Rainer Hersch: “The World’s First Classical Hooligan”

GUEST POST by Jeff Ring. Jeff is the editor of Opus Magazine, a publication of the League of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association.

Rainer Hersch/Photo by Jack Liebeck

In 1996, an audacious young man (Note: well I think 34 is young) appeared on the stage of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival prepared to deliver his show “All Classical Music Explained (ACME)”. The audience anxiously awaited the opportunity to learn all there was to know including “why is organ music so boring?”, “what does a conductor actually do?” and “how to clap in the wrong place and mean it”. To the latter, Mr. Rainer Hersch opined, “A classical concert is like sex; you don’t know how long it will last, you don’t know what you should be thinking about and it can be embarrassing if you start clapping in the wrong place.” Playing the piano, Mr. Hersch continued to hilariously elaborate on such diverse topics as “comic opera deaths”, “Every Good Boy Does Fine”, and the difficulties with playing a triangle. The audience must have loved it as the show led to thirteen subsequent appearances at the festival and also over 300 performances on four continents firmly establishing Rainer Hersch as an original comic voice in the realm of classical music.

Hersch continues to tour the world presenting not only his one-man shows including “All Classical Music Explained”, “Rainer Hersch’s Victor Borge”, “Music dot Comedy” and “Instruments of Mass Destruction”, but also conducting and performing with major orchestras including The Philharmonia Orchestra, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, the Queensland Symphony Orchestra, the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra and the Saint Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra. His comedy concerts have also attracted the participation of notable soloists including Alfred Brendel, Nicola Benedetti, Marc-Andre Hamelin and Dame Evelyn Glennie.

Among his many other commitments, Hersch is the Artistic Director of the April Fools Day Concert that has been presented at the Royal Festival Hall since 2009, and is also conductor and host of the annual Johann Strauss Gala, which has extensively toured the United Kingdom. He has also produced and appeared on many BBC radio and television programs. His documentary series about comedy and classical music “All The Right Notes, Not Necessarily In The Right Order” (BBC Radio 4) plotted the lives of musical comedians of the past. It was also the seed for his first one-man play “Borge Again!” which he presented with sell-out success at the 2004 Edinburgh Festival. On TV, Rainer has made guest appearances on many programs including How Do They Do That? (ITV 1), The World Stands Up (Paramount Comedy Channel), and The Big Stage (Channel 5).

I recently discovered the hilarious work of Rainer Hersch. As a volunteer for the League of American Orchestras Conference I was thrilled to find out that Rainer would be attending the conference and hoped to be able to have an opportunity to meet him. I was fortunately able to do so in the Exhibit Hall shortly before the closing presentation of the conference. To my joy Rainer allowed me to interview him from his home in London. The following is a wonderful exploration of how he became interested in comedy and classical music and what he has discovered from his many creative endeavors.


Jeff: At Lancaster University, you were originally studying economics, so I was wondering what caused you to decide to pursue comedy as an alternative career?

Rainer: I was a classical music fanatic at school between the ages of 11 and 18.

I organized people to come into our school and give piano recitals, and somebody said, “You should do this when you finish school. You should do a degree that has something to do with management.” So I did economics, because I had studied economics at A Level (Ed. Note: “A Level” is part of the exams you take before you go to university). But I always knew I didn’t want to pursue economics. Economics is basically a bunch of theories about how to run economies, and not about how to run arts organizations.

At university I joined the Review Group, which was a theater group for people who wanted to do comedy. I wrote sketches and I performed with them for the first time. I found that I was good on a stage, and that maybe I had some kind of stage presence.

When I left university, I started working in arts organizations. I found odd jobs in festivals, and orchestras, and agencies. I worked at Edinburgh Festival, which is a big summer festival in Scotland. At the Edinburgh Festival, there’s a Fringe Festival, which is essentially an alternative version of the main festival. The Edinburgh Fringe Festival was set up as a completely autonomous organization where if you had enough money you could take a venue and put on a show. There I saw, for my first time, professional comedy people actually doing comedy on a stage. I was kind of blown away by it, actually.

