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Lesley Cissell: Birthday sparks reflectionson changes to music industry I approve


Igudesman and Joo perform their dancing string players with members of the Kentucky Symphony Orchestra. (Photo by James L. Fausz)

 
Earlier this month I turned 54. The realization that I have reached the age my parents once were hasn’t escaped notice. Neither has the awareness that many things are very different now than 30 years ago. The question is: are they better, worse or just different?
 
I’ll confess that not all of the changes suit my sensibilities. I still miss the time when a glimpse of a person’s posterior crease was so unusual and surprising that it would have kept our sixth-grade tongues telling and retelling it all day. Tattoos on anyone not once in the Navy still puzzle me, despite the fact that some of my closest friends sport more than one. There are so many more accepted acronyms, euphemisms and options for lifestyle choices today that I wonder what real rebellion would look like.
 
There is one change that I wholeheartedly applaud, however – namely, the difference technology has made for musicians.
 
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The Internet, YouTube, Pandora, Facebook and other mass media tools have become the David to the record labels’ Goliath. Musicians can now make a living and create a fan base from their own talent and hard work. It is once again about the music, the artist and the audience … not just the record execs, the house take or the watered-down royalties. Three recent performances come to mind.
 
The first time this really hit home for me was in April when I played backup in the Kentucky Symphony Orchestra’s premiere of “A Little Nightmare Music.” We played a unique Kentucky version of the show by international artists Hyung-ki Joo and Aleksey Igudesman.
 
These two classical musicians are geniuses artistically, technically and creatively; but, in my day (I can’t believe I just wrote that!), they would have had to go the prescribed route of child prodigy to top music conservatory to agent to bookings with major symphonies or child practicing fool to top music conservatory to audition after audition to leading symphony orchestra. Instead, these guys shortened the trip – they went from child musician to top conservatory to YouTube!
 

Hyung-ki Joo, on piano, and Aleksey Igudesman, on violin, perform with the Kentucky Symphony Orchestra. (Photo by James L. Fausz)

Having met at the age of 12 at the Yehudi Menuhin School in England, they remained strong friends but became creative writing partners. They wrote their first groundbreaking show of hilarious theatre and classical music, the one we performed in April, as a nod to great classical music comedians like Victor Borge and Dudley Moore. If they had stopped there, as in my generation, we would have never heard of them halfway across the world in Kentucky. It was the miracle of YouTube that brought them two years ago to our attention.
 
Since YouTube they’ve been on the world’s classical music radar. They’ve worked with everyone from Emanuel Ax to Joshua Bell, Academy Award-winning film composer Hans Zimmer to multi-Grammy Award-winning vocalist Bobby McFerrin. Billy Joel even chose Joo, the pianist of the pair, to arrange and record Joel’s classical compositions on a CD, which reached the top of the Billboard Charts. They conceived and produced the world record for the most “Dancing Violinists” – 100 from all over the world dancing at the Vienna Konzerthaus New Year’s Eve in 2011 – as a way to aid UNICEF.
 
When KSO artistic director and conductor James Cassidy first found the violin-piano duo, he didn’t know any of this. He, and the more than 30 million other YouTube viewers, just thought they were hysterical. I once played in the orchestra for comedian great Bob Hope when he performed in Memorial Coliseum at the University of Kentucky, but he was boring compared to Igudesman and Joo playing Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” or their bit about “Rachmaninoff Had Big Hands!” Do yourself a favor and check out these YouTube classics. To visit their website, click here.
 

Stjepan Hauser (left) and Luka Sulic are 2Cellos. (Photo from 2cellos.com)

The second event that comes to mind happened here in Lexington at WoodSong’s Old-Time Radio Hour taping of show No. 710. On this April evening, I heard Luka Sulic and Stjepan Hauser perform. Better known as 2Cellos, this young pair of classically trained cellists grew up in Croatia (a place many Kentuckians can’t find on the map) competing with one another for top international performance prizes. They graduated just two years ago from two prestigious English conservatories – Sulic from London’s Royal Academy of Music and Hauser from Manchester’s Royal Northern College of Music.
 
Just two years ago, no one but their teachers and parents had ever heard of them. Did they despair and start shopping for agents? No. They decided to team up, to arrange a few rock ‘n roll standards for two cellos, to tape themselves performing Michael Jackson’s “Smooth Criminal” at home and to put that video on YouTube. Within one week (yes, one week), they had gone viral, signed with Sony Masterworks and accepted an invitation to tour with Elton John!
 
Eighteen months into their world tour with Elton John, they took a few days off and performed at WoodSong’s in Lexington’s Lyric Theatre. I got lucky and got a ticket. That made more of my friends and family jealous than almost any other good-luck moment I’ve ever had.
 
To hear the WoodSong’s archived taping of 2Cellos, click here. To visit their website, click here.
 

Chris Burgess, on drums; Rebecca Reed-Lunn, on banjo; and Jordana Greenberg, on violin, perform at Natasha's Bistro and Bar. Not pictured is Maria Di Meglio. (Photo by Lesley Cissell)

The third performance happened just this week at Natasha’s Bistro and Bar, again in Lexington. Tuesday evening I went to hear a young group of classically trained musicians (are you sensing a pattern here?) who have formed the group Harpeth Rising. This odd, but very talented quartet includes a violin, a cello, a banjo and drums. From places as diverse as Canada, California, New York and Kentucky, they met and majored in classical performance at Indiana University in Bloomington. Eschewing the traditional agent-audition route, they formed a band and took to the stage and, of course, to YouTube.
 
They have carved a unique niche for themselves described by them as “a little bit of bluegrass, a little bit folk, a little bit classical and a whole lot of original.”
 
Jordana Greenberg, the violinist and lead singer (an unusual feat in and of itself), did the normal soloing with symphony orchestras including the IU Symphony Orchestra at the age of 17. She’d grown up, however, with a composer-musician father surrounded by Bluegrass on a rural Indiana farm and wanted a way to combine these two halves of her musical self.
 
Maria Di Meglio, the cellist, has always performed a wide range of musical styles and on a range of stages as diverse as Natasha’s and Carnegie Hall. Rebecca Reed-Lunn loved both Gustav Mahler and Bob Dylan, and taught herself to play the banjo, in addition to her classical viola, by watching Pete Seeger videos nowhere else but on YouTube. Chris Burgess, the percussionist, developed his love of and interest in ethnic music and percussion instruments from around the world while studying at IU. Much of the time, he performs on an Arab tubleh.
 
The quartet is currently working on their fourth album. Like their previous three, most of their work is original. When they do play covers, like “House of the Rising Sun,” the performance is so original that they have to tell you to listen carefully for clues to the tune. To visit their website, click here and they, like the others, have videos on YouTube and pages on Facebook.
 
The only thing normal about Harpeth Rising was the size of the audience at Tuesday’s performance. There were barely a dozen people who were either fans or curious like me. They made me a fan, though, and part of my next windfall will go towards purchase of their CDs. All they need is to go viral with one of their YouTube videos and Natasha’s won’t be big enough to hold them. By the way, they’ll be in Louisville next week.
 
It’s true that even with the miracles of technology, some of the old ways still ring true. Talent and creativity have to be there for even the Internet to help make a career. In the music world, there’s still no such thing as a Kardashian – a musician famous for being famous but with no perceivable talent. In fact, the opposite is often true. Great musicians, like Igudesman and Joo’s mentor Dudley Moore, are often known for something else entirely like acting or entrepreneurship. Their great musical talent is a gem to be discovered later. I believe when I turn 64 that will still be true.
 

Lesley Cissell is the associate news editor for KyForward.com.


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