoffmann, particularly the tale in which a doll comes to seeming life with disastrous results. In this case the doll was Ms. Wang, who entered in a large pink and white box labelled "Made in China." The conceit was that this was not Ms. Wang at all, but rather a fresh-from-the-tank clone who would play that evening's concert.  Some tired jokes about the packing process ("It smells like sweet and sour chicken") and programming (Mr. Joo complaining that the "manual" that came with the doll was not printed in Korean or English) set the tone.

Ms. Wang proved herself a game performer, keeping up with the fellas in a series of skits and enduring some ugly sex jokes, mostly delivered with a self-referential leer by Mr. Joo. Finally, the two got down to business, and led the audience through Lutoslawski's labyrinthine variations on Paganini's 24th Caprice, a knotty set that puts Rachmaninoff's to shame. Also enjoyable: a long riff on Mozart's Rondo Alla Turca in which Mr. Joo (as a tyrannical performer) insisted on lowering the high notes of the piece, and performing the A minor work in A Major. "Hmm. That makes it sound American!" Igudesman remarked, drawing a laugh.

Mr. Joo stormed onstage, this time as a martial arts coach (gee, there's a stereotype) turned sadistic, piano teacher. He hectored Mr. Igudesman, who played a hapless student, beating him about the shoulders with a violin bow and shouting "didi mao" (as in The Deer Hunter) as the "student" tried to play Scott Joplin's The Entertainer. Then the "great teacher" sought fresh victims in the audience, and some nervous hands went up. Finally, Emanuel Ax was summoned to the stage. Mr. Joo subjected the pianist to the same kind of abuse. Ha. Ha. Thankfully this bit was brief.

The second part of the evening opened with a long sketch featuring Ms. Wang as the second piano, which turned out to be a high-tech Steinway model with recording capability. It  was dominated by a very strange adaptation of West Side Story. Mr. Igudesman, Mr. Joo and Ms. Wang added a bevy of instruments: ancient cymbals, glockenspiel and a red toy melodica played with a hose mouthpiece to the din. It started to wear out its welcome around "America", sung by Mr. Joo and Ms. Wang with exaggerated barrio accents.

Mr. Igudesman then appeared in drag as Maria, grunting, mugging and growling through "I Feel Pretty" in a manner reminiscent of a pantomime Dame. The final impression was that of one of those Saturday Night Live sketches that goes on for too long. The encore, a mix of Mozart, Gloria Gaynor's "I Will Survive" (sung with a legion of voices by Mr. Igudesman) and hip-hop (delivered by the two comics in English and Ms. Wang in Chinese) was musically amusing, but clearly fell flat with the stunned audience. Hip-hop may mix successfully with Mozart (as proved once before by the Insane Clown Posse) but this audience had little enthusiasm for this cocktail.

It's hard to do comedy on the stage, more difficult than playing the most labyrinthine piano works of Alkan and Sorabji. However, this show had the feeling of a cruise ship act. Igudesman and Joo made their reputation doing short comedy skits on the Internet. Stretched out to a full evening's stage act, their comic bits start to grate. Both gentlemen are talented comics and good musicians, but watching this show one wonders what they could do if they really set their minds to creating something superb and leaving out the ethnic jokes.

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