Have you heard the one about the classical conductor who is also a stand-up comedian?
Rainer Hersch has successfully carved out this unusual niche for himself ever since he figured out it was possible to combine his twin boyhood passions for playing piano and re-enacting Monty Python skits in the playground.
“Classical music has got a reputation for being stuck up and elitist or something but musicians have a sense of humour too, like everybody else and I do find that orchestras are keen to cut loose,” says Rainer.
“I am being cheeky about it but I don’t think anybody could think I didn’t love the music and they respond to that.”
Rainer’s enthusiasm for classical music stems from when he was a schoolboy growing up in Kingston on Thames.
“It is a weird form of rebellion if anything. Other people went off and took drugs and listened to AC/DC and mine was to do this. It has come from somewhere but I can’t tell you exactly where.
“My stepfather was very interested in classical music and had a piano, so the tools were provided.”
In spite of his obsession with piano music he knew that he didn’t have the dedication to make playing a career.
“What you are talking about is playing the piano 10 hours a day every day. When a pianist comes out at a concert and you think ‘My God I’d love to do that’, you don’t see those 10 hours a day, every day, that they’ve done since they were six.”
He organised school concerts and set