When I went back to London, I carried on doing my music jobs. My last job was Touring Manager of the London Festival Orchestra. While I was doing that, I started performing with a friend from university in a double act on the London comedy circuit. There are about 100 stand-up comedy clubs in London, little places upstairs in pubs and stuff. You could go and do, and earn money. And so it became a second kind of job.

Jeff: I understand that you studied piano as a private pupil of Norma Fisher. (Ed. Note: one of Britain’s leading pianists and Professor of Piano at the Royal College of Music). Do you play other instruments?

Rainer: I play the viola. Before I played the piano, my father absolutely loved the clarinet. He gave me a clarinet for something like my 11th birthday. I think I got to grade 5, but I hated playing the clarinet, because it’s just blowing, and inconvenient. When I discovered the piano when I was about 14, I loved how brilliantly convenient it was – you sat down and all the notes were there. So I did play the clarinet, and then I went on to the piano, and just in the last three years I started playing the viola for various professional reasons, to find out what it’s like to play a string instrument.


Jeff: In 1996, you created your stand-up show “All Classical Music Explained” and premiered it at the festival. I guess that was your third performance with the Edinburgh Festival, at that point?

Rainer: I had turned 30, and gave up my Touring Manager job in 1992. Then I did a few solo stand-up shows. I did a tour of a show in Canada called, “Was God British?” And then I did another show about British things, and called it “Mass Bands of the Grenadier Guards and R.A.F. Flypast – Plus Support”. I just wanted to make it the most ridiculous, out-blown sort of title.

rainer-acmeThen I thought in 1996, why don’t I write a show about something I actually know and love? So I wrote a show about classical music, and that was “All Classical Music Explained”. In 1996, I went to South Africa to a fringe festival in Grahamstown. And then I went to Canada to do the Winnipeg Festival. Then I went back to Edinburgh to do three weeks in Edinburgh, and then I went back to Canada and did the Victoria and Vancouver Festivals.

Those were great days. I got on planes, and I went and did festivals. Most of them were kind of my promotions, they didn’t invite me. I basically promoted myself. But if you did a good show, and people came, you got the earnings from it. I did that for from about 1994 to about 2007.

Rainer: In “All Classical Music Explained”, I used musical examples, some of which I played on the piano. I don’t know if I gave you this example when we spoke in Chicago. At the end of the Hallelujah Chorus there are four Hallelujahs, did I tell you about that?

Jeff: No, I don’t think so.

Rainer: There are four Hallelujahs at the end of the Hallelujah Chorus, and I wonder if I can play this piece. It’s somewhere lurking in my computer. (brief pause) Oh, here we go. There are four Hallelujahs followed by one bar of rest, followed by one big Hallelujah at the end. So, in the heat of the moment, when people are performing the Hallelujah Chorus, somebody always miscounts and sings one too many Hallelujahs, so instead of the perfect performance they’re aiming at, they always end up with this.
(Hallelujah Chorus playing)
Did you hear that?

Jeff: Yes, I did. I heard the extra one.

Rainer: It was in the days when sound editing programs were just coming out, around 1996. These days, it’s a thing you can go on your mobile phone. I found that I could import a commercial recording and add the extra Hallelujah, and then present it to the audience as an original recording, with that last 10 seconds, or 15 seconds. And I started to wonder if rather than messing around on computers to create them, maybe I could get musicians to play it.

Jeff: Do you update “All Classical Music Explained” with new material, or do you think you’ve already covered the spectrum of all classical music?

Rainer: When I first started doing it, it was kind of a stand-up’s approach to classical music. I clearly knew what I was talking about, and I did play the piano a little bit in that show, but really, it was a kind of sarcastic take on classical music aimed at people who didn’t know anything about classical music, or who hadn’t studied it since school. I added to that show whenever I thought of something new.

