‘Haydn Seek!’: comedy pianist and Hong Kong Sinfonietta team up for tribute to composer

For Korean-British pianist Hyung-ki Joo – better known to some as one half of the zany comedy musical duo Igudesman & Joo – classical music should always be performed passionately and with total commitment, but the “whole ceremony around it” doesn’t have to be so serious.

“I never make fun of the music. I have fun with music,” he says.

“Music is about playfulness. When composers are writing music, they are essentially playing with notes.”

The 50-year-old musician is returning to Hong Kong in October to perform works by Joseph Haydn, Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel with the Hong Kong Sinfonietta.

Joo (centre) with the other half of Igudesman & Joo, Russian-German violinist Aleksey Igudesman, and the Hong Kong Sinfonietta for the 2016 concert “Upbeat!”. Photo: Courtesy of the Hong Kong Sinfonietta

Describing Haydn as one of the most underrated geniuses in the classical world, Joo says he wants to draw out and enhance the humorous and theatrical aspects of the Austrian composer’s works and make them more accessible to today’s audiences.

“We [know] that Haydn is one of the most important composers and the father of symphony, but the reality is, he is not given the credit he deserves,” says Joo in a Zoom call from Vienna, Austria.

“I would like to restore some justice because I think Haydn is a great genius. Mozart looked up to him very much, and he influenced many other composers later in life, such as Beethoven, Ravel and Debussy.”

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Titled “Haydn Seek!”, the upcoming concert will include a blend of famous and not-so-famous pieces by Haydn as well as compositions by Debussy (Hommage a Haydn) and Ravel (Menuet sur le nom d’Haydn).

“Ravel and Debussy [were] big fans of Haydn. Ravel’s piano concertos are classically modelled after Haydn, and Debussy wrote pieces dedicated to Haydn, so it felt appropriate to include these musicians as well,” Joo says of the programme.

Igudesman & Joo – the former being Russian-German violinist Aleksey Igudesman – have charmed and delighted audiences around the world with their entertaining and fun approach to music-making for almost two decades, both in concert halls and on YouTube.

They have collaborated with musical stars including Joshua Bell, Viktoria Mullova, Vasily Petrenko, Yuja Wang and, in October, will tour with actor John Malkovich in the US.

The Hong Kong Sinfonietta concert isn’t just all going to be about fun, though. Joo – who is not only its creator but also conductor, composer, arranger and presenter – promises there will be plenty of moments of just pure music.

“For me, it’s not about trying to make fun. It’s to make [the] concert more accessible to all audiences,” he says.

The [Hong Kong] audiences are fantastic … When you play, they listen attentively, but when you finish playing, they react as if they are a rock concert audience

Hyung-ki Joo

One definite highlight of the Hong Kong show will be the world premiere of his original composition Surprising Haydn.

“Surprising Haydn is an homage to Haydn. Haydn wrote a very popular piece called Symphony No. 94, which is known as the ‘Surprise Symphony’. There’s a loud bang from the orchestra that interrupts the simple, easy-going flow of the second movement. He did this intentionally to ensure people don’t sleep and get a little bit of a shock,” Joo explains.

“Generally, orchestras and conductors don’t have enough fun with surprise. This piece is a way of having fun with an element of surprise.”

Joo performs with the Hong Kong Sinfonietta in 2016. Photo: Courtesy of the Hong Kong Sinfonietta

Another notable piece on the programme is Beethoven Seen through a Philip Glass Eye.

“Beethoven was Haydn’s student and was influenced by Haydn. There’s a lot of Beethoven’s music that is minimal and quite repetitive. I took a lot of these elements based on his Symphony No. 7 and made it [an expansive] collage. I asked myself, ‘If Beethoven was Philip Glass, what kind of piece would he write?”

Joo is looking forward to his Hong Kong trip, adding that the city is one of his favourite places to visit.

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“The [Hong Kong] audiences are fantastic. They are one of the best in the world. When you play, they listen attentively, but when you finish playing, they react as if they are a rock concert audience,” he says.

“For me, the best feeling when performing is to hear kids laughing. I’m hoping a lot of kids will come to the concert because I find young audiences some of the best audiences, because they can be totally quiet when you play a quiet piece and show excitement when you play an exciting piece.”

“Haydn Seek!” with the Hong Kong Sinfonietta will take place at Hong Kong City Hall’s Concert Hall on October 6-7.


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