3 Oct 2011
Inside the Classics

I don’t know about you guys, but I’m about ready for a break from the seemingly constant flow of terrible news. I’m not just talking about orchestra news, either. From the European debt crisis to the gridlock in Congress to the grotesque insanity that was the Twins’ 2011 season, it’s just all seeming a bit much at the moment. The fact that I’m currently working on a show about one of the darker periods of Shostakovich’s life isn’t helping, either.

It’s at times like this that I turn to Anna Russell. And you should, too.

I’m amazed by how few of today’s classical music fans seem to be even vaguely aware of Anna Russell. I’ve met an awful lot of people who have at least a passing acquaintance with PDQ Bach and who can practically recite their favorite Victor Borge routines by heart, but who have never had the pleasure of hearing the woman I consider to be the greatest musical comedian of all time.

Wildly creative, musically quite gifted (though she takes pains to not appear so,) and blessed with a sense of comic timing that I would kill for, Russell was the complete package, and the best part of her performances was that you could walk in knowing nothing about classical music and still laugh your head off. (By contrast, an evening with Peter Schickele is really only funny if you already know quite a bit about what he’s satirizing.)

I’ll admit, I’ve shamelessly cribbed from Russell’s style more than once during Inside the Classics concerts. My summation of the plot of Daphnis and Chloe last spring, for instance, was inspired in large part by her “analysis” of Wagner’s Ring cycle.

Click here if you can’t see the audio player.

I even threw in a “Remember Daphnis?!” at some point later in the show just to directly reference her bleat of “Remember Wotan?!” that sent the audience above into such peals of laughter. My version didn’t have exactly the same effect – like I said, I’d kill for that woman’s timing. But having the opportunity to stand on a stage a few times a year and try to get a live audience to laugh about classical music has only deepened my respect for what Anna Russell was able to do with seemingly no effort at all.

There are still a few good musical comedians out there today – Sarah’s a big Igudesman & Joo fan, and I’m partial to the Mnozil Brass. But there may never again be anyone who can make me laugh so hard just by describing the foibles and traditions that haunt my chosen profession…

<February 2020>

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