Top Five Classical Jokers
Wednesday, March 30, 2011
We’ve made it through the Ides of March in one piece, but now comes the true test: April Fools' Day. In honor of this annual excuse for (or celebration of) practical jokes, we’re looking at the best musical wisecrackers out there. Here are our top 5 classical comedians:
1. Bugs Bunny makes the top of our list for his virtuoso turns as Figaro and Brünnhilde. Though some credit should go to his dueling duet partner, Elmer Fudd. “Kill the Wabbit” is still an alternate title for Wagner’s famous Ride of the Valkyries in some circles. Not willing to limit himself just to song, Bugs has also conducted orchestras. Watching closely, you can see the Warner Brothers animators are not merely making fun of the music; they’re making fun with it.
2. Another Wagnerian jokester, Anna Russell, famously condensed the 19-hour Ring Cycle into 10 minutes. Every time her retelling became particularly outrageous, she’d bring down the house with her trademark, “I’m not making this up, you know.” Though she trained as a serious vocalist, she never pursued a career on the classical stage, preferring comedy. Her obituary in The New York Times explained how she found her comedic calling. She claimed she caught a hockey stick to the face that broke 16 bones: “That ruined my acoustic.”
3. Victor Borge, the son of two musicians, was anointed a piano prodigy in his native Denmark at the age of eight. Little did he know that decades later he would be sounding chords with his backside for laughs. By his 20s he was spending more time in Copenhagen’s Gypsy Hall than its concert hall. Borge’s “Comedy in Music” act triumphed on Broadway and around the world. Eventually, millions more knew him for appearances on the Ed Sullivan Show.
4. The newest edition to this pantheon of classical comedians is a duo: Aleskey Igudesman, a classically trained violinist, and Hyung-ki Joo, a Manhattan School of Music alumna pianist. The two, who have been friends since they attended Yehudi Menuhin’s academy in England together, launched their “Little Nightmare Music” act in 2004. Since then they’ve played musical chairs with Emmanuel Ax, staged high jinks with Menuhin and received live coaching from John Malkovich. The pair makes their New York debut with “A Little Nightmare Music” on Wednesday at the 92nd Street Y.
5. Before Joo and Igudesman started their act, PDQ Bach (aka Peter Schickele) came out with his 1983 album, A Little Nightmare Music. Supposedly the distant progeny of Johann Sebastian, PDQ surfaced in 1960 with a concert at Juilliard. He’s been performing his wacky lyrics and classical parodies ever since. Oedipus Tex, the 1712 Overture and P.D.Q. Bach Strikes Back have all come to Carnegie Hall. Last year, Schickele celebrated the 50th anniversary of the character and he doesn’t seem to be ready to retire yet. He performed this week, as himself, at Symphony Space and Steinway Hall.
Weigh in: Who is your favorite musical comedian? Leave a comment below: