NEW YORK -- More than 30 million YouTube views have turned the musical lunacy of a Russian violinist and a Korean pianist into a global hit show, featuring a vacuum cleaner, boxer shorts, a coffee cream frother and Mozart.
With "A Little Nightmare Music," Aleksey Igudesman and Hyung-ki Joo are filling halls and stadiums with sidesplitting laughter that plays off both classical and pop culture.
After a hot run that's taken them through Europe and Turkey, they're taking the "nightmare" on a U.S. tour starting Tuesday at Carnegie Hall. Later this year, they'll also appear at the Hollywood Bowl and the Kennedy Center in Washington, plus in North Carolina, Virginia and Vermont.
The two are occasionally joined onstage by surprise guests – friends like John Malkovich and Roger Moore. For their Carnegie debut, they promise the special surprise of a Rock and Roll Hall of Famer.
Igudesman, 38, and Joo, 39, are both classically trained musicians with successful solo careers.
"BUT!..." exclaims Joo.
"BUT!..." adds his sidekick.
And there's the musical rub.
"We do a lot of crazy stuff in our strange, absurd concert where everything goes wrong – on purpose," says Igudesman in his effervescent voice.
For giggles, they use just about everything but the kitchen sink, quite literally.
Igudesman comes out in his baggy boxer shorts and wiggles his eyebrows before falling asleep – while the G string on his violin is loosened so its vibrations "snore." When he awakens, he tunes it up to sound like a motorcycle revving up. Bits of samurai movies sneak in, as do mashups of "The Simpsons" and "West Side Story."
In one skit, Joo vacuums the stage with a hose that suddenly sucks up Igudesman's bow while he plays. Or the pianist takes to sweeping with a broom under the performing violinist's feet, forcing Igudesman to keep jumping – into an Irish jig.
"We're passionate musicians, but we felt classical concerts were more like a funeral because nobody talked and everybody was dressed so conservatively," Igudesman said in a recent telephone interview from Izmir, Turkey. "We thought that's kind of strange, because music is full of life!"
So, "we thought we could break through that barrier with theater and comedy elements," says the violinist.
Some critics have called them the 21st century's Abbott and Costello, the Marx brothers, or P.D.Q. Bach. Others are reminded of Jack Benny's antics with violinist Jascha Heifetz, or Monty Python. Not since the late Victor Borge, who also entertained at Carnegie, has anyone publicly pulled off such shenanigans at the keyboard.
There is a serious goal to their "shtick" – to get kids started young on becoming fans of all kinds of music, as long as it's good.
"We wanted to make classical music more accessible to a younger audience, and say it can be fun," says Joo, known as the "Jooish" half of the dynamic duo (Igudesman is actually Jewish).
Their audiences are now a youngish crowd, including spectators who have never entered a concert hall before. Later this year, Igudesman and Joo plan to offer their whimsical inspiration in workshops at Yale University and the Kennedy Center.
The two first became friends as 12-year-olds at the Yehudi Menuhin School in England, named after the late violinist. At first, they hated each other. Then one day, Joo offered Igudesman some fish and chips, sealing a lifelong friendship.
It took a while before the duo developed their dream act, "with all those ideas that had been bubbling and brewing for so many years," says Joo.
First, he attended the Manhattan School of Music, and Igudesman studied in Vienna, Austria. But after the English-born Korean musician also moved to Vienna in 2004, they got serious about their musical funnies.
They're hardly departing from tradition. After all, notes Igudesman, Mozart was famous for being hilarious, even getting raunchy in piece titles that are "not child-friendly."
Their classical laughing gas will rise to the top of the music field when Igudesman and Joo appear in May at a Chicago Symphony Orchestra concert with the great pianist Emanuel Ax. Foreign dates this year also include Russia, Spain, Latvia, Canada and the Czech Republic – slapstick shows Joo calls "one giant mistake!"