I’ve got two performances of that show in the autumn, in fact. I have still got the script. I think your comedy kind of moves on, gets more sophisticated, especially my approach to classical music. So I’m wondering whether I will look at this material and think, this is just not sophisticated enough anymore. Sophisticated makes it sound like it’s almost like a value thing, I don’t think of it like that, I just think of it as. Will I just think it’s not very good anymore?

Jeff: What do you mean?

Rainer: Well, I mean, that I could write better jokes, I think. But now I’ve been doing it for 20 years, I’ve been through so many phases. I’ve played the piano a lot more. I’ve conducted orchestras. I’ve arranged music. I find that I’ve got a very strong musical opinion as a musician, as well as a comedian. When you conduct, you have to have a strong lead. Not to say I’m a fascist on the podium, you have to lead and that means having an opinion. So, 20 years later, my view about what I should say about music has changed as well.


rainer-orkestraJeff: How did you go about creating your Orkestra?

Rainer: So, in 1999, a friend of mine asked me to do a set as part of their New Year’s Day concert. I said, “Yeah, I’ll do it, but only if you’ll let me conduct the orchestra for a piece in the second half.” And he said, “Yeah.” I arranged “The William Tell Overture”. I only started working on it on the 26th of December – this gig was on the 1st of January. I really worked hard to input all the stuff into a very simple music notation program called Cakewalk. I basically added funny things to just the gallop part, just from the “ba, ba da ba, ba da bop bop bop”,

And then I went to this performance in 1999, and the guy said, “Okay, well you’ve got to rehearse the orchestra for this ‘William Tell’ thing.” And I had no idea how I was going to conduct the orchestra. There was another guy conducting the rest of the concert. It was a Johann Strauss concert. In the break of the rehearsal, I asked him, “How am I gonna do this?” And he gave me kind of like a two minute conducting lesson and I went and did it. I was hopeless really. I remember that as one of the scariest things I’ve ever done. But I went and did it, and it worked. And then I did it again the next day, and it worked again. I then thought that maybe I can do this with a little band; that I could start arranging things.

So I formed a little group. I thought I needed a string quartet, because you had to do the strings, I thought I needed the woodwinds which became a clarinet. I also needed the brass, so because the most flexible brass instrument is the French horn, I added a French horn. So I basically rearranged “The William Tell Overture” for string quartet, clarinet, horn and percussion.

I got a friend who used to play professional clarinet, to play clarinet. The horn player was a Spanish guy who I’m still in touch with. I sent him the parts, and he couldn’t believe what he was being asked to do, as I basically piled the whole brass section part onto him. I then took the show to Edinburgh in the summer of 1999, and lost 8,000 pounds because I was taking a whole band of players there. And that was the beginning of the band.

Then I did a festival in Adelaide, and players from the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra came to that and said, “Oh, why don’t you come and do it with us?” I was doing a stand-up show, by the way. “Have you got an orchestra show?” I said, “Yeah, I have actually, I’ve got this mini orchestra show, and I could scale it all back up.” They said come and do that. That was how it moved from the solo show, through the Orkestra, to basically the full orchestra.

Jeff: Do have a preference for doing your one-man shows, or performing with an orchestra?

Rainer: These days, I really often perform with the orchestra. I can’t remember the last time I did a solo show actually. I do a lot of hosting – that’s really stand-up oriented.

When I’m doing things with the orchestra, it really puts me on the edge of what I’m able to do. There’s a script, but nevertheless it’s like any stand-up as there’s an improvised part to it. I have to conduct the orchestra, which uses my conducting skills. I have to be musical with the orchestra to rehearse with them. I’m also exercising my abilities as an arranger, and musician.

When I did the solo shows, you’re on all the time, completely exposed. Whereas with the orchestra show, I don’t feel quite as exposed, because the orchestra’s playing two thirds of the time.


Jeff: I understand that you’re the artistic director for the April Fools Day Concerts at the Royal Festival Hall. Are you still doing that?

