Comedy violin–piano duo Aleksey Igudesman and Hyung-Ki Joo talk about fish and chips, student squalor and their love of onstage pranks


Photo: Julia Wesley

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This article was first published in the June 2012 issue of The Strad

Aleksey Igudesman

We got on very badly at first — it was two very strong personalities clashing. After we’d almost had a fight, he came to my room. I thought, ‘He’s come here to die. Clearly.’ And then I saw that he’d brought fish and chips with him. My brain nearly exploded. In the end I settled for the fish and chips.

We love great food and cooking. We’re always interested in the local cuisine. We’ve often cooked for each other — we experiment, but we’re quite different in what we do. Hyung-ki can make an incredible Korean broth, stew or marinated meat. I, on the other hand, go out to the market and smell each individual fruit and vegetable — squeeze them, smell them, then put them back — until I pick the best ones. I then create some imaginative meal of eight courses from eight countries, with appropriate drinks. But I don’t think we could say who the better cook is. It’s just different approaches.

Very often we’ll spring total surprises on each other while on stage. We’ll mumble obscenities that the audience can’t hear. Or I’ll get a random violinist to come up and play a duet with me, to throw Hyung-ki off.

He’s really proud of a particular joke he once played on me. When we’re in different countries we try to adapt things to the local language. We were doing our show in Taipei with Gidon Kremer. I had several lines in Taiwanese that I practised phonetically. I typed them out on slips of paper and put them in discreet places around the stage so I could read them. In this sketch, I played Kremer’s violin teacher, one who would speak many languages at the same time — a typical Russian teacher. But in between the dress rehearsal and the concert, Hyung-ki changed the slips of paper. He’d asked some local people to change the phrases very slightly. So in front of 2,000 people in this Taipei concert hall, instead of saying ‘I have blue eyes,’ in Taiwanese, I said, ‘I have a blue penis.’ There should have been raucous laughter, but there was just an awkward silence. It was mean, but wonderful too. We play out our disagreements on stage, but it’s always in a spirit of fun.

Hyung-Ki bosses me around a lot in performance but I’m the one who wears the trousers in real life.

Hyung-Ki Joo

We first met at the Yehudi Menuhin School when we were twelve years old, and it was hate at first sight! It culminated with Aleksey holding up a chair, about to smash it over my head, and me with a music stand, ready to poke his eyes out. People were holding us back and if it hadn’t been for a member of staff walking in at that moment, we would have been in intensive care!

I must have had a soft spot for Aleksey. I knew there was good in him somewhere. I thought I’d make a peace offering, so I knocked on his door with a portion of fish and chips and offered to share them. Back then in an English boarding school, fish and chips were the equivalent of gold. I still have this picture of him when he opened the door — his eyes were just flicking from me to the food. I came in and we sat in silence for a few minutes. At some point the conversation started up. And from then on we were inseparable.

We lived together for a year in Vienna, in 1994. Without wanting to get too Dickensian, I can say it really was a shabby place. The windows were all smashed and the shower was in the kitchen. It was amazing that we actually had girlfriends — why they stayed over was a mystery. We were both students and I was making no money. Aleksey was the breadwinner in the relationship, playing little gigs here and there with waltz orchestras. With his wages, he’d go out shopping and I’d say, ‘We can’t afford steak, we can’t afford fish. Just buy salad.’ But because Aleksey has very extravagant tastes, he couldn’t resist getting the finest olive oil and the most delicious bottle of balsamic vinegar. And I’d despair. We were decadent tramps. I think we still are, in some ways.

My wife calls him my first wife — we spend so much time together on the road. Because we’re so busy working, we don’t have so much ‘let loose’ time, whereas in the old days we would go to a party or watch a movie. We still have that friendship where we want to play jokes on each other, and because we don’t have time off stage, we end up doing it during performances. Once I covertly engaged two tae kwon do teachers to appear on stage at a certain point and do a demonstration. His face was a picture!


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