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Comedy and classical music in perfect harmony

IT was a light-classical concert in every respect, with all the custom-made offerings:

The Merry Widow, Eugene Onegin, The Blue Danube. A full orchestra, and dancers in Johann Strauss-era costume, too.

And there, right at the front of the stage, the charismatic conductor, one Rainer Hersch, doing things that no other conductor does: juggling balls, telling jokes, urging the musicians to play like an inept school orchestra and even, fleetingly, doing a spot of Gangnam style dancing.

A year on from that show at the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, Hersch, soprano Kristy Swift, the Johann Strauss dancers and the Johann Strauss Orchestra return to Scotland for four dates, starting in Dundee tonight, part of a UK tour that began late last month.

Hersch is a comedian and musician whose extensive CV stretches from numerous appearances at the Edinburgh Festival to stints on TV and radio. He has presented an acclaimed one-man tribute to Victor Borge, and has hosted and conducted gala comedy concerts in support of Comic Relief.

While a schoolboy in Kingston-upon-Thames, Hersch adored Monty Python and fell in love with the piano. Later, he studied economics at university; later still, seized by the comedy bug, he began moonlighting as a stand-up while working as a manager in musical arts organisations.

It wasn't until 1992, when he was touring manager with the London Festival Orchestra, that he became a professional comedian. In 1996, after some early successes, he devised a stand-up solo show, All Classical Music Explained, which was a hit in three continents.

Hersch went on to present full comedy programmes with such notable orchestras as the Philharmonia Orchestra, the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and the St Petersburg Philharmonic

As he explains, marrying classical music and comedy together wasn't an overnight occurrence.

"I loved music," he says. "It was always my hobby. I practised the piano. When I went to university I started writing comedy and when I left university I started working in music.

"I took up stand-up as a hobby, in the clubs - including Glasgow many times: Jongleurs and The Stand, and God knows where else.

"I was writing solo shows and thought, why don't I write a show about something I really am interested in, rather than doing jokes about my girlfriend who has just left me, and all the rest of it?

"I realised that classical music was my 'voice'. I know it, I loved it, I'd studied it."

He intended All Classical Music Explained "as a show that everybody would get. I sometimes have difficulty convincing people of that.

"Just like - I hope - you got all the jokes when we were doing the Strauss thing, it's not for musos, it's for everybody.

"I'm trying to make everybody laugh about it, even if they don't think they know anything about classical music.

"From that, I did shows for the Beeb, some of which used musicians, then I started writing shows which used musicians and orchestras, and then the conducting came in."

Responses from members of the public on Hersch's Twitter account reflect the light-hearted nature of the new run of Strauss gala shows.

Making people laugh, he says, "is the greatest buzz there is". Then again, what do you expect of a man who once, with his chamber ensemble, marked the 250th anniversary of JS Bach's death with a version of Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring scored for massed Stylophones?

Johann Strauss Gala: A Viennese Party is at Dundee Caird Hall (tonight), Aberdeen Music Hall (Friday), Glasgow Royal Concert Hall (Saturday, 3pm and 7pm), Edinburgh Usher Hall (Sunday, 3pm).

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