“His parents must be so disappointed” I overheard a Korean woman say, of Joo Hyung-ki. “They wanted him to be a concert pianist, and he’s doing comedy instead.” It was the sort of thing that Maureen Lipman would say, in character as the proud Jewish mother.
Joo, one half of the hilarious musical duo Igudesman and Joo, was born of Korean immigrant parents in Norwich. And he was certainly groomed for a life on the concert platform, studying at the Yehudi Menuhin school from the age of 12, which is where he met violinist Aleksey Igudesman. But there are countless talented concert pianists out there, while the number of comedy musicians is much smaller.
If his parents were disappointed, they did not show it. They were there in the audience at the Cadogan Hall on 9 March, along with Joo’s former piano teacher Seta Tanyel and composition teacher Peter Norris. Former Python Terry Jones was also there, one of Igudesman & Joo’s “comedy gods”.
Joo certainly has retained the technique and musicianship of a concert pianist – the simple opening of Massenet’s Meditation from Thais which opened the gig showed that the duo would be perfectly comfortable performing a highly accomplished recital together. But that is not what everyone was there to hear.
Obviously Victor Borge is a figure which looms large in the history of musical comedy, and to a lesser extent Dudley Moore (Moore’s gag of the never-ending sequence of repeated cadences and codas made its appearance in this routine). Igudesman & Joo are worthy successors to both. But there was also visual comedy and the audience participation which you expect from Korean comedians – we were invited to sing a simple countermelody to go along with one of their songs. And Joo has mastered the exaggerated facial expressions which are familiar from non-verbal comedy, while Igudesman is equally happy clowning around or wearing silly costumes (the alien costume which was worn during the medley of sci-fi theme tunes was a nice touch).
But above all the comedy is musical. Their speciality is fitting together two separate pieces which share similar harmonic structures or motifs but have radically different styles. A James Bond medley mingled with Mozart lollipops worked well, as did West Side Story mixed with the Simpsons theme tune.
While Joo acknowledges his Korean origins on stage, he does not emphasise them, preferring instead to play the generic East Asian, for example in his karate-chop Fur Elise. (“A true Korean would never do that” I heard another (presumably Korean) member of the audience say).
But this type of gig is one in which there is so much fusion going on that truth to a particular preconception is just not relevant. This was entertainment of a high quality however you look at it, and the audience in this sell-out London debut concert was wildly enthusiastic. Even if you’ve seen this gig already, it’s one which bears repeated viewing.
Image credit Julia Wesely, source igudesmanandjoo.com