Snickering in the strings section

After the recent deaths of the comic masters Victor Borge and Dudley Moore, some of the laughter seemed to have gone out of classical music.

Fortunately, younger performers are coming forward to puncture the pretensions of highbrow music. That's all to the delight of a listening public which, given the constant grave news about the classical music industry, is more than ever in need of a laugh.

Cantabile, a British quartet that kicked off its North American tour at New York's Makor Theater on Jan. 12, delights audiences with a savvy mix of skilled effects, such as mimicking an entire symphony orchestra using only their four voices or singing "Strangers in the Night" as if it were playing on a scratchy 78 record.

Interestingly, the question of whether something is funny isn't central to the group's choices, according to a Cantabile cofounder. "We approach music from the point of view that there are only two types - good and bad," says countertenor Richard Bryan.

Mr. Bryan explains that when singing pieces written as instrumentals, like the "Blue Danube Waltz" or the overture to Rossini's "Barber of Seville," the key is to express "a great deal of joy (certainly for us when we perform them!) and we hope this is communicated to the audience."

The veteran American composer and gagmeister Peter Schickele, alias PDQ Bach, agrees that the attraction of this type of vocal performance is that "it's such a virtuoso feat - most composers write more actively for instruments than voices, so to hear people do these very fast-moving violin lines is remarkable. Listening to Spike Jones as a kid, I learned that the better performed it is, the funnier it is ... it's the thrill of virtuosity."

The Classic Buskers, another British import, features Michael Copley on recorder and dozens of other wind instruments, and accordionist Ian Moore. Copley and Moore perform Beethoven symphonies "condensed" to a couple of minutes' length, gliding through with wild virtuoso abandon. Copley is a highly skilled recorder player, and has recorded "serious" works like Vivaldi concertos, conducted by the early-music maestro Christopher Hogwood.

It was Mr. Hogwood who suggested a few years ago that Copley branch out to establish another comedy in music ensemble, The Chuckerbutty Ocarina Quartet, which has proven almost as popular as The Classic Buskers. Copley explains that in both comic and serious playing, "certain universal standards apply such as intonation, ensemble, and interpretation.... Once I recorded the same piece by Vivaldi with both accordion and orchestral accompaniment, and in both versions the technical challenge was, of course, the same."

These groups seem immune to the general trend of the general public knowing less and less about classical music. "The audiences seem to be just as musically literate as they always used to be," says Copley. There is still a very high level of musical knowledge almost wherever we play, although we always pitch the music on two levels - for those who understand that Beethoven's 9th Symphony was not written for recorder and accordion and for those who think he did a very good job writing such a nice piece especially for us."

Mr. Schickele points out that verbal humor dates more than musical jokes: "If there are lyrics or verbal jokes and those grow out of fashion, then people won't laugh - I did the "Concerto for Horn and Hardart" [a now-extinct chain of coffee shops] 45 years ago. Now it's an obsolete reference"

Nonverbal comedy also means that the newer groups can entertain internationally, unlike Shickele, whose mock-somber lectures are part of his act. "We are usually performing to a musical audience and so it doesn't really matter where we are," observes Copley.

Which only goes to show that if a musician plays classical hits - as Copley does - on a "whistle stuck up a rubber chicken," the world will beat a path to his door.

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