On Stage: PaGAGnini Bring on the Slapstick
Spanish musical-comedy cast lampoons high-brow classical world
Niccolo Paganini died in 1840, but his spirit lives on in violinists who astound with their bravura and their ability to make us laugh, artists like the brilliant Aleksey Igudesman, or Gilles Apap with his Gypsy-cowboy shenanigans.
The newest addition to this rarefied specialization is the cast of the Spanish musical-theater company PaGAGnini, the self-described "crazy string quartet" who made their Berlin debut on June 12 at the cabaret-style Tipi am Kanzleramt. The “gag” inserted into the name Paganini says it all: the show was a concert of fiery showpieces injected with oodles of slapstick.
When first violinist Ara Malikian made his entrance from the back of the audience, he even kind of looked like Paganini—with long dark hair covering his face and bow hairs hanging loose as if they’d already succumbed to his impassioned lashings.
Malikian (a soloist at the Madrid Opera) then made his way to the stage to join violinists Eduardo Ortega and Fernando Clemente, and cellist Gartxot Ortiz (wearing a strap-on cello for ease of mobility). They began with their own arrangement of Sarasate’s Carmen Fantasy (appropriately enough for a group based in Madrid), in which Malikian sailed through the difficult double-stops and all the rest, and played the part of the egocentric soloist to great comic effect.
Falla’s Spanish Dance, which featured Ortiz busting out flamenco moves with castanets in both hands, brought the house down.
The high-energy skits were sustained by running gags, dancing, props, and sheer musical exuberance. Boccherini’s Minuet kept lapsing into a hoedown, with Ortega plucking his violin banjo-style and Clemente using the back of his violin like a snare drum. Pachelbel’s Canon morphed into a tango and then a klezmer tune. Mozart’s G major Concerto gave way to a cover of U2’s pop hit “With or Without You” on electric violin.
Entire solos were played on one knee, with the violin pointed skyward like an electric guitar, and with hyper-macho gestures borrowed from heavy metal, especially in Paganini’s Caprice No. 24 (the final piece on the program) and in their encore, Vivaldi’s "Summer."
For me, the highlight of the evening was when the cast performed their own composition, Rhapsodie No. 3, Op. 1: a hilarious parody of contemporary string-quartet music, for which the musicians invited two randomly chosen audience members to join them on stage. One volunteer was given a cowbell, while the other was given a squeaky toy, with which they added perfectly-timed percussive touches upon being cued by the quartet members.
Humor, virtuosity, choreography, theatricality, and even audience participation: these guys are born entertainers. They are funny and they can really play.
I can’t speak for Paganini, but my guess is he probably would have been proud.
Mai Kawabata is the author of Paganini, the "Demonic" Virtuoso, forthcoming from Boydell & Brewer