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Even Beethoven got bad reviews. John Malkovich reads them aloud as 'The Music Critic'

John Malkovich says theater is like surfing. Actors might think they are the wave — but they're not: "The wave is created by the collision between the material and the public. You ride the wave or you don't." Malkovich is pictured above in <em>The Music Critic.</em>
Julia Wesely
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Aleksey Igudesman
John Malkovich says theater is like surfing. Actors might think they are the wave — but they're not: "The wave is created by the collision between the material and the public. You ride the wave or you don't." Malkovich is pictured above in The Music Critic.

At this point, actor John Malkovich is probably best known for, well, being John Malkovich. But in a new live stage show, Malkovich transforms into some of the meanest music critics in history. NPR sat down with Malkovich and his co-conspirator, violinist and comedian Aleksey Igudesman, before their U.S. tour.

The Music Critic pairs great classical music with eye-wateringly snarky reviews from the time the music was written — rendered in John Malkovich's singular voice.

For example, pianist Hyung-ki Joo (who, together with Igudesman, performs as the comedy duo Igudesman & Joo) tears through some Chopin: his Grande Valse Brillante, Op. 18.

As the critic, Malkovich opines: "Mr. Frederic Chopin has, by some means or the other which we cannot divine, obtained an enormous reputation too often refused to composers who possess several times his genius. Mr. Chopin is by no means a composer of the ordinary; he is worse."

Aleksey Igudesman created this show. Alongside a small group of musicians, including Joo, the two traverse — and trash— some of the best music of all time in a gleeful romp through history. No one is let off the hook. Not Beethoven, who "first fills the soul with sweet melancholy, and then shatters it by a mass of barbarous chords. He seems to harbor together both doves and crocodiles."

Brahms gets a walloping, too. "Listen to the words of some of his contemporaries," Malkovich says. "This is from the wonderful composer Tchaikovsky's diary," he continues. "'I played over the music of that scoundrel Brahms — what a giftless bastard!'"

The cast of <em>The Music Critic</em>, starring John Malkovich (center) as the critic.
Julia Wesely / Aleksey Igudesman
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Aleksey Igudesman
The cast of The Music Critic, starring John Malkovich (center) as the critic.

The Music Critic is part concert, part theater. John Malkovich says that the similarities between creating live theater and performing music were part of the draw for him.

"I always say theater is like surfing because you kind of paddle out on your little board. You turn your back to the sun and you wait for a wave. You're not the wave, which I think most people think they are, but you're really not the wave," Malkovich emphasizes. "The wave is created by the collision between the material and the public. You ride the wave or you don't."

And that's the fun of this show, for sure. As Aleksey Igudesman adds, however, there's something more at the heart of The Music Critic — and there's a lesson for all of us. Everyone will be at the receiving end of bad reviews at some point. As he points out: if Beethoven got dissed, you will too.

"We think of it as a very life-affirming and a very much art-affirming piece, and an inspirational piece for people in the creative industry to keep going," Igudesman says. "You know, take all the criticism in stride, enjoy it, have fun with it because you're going to get it. There's no one who's going to be spared."

The Music Critic is currently touring across the U.S., with stops in cities including Seattle, New York. Los Angeles, Dallas, Chicago and New York.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Anastasia Tsioulcas is a reporter on NPR's Arts desk. She is intensely interested in the arts at the intersection of culture, politics, economics and identity, and primarily reports on music. Recently, she has extensively covered gender issues and #MeToo in the music industry, including backstage tumult and alleged secret deals in the wake of sexual misconduct allegations against megastar singer Plácido Domingo; gender inequity issues at the Grammy Awards and the myriad accusations of sexual misconduct against singer R. Kelly.
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