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INTERVIEWPianist Hyung-ki Joo credits immigrant parents for breaking musical boundaries

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Pianist Hyung-ki Joo / Courtesy of Julia Wesely

By Kwak Yeon-soo

HONG KONG ― Korean-British pianist Hyung-ki Joo ― also known as one half of the zany comedy musical duo Igudesman & Joo with Russian-German violinist Aleksey Igudesman ― credits his immigrant parents for his openness to all kinds of music.

"My parents loved music. My father had a small record collection of various music genres. It was a mixture of Beethoven's symphonies, Puccini's operas, Louis Armstrong, ABBA, jazz and Korean pop music. That cultivated my feeling that all music is the same," he said during a recent interview with The Korea Times.

"Another thing I disagree with in the classical music world is their superiority and looking down on other types of music, like rock or jazz music. This kind of discrimination always bothered me."

For Joo, the essence of the classical music genre lies in passionate performance and total commitment to the music but the whole ceremony around it doesn't have to be so serious.

"I never make fun of the music. I have fun with it," he said. "Music is about playfulness. When composers are writing music, they are essentially playing with notes."

Igudesman & Joo 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 U.S.

Although the duo is deemed a classical music anomaly, they received big support and encouragement from other classical music artists.

"In fact, we had big support from major artists and festivals. The main reason why we had this support is everyone understood we are very serious musicians and composers. They recognized that classical music needs to have some relaxation and more fun. Whenever I play pop music- or jazz-classical mashups, I would play non-classical music with the same intensity and dedication," he said.

Born and raised in England to Korean parents, Joo shared his thoughts on Korean culture gaining popularity worldwide.

"Korea is a country that is constantly pushing itself and being innovative. I was born in the early 1970s in a small town in England. Back then, nobody had heard of Korea. There were very few Asians around. Some knew about the 1950-1953 Korean War because of the comedy TV show ‘M*A*S*H,'" he said.

"Now, several decades later, everybody's eating kimchi. A lot of people watch Korean soap operas and listen to K-pop. It's insane. As a Korean growing up in England as a real minority and then suddenly white people speaking Korean better than me and knowing so much about Korea, I'm like ‘What the hell is going on?'"

Comedy musical duo Igudesman & Joo perform with the Hong Kong Sinfonietta at the 2016 concert "Upbeat!" Courtesy of the Hong Kong Sinfonietta

Joo praised Korea's music education system and urged other countries to learn from it.

"Korea has always had a strong discipline with music. I can tell from my parents' generation that they have singing classes in schools and everyone can play at least one instrument," he said.

"If music is part of your childhood, not only will you be more sociable and creative, but there's data that proves music enlarges your brain capacity. Governments around the world need to take music and culture more seriously if they want their next generation to be better humans."

The 50-year-old musician will perform works by Joseph Haydn, Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel with the Hong Kong Sinfonietta in Hong Kong, Oct. 6-7.

Describing Haydn as one of the most underrated geniuses in the classical world, Joo said he wanted 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.

"Haydn is one of the most important composers and the father of the symphony, but the reality is, he is not given the credit he deserves."

"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."

Titled "Haydn Seek!," the upcoming concert will include a blend of famous and not-so-famous pieces by Haydn as well as Debussy's "Hommage a Haydn" and Ravel's "Menuet sur le nom d'Haydn."

"Ravel and Debussy [were] big fans of Haydn. Ravel's piano concertos are classically modeled after Haydn, and Debussy wrote pieces dedicated to Haydn, so it felt appropriate to include these musicians as well," he said.

Joo expressed his wish to perform in Korea, a country in which he feels deeply rooted.

"I miss Korea. Obviously, being Korean, I have a very close connection. I love being there," the pianist-composer said.

Kwak Yeon-soo


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