Humour and Classical Music
10. Salut Salon
by David Barker

While I work on a substantial article on the Hoffnung Music Festivals, there will be a few short entries in this series. Firstly, something of this century (which is rather lacking when I look back at the previous nine articles): the Hamburg-based instrumental and vocal group Salut Salon.

It was originally founded in 2002 by lifelong friends, violinists Iris Siegfried and Angelika Bachmann, together with a cellist and pianist; the performers filling the latter two roles have changed a number of times over the years (but always women). For much of the time (certainly as shown by the various YouTube videos available), they were Sonja Lena Schmid and Anne-Monika von Twardowski, respectively.

So why is a piano quartet included in this series? Salut Salon has been described as “the Harlem Globetrotters of classical music” because their performances are not just about outstanding skill –  Bachmann debuted as soloist with the Hamburg Symphony at the age of seven – but also entertainment and laughs. To use the current terminology, they mash up existing works, in combination with slapstick humour and some extraordinary instrumental acrobatics. If you think playing the cello well is hard enough, how about whilst holding it horizontally at shoulder level? Or playing a melody, partly on your violin and the rest on your colleague’s seated next to you? Oh, and you need to look glamourous at the same time. Purists might sniff at such like, and dismiss it as trivial and tasteless, but Salut Salon’s antics are never at the expense of the music, and they communicate their joy and delight very clearly.

Their most famous routine (I can’t think of a better word) is Competitive Foursome, where the four players “fight” over who is best at playing the summer storm sequence from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. Before long, Mozart is drawn into the fight (fancy playing the piano backwards lying on your back?) before morphing into Weill’s Mack The Knife, all in three-and-a-half breathless minutes. Little wonder the YouTube video has almost forty million views.

La dispute is cut from a similar cloth, but pits just the two violinists in a duel over a gypsy folk tune, Bruch’s concerto and Joplin’s The Entertainer (YouTube).

Given the clearly German origin of the group, I was a little bemused to see that they had competed in the 2017 season of France’s Got Talent, and even more surprised that they only made the semi-finals (YouTube).

Lest you think that all they do is for laughs, there are as many videos on YouTube of straight performances. Astor Piazzolla seems to be a particular favourite, with quite stunning versions of

Adios Nonino (YouTube) and Libertango (YouTube). There is also an arrangement of Saint-Saëns’ Africa (YouTube). If you are interested in seeing the group behind the scenes, there is an interview (YouTube) from the German news service Deutsche Welle with the group talking and even performing with horn soloist Sarah Willis.

I can only conclude by expressing the wish that they include New Zealand on their touring schedule – at least they won’t have to learn a new language here (in the DW interview, it is revealed that they always learn enough of the local language to communicate with the audience, including Chinese, Russian and Korean).