Do We Take Ourselves Too Seriously?

By: Edna Landau

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A few nights ago, I attended a musical evening of sorts—not at Carnegie Hall or Lincoln Center but at Carolines Comedy Club in New York City. Intrigued by the advertisements I heard on radio station WQXR for its Classical Comedy Contest, I bought two tickets, figuring that a lighthearted evening is always welcome. The sizable club was filled to the rafters and the sense of occasion was enhanced by my first glimpse of the judges who included Robert Klein, Deborah Voigt, Peter Schickele and Charles Hamlen. WQXR’s Elliott Forrest, whose idea this was, proved to be a captivating and amusing host and was proud to introduce two members of the late Victor Borge’s family who were in the audience. What followed was a smorgasbord of eight comic acts, all including live music, ranging from a recorder virtuoso playing on five instruments simultaneously to a duo of “cranial percussionists” and a singer, somewhat reminiscent of the great Anna Russell, attempting to sing O Mio Babbino Caro while her pianist kept modulating upwards at regular intervals. The audience loved every minute and the judges even got into the act with their witty reactions. The winner was Igor Lipinski, a gifted pianist who gave a sensitive performance of a Bach fugue while simultaneously reciting the order of a deck of cards which had been shuffled and was visible to the audience, but not to him. My own personal favorite was Gabor Vosteen, the recorder player. With instruments coming out of his mouth and nose simultaneously, he amazed us with perfectly balanced chords and even a section from Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, played both musically and flawlessly. I read on his website that he decided to embark on this type of antic when he wanted to form a recorder ensemble and no one wanted to play with him. He studied recorder at the Hochschule for Music and Theater in Hannover, Germany, but wanted to go beyond playing to making an audience laugh. He attended circus school in Budapest and has training as a mime. As someone who regularly talks to students about finding their own unique path, I was delighted to encounter Mr. Vosteen who was one of eight finalists in this competition that attracted eighty applicants.

This delightful evening got me thinking that fun and joy are words not often associated with musical performances. That is truly a shame. At a recent concert on Halloween at Carnegie’s Zankel Hall, Brooklyn Rider topped off a substantial and thought-provoking program with an encore, their free-fantasy adaptation of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” dressed in suitable costumes. It was a pleasure seeing artists taking a risk in a serious concert venue and allowing themselves to let their hair down, to the genuine delight of their audience and seemingly, even the New York Times critic. I am not suggesting that artists should engage in comedy routines as part of serious recitals but there are often moments when a witty comment from the stage or an imaginative encore can go a long way to charming an audience and breaking down the barriers that too often exist between performer and listener.  One memorable moment for me was when I first heard Itzhak Perlman introduce a short work by Ferdinand Ries as one of his favorite “Reese’s Pieces.” As much admired for his superb artistry as for his humanity and joyful music making, this universally beloved artist should serve as a reminder that we must be personally engaged with our audiences and not take ourselves quite so seriously.

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© Edna Landau 2011

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