Rainer: We haven’t done one for a while, but they’re big undertakings. The first show we did included Nicola Benedetti, Alfred Brendel, Evelyn Glennie, Paul Lewis, Lori Lixenberg and The Philharmonie Orchestra. The second one was Ukulele Orchestra – Mark Andre Hamelin did it once. It’s such a big undertaking that sometimes I would get to a point where I personally wasn’t enjoying it that much. My wife famously said to me, (my wife just peeked through a door in the room next door), in the intermission, “You’re the only one who isn’t enjoying this.” And it’s a bit telling. So I think, yeah, they were great things, and we’ll probably do more, but I think it’s currently taking a breath.

Jeff: It sounds like it’s a very, very large undertaking. Do you determine who the artists are going to be?

Rainer: Yeah, it’s all me. It’s basically all me.

Jeff: Do you mind … Hold on just one second, our dog is barking, I’m just going to close my door.

Rainer: Oh yes.

Jeff: One second please. (brief pause) Little dog, big bark.

Rainer: Yeah, we had a dog that passed away 18 months ago.

Jeff: I’m sorry.

Rainer: I cried for about six months, in public, so I know about dogs.

rainer-borgeJeff: Who do you consider to be your biggest influences? I know that you have a tribute show for Victor Borge.

Rainer: Yeah. The thing is, the musical comedians that you kind of assume that I was influenced by, I wasn’t really. I just did this because it was the combination of my own interests, really. And subsequently, I got all these references to Victor Borge, and of course, I found out about him, and wrote that show. I made a program for the BBC about him, as I’ve done programs about a lot of musical comedians. P.D.Q. Bach, Anna Russell, the Comedian Harmonists, and Spike Jones.

I think my comedy’s very British. I’ve had reviews in North America, in Canada, say he’s Monty Python and Benny Hill, which if you know anything about comedy, is like saying he’s like chalk and cheese. They just relate it to the fact that I’ve got a British accent and these people have British accents too, so I must be like them.

A friend of mine, once said, “In reciting these kind of [Monty Python] sketches to one another and all that, like we did in the school yard, we were actually learning by rote, the rules of comedy.” We were learning what a punchline was. And structures of sketches and so on, and how to make comedy, an idea work, basically. I think that’s probably true. I mean, it’s a school of comedy you learn like in old school traditions by repetition. That’s kind of what we did without realizing it.

Jeff: I’m a huge Monty Python fan also. I was actually just listening to “Matching Tie and Handkerchief” yesterday. I think I own every single film and the DVDs of all the shows also.


Photo by And Roshay

Jeff: As you’ve performed in many, many countries, do you find that orchestras in audiences have different sensibilities and approaches with regards to comedy?

Rainer: I’m actually writing a show for Germany that I’m going to do in September. I’m gonna have to be slightly careful in Germany as there are some things they don’t like, for example, dark humor. It somehow seems to pass them by really. When I think about Monty Python, there was one sketch about the guy who’s come in for a funeral for his mother, and he asks the guy behind the counter what are the options; we can dump her, burn her, or bury her. I think dark humor is quite funny.

The UK has an island mentality in my experience. Other countries that have got an island mentality include Denmark because they’ve got a small culture which they kind of feel they have to defend. South Africa, as well…they’re tuned into that British thing. In America, their general knowledge is not so broad, and so one has to be careful not to get too specific in America, in my experience of playing there.

So, yeah, there are variants, but they’re not so huge, you know, don’t ever do this kind of joke, or don’t ever do that kind of joke. You just have to tweak it a little bit.

Jeff: Do you find differences in their orchestras that you’re working with also? You were talking about the audiences.

Rainer: Yeah. I’m very different for every orchestra that I conduct. On the whole, they really like what I do with them, because it’s very different, and they’re expressing themselves in a way that they don’t normally do, and it’s very musical. It’s all in the “dots” [musical notes on a score] – they don’t have to really do much, apart from do what they do anyway, but the “dots” have been made funny, and so they’re playing jokes, really, which they can hear the audience laughing at, and applauding and so on, and that is a big thing for them, I think.

