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From Mozart to madness: five great videos of comedy crossover ‘classical’ music quartets

Salut Salon from Germany and the Vienna-based Janoska Ensemble are among several top international groups offering a lighter side to classical music in Hong Kong

PUBLISHED : Friday, 22 September, 2017, 9:47am
UPDATED : Sunday, 15 October, 2017, 11:54pm

As both the all-female Salut Salon from Germany and the all-male Vienna-based Janoska Ensemble make their debuts in Hong Kong next month, it’s a perfect time for looking at top classically trained music quartets where the music crosses over, does somersaults in the air and puts the “improv” into improvisation, the vaudeville into Vaughan Williams. Here are five of the best comedy quartets on the circuit right now – and, interestingly, each is either four women or four men. There are few mixed ensembles, apparently in the very specialised world of quartet comedy.

Salut Salon from Frankfurt

Two members of this all-women group from Germany went to school with each other, and at the age of about eight were already famous around their campus for collapsing into howls of laughter as they spoofed through music rehearsals with their classmates. They kept on goofing. By 2016, France’s Le Figaro newspaper praised them as “the most unusual and hilarious women’s quartet in the realm of classical music”. Their Competitive Foursome, in which they mash competitively through a medley, playing violins and cello and even the piano upside down has had more than 22 million views on YouTube, and counting.

In their two performances in Hong Kong’s Sha Tin Town Hall (October 21) and YuenLong Theatre (October 22) they will do a comic take on Camille Saint-Saens’ A Carnival of the Animals as well as Rimsky-Korsakov’s well known The Flight of the Bumblebee and Astor Piazzola’s less well known Shark. If you google “acrobatics and classical music” you mostly get links to Salut Salon; and the evening promised includes musical fantasies and comedy as well assome impressive virtuoso playing.

Vienna-based Janoska Ensemble

Also making their Hong Kong appearance this year are the three Janoska brothers, originally from Bratislava, Slovak Republic: Roman (who won the Pressler Paganini Prize for violin); Ondrej (former first violin in the Vienna State Opera Orchestra and Vienna Philharmonic); and Frantisek who was the pianist of the Roby Lakatos Ensemble and won the International Franz Liszt Piano Competition in Hungary, together with their brother-in-law Julius Darvas, who plays double bass with them, when he isn’t performing in the Vienna State Opera orchestra. In Paganinoska (based on Caprice No.24 and the finale of their Hong Kong appearance at Tsuen Wan Town Hall on October 28),

they imagine what kind of music the 19th-century sensation Nicolo Paganini would be inventing if he was living today. Something very fast, very Roma, and very amusing.

PaGAGnini from Madrid

A different but complementary take on both Paganini and competitiveness between players comes from the four men in PaGAGnini.

This video, which has had more than four million views, starts with Pachalbel’s Canon in D … and we watch how the violinists and viola player begin to clown around, enjoying playing their sweet melody while the increasingly grumpy cello player becomes visibly annoyed at playing the same 16 half notes. They can launch from Paganini into bluegrass and hillbilly.

MoZART Group from Poland

In March 2013, the judges at the Festival des Artes Burlesques in St Etienne in France had a dilemma. There were good performers in all categories at the festival but the three main prizes – the Grand Prix, the Audience Award and the Press Award – all went to the same group of four musicians: the four classically trained comic players at MozART group. They have been playing together for 22 years, and have made three tours to Hong Kong and mainland China.

This video shows them performing Beethoven’s Fur Elise followed by ragtime on the four stringed instruments. Which would perhaps not be unusual except that it’s all one-handed with no bows, just plucking.

Bond from Britain and Australia

This four-woman Australian-British group has been pushing boundaries in classical music (electric) crossover since 2000. Three of the musicians – violinists Tania Davis and Eos Chater and Gay-Yee Westerhoff (cello) are from the original lineup and Elspeth Hanson has been playing viola with them since 2007. They are as glamorous as models and are known to dance while playing (Westerhoff’s electric cello is specially made to be an ultralight dance partner). But they are also all graduates of London’s top music schools. Hanson played at the Beijing Olympics ceremony (with Leona Lewis and Jimmy Page) And Chater, from Wales, was chosen to be the music coach on Sherlock Holmes to make sure that when (violin beginner) Benedict Cumberbatch picked up the instrument for the BBC drama, he looked for all the world as if he was a pro.