The Music Critic at the Symphony

How Aleksey Igudesman and John Malkovich show that humor belongs to classical music

Photo: Philarmonie Luxembourg/Alfonso Salgueiro

Laughter is the remedy that restores life to its original value” (A. Igudesman).

Difficult, incomprehensible, sophisticated, boring…do these adjectives represent the real essence of classical music? Is this only a stereotype? Are we really biased when we think about classical music?

It was 1986 and, back in those days, an artist published an album questioning the essence of music, not even focusing on a specific genre. That artist was Frank Zappa and the title of his album was emblematic: Does Humor Belong to Music?

In September 2021, I published an article where I questioned the relationship between classical and rock music (>  and Frank Zappa was part of my dissertation as was Elio – from the band “Elio e le Storie Tese” – an Italian songwriter, flutist and comedian who had previously expressed his view on classical music (and on music, in general) saying: “We should rather talk about ‘interesting’ music.”

But let’s go back to the connection between “humor” and “classical” music.

Aleksey Igudesman is a violinist, but has also established himself as a composer, conductor, actor, filmmaker, and entrepreneur. He refuses to be categorised, promoting creativity and freedom of thought all around the globe.

In 2010 he started The Music Critic project whose intent was to create a sardonic mix of the most destructive music critiques of the last centuries written about some of the greatest works of music.

“The Music Critic” pairs great classical music with eye-wateringly snarky reviews from the time the music was written — rendered in John Malkovich’s singular voice. (“Even Beethoven got bad reviews. John Malkovich reads them aloud as ‘The Music Critic,’ A. Tsioulcas – NPR All Things Considered – Oct. 17th, 2023).

Some might be quite surprised in knowing that even Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin or Prokoviev were subject to some of the most evil critics.

And it is already funny enough to know that most of the people who are (or pretend to be) classical music experts do not even consider the possibility that such artists or such music production could be touched by critics.

Aleksey Igudesman plays the role of creator, director, music director, violinist in this show but he had to find a “partner in crime”, someone who could fit the role of the narrator, or better, of the “evil critic”.

And who better than an actor who has starred in more than 70 films and who has even played the satirical role of himself in one of them? John Malkovich is simply perfect. He has the experience, the attitude, and the knowledge to play this role.

And so, the journey begins with cutting into pieces Antonín Dvořák’s Danse slave op. 46/8, Ludwig van Beethoven’s Allegro con brio (Symphonie N° 5), Maurice Ravel’s Boléro andRobert Schumann’s Dichterliebe op. 48 (extrait).

Igudesman is so ironic that he has decided to add a couple of his music compositions. The first is Tango Gitano while the second – The Malkovich Torment – represents the “excuse” to criticize the “evil critic” and for John Malkovich to criticize himself.

What are the key takeaways from this show? Does it give an answer to the eternal dilemma “is there humor in classical music”?

I would like to leave the answer to the Italian artist Elio as I did in my previous article because I think that he really has a point on this: “For me” – the singer explains – “music genres do not exist. And the mistake lies precisely in talking about classical music. Those who composed it did not think they were making ‘classical’, but only to interest the audience. This means we should rather talk about ‘interesting’ music. I find Mozart and Rossini, among my favorites, to be funny, to make people laugh, to tell intricate stories. Of course, they use a language from two centuries ago and you need someone, me, to be the factotum. Am I the Factotum? I do something, but not everything.”

Aleksey Igudesman, with the help of John Malkovich, does exactly this. He is giving the audience the opportunity to look at “classical” music from a different, and possibly more interesting perspective making (im)possible to criticize The Music Critic.

Photo: Philarmonie Luxembourg/Alfonso Salgueiro

John Malkovich in «The Music Critic at the Symphony»

Luxembourg Philharmonic
Aleksey Igudesman direction, violon
John Malkovich narration

Antonín Dvořák: Danse slave op. 46/8 (arr. Aleksey Igudesman)
Ludwig van Beethoven: Allegro con brio (Symphonie N° 5) (arr. Aleksey Igudesman)
Claude Debussy: Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune (arr. Aleksey Igudesman)
Johannes Brahms: Ungarischer Tanz WoO 1/1 (arr. Aleksey Igudesman)
Giya Kancheli: Broken Chant (arr. Aleksey Igudesman)
Aleksey Igudesman: Tango Gitano
Sergueï Rachmaninov: Grave – Allegro ma non troppo (Symphonie N° 1) (arr. Aleksey Igudesman)
Maurice Ravel: Boléro (extrait) (arr. Aleksey Igudesman).
Robert Schumann: Dichterliebe op. 48 (extrait) (arr. Aleksey Igudesman)
Aleksey Igudesman: The Malkovich Torment

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