In any group of 60 or 70 people, you’re going to get the Bell Curve. You’ll get some people at the end that think you’re the funniest person that has ever walked through a door of the concert hall, and you could conduct them every day of the year. And there are other people who wish you’d just sod off, so they can carry on playing their Beethoven symphonies. But on the whole, they really love it. Because it is so different, they recognize the musicality of it, and I hope, they recognize my love and respect of the music and my musicality too.


Jeff: I was watching some of your YouTube videos, and I saw one of your YouTube videos about your “Toccata Mambo”. How do you generally go about creating a mash-up composition like that?

Rainer: The guy who’s playing the piano in that did the arrangement. His name is Stephen Baker, and I met him when I was studying conducting. I wanted to have a piece that started with gravity and with a lot of expectation. I suggested to him Bach’s D-minor “Toccata”, and the Mambo from “West Side Story”. He put some ideas together and kind of played around with it.

And Stephen phoned me from Australia, saying, “It’s not gonna work, Rainer, it’s just not working, I can’t get it to hang together. I’ll send you what I’ve got.” So he sent it to me, and I said to him, “This is brilliant. Let’s do this.” It’s an incredibly hard piece, because it starts in unison with all the strings, it’s a hard piece to play, not actually the Mambo bit, but actually Bernstein writing isn’t that easy. You need a good orchestra to do it well. What I’m good at is spotting the theatricals in a piece, and describing theatrically what needs to happen next in an arrangement. What he’s great at is the actual nuts and bolts of doing that.


Rainer and Jeff

Jeff: When you were in Chicago for the League of American Orchestras conference, what did you enjoy doing and how would you describe Chicago?

Rainer: I loved Chicago. I had not been to Chicago except the time I performed with the Elgin Symphony [in 2010]. That visit I had an afternoon at the Field Museum, and it was raining, and I didn’t have a very good impression of Chicago. But this time I really loved it. I enjoyed the Art Institute, which was fantastic. In fact, it was so good. I almost felt like saying, “No more master works, please, I’m so tired.” I went on the architectural boat tour which actually kind of was a guy doing stand-up on the boat, Frankly, I wish he’d just kept it to some basic simple facts, when the buildings were built, because I’m not that interested in designers and architects frankly, and I don’t think anyone else was. I did a walking tour around the town and it was great. I really loved it.

Jeff: What are your plans for returning to the United States, and maybe Chicago?

Rainer: Well, I’d love to come back, but I need interest of people to go. The orchestra world is very conservative in lots of ways. I don’t have representation in the US. I have in the past, but it’s never really worked, because I fall so cleanly between schools – that’s another way of describing “unique”. There is nobody else really doing what I do, conducting the orchestra, and making the orchestra funny. So if you take this to a comedy agent, they don’t know what to do with it. If you take it to a classical music agent, they’re scared of it, actually, because they might not know about comedy.

They overlook the fact that it’s just a concert like anybody else’s concert with the same nuts and bolts on it. I bring music and we do it, and I rehearse the orchestra, and there’s nothing really complicated about it.

So, I don’t have representation. I have a little agency here that represents me. So I need to be invited. But, obviously I love the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, so if you’re listening, yeah, book me.

Jeff: I hope that we have the opportunity to have you perform with the CSO, that would be wonderful, and I would really, very much look forward to that. Is there anything else you’d like for me to know, or for people to know?

Rainer: Thank you very much for your interest. Who doesn’t like talking about themselves, really? So, I’m glad for that. I enjoy what I do, and I hope it gives pleasure, and I’m always struggling to make it better. And I hope to be able to come to the States more.


For more information about Rainer, visit his website at rainerhersch.com.

For more videos of his performances, visit the Rainer Hersch Fan Channel on YouTube.

More about the League of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association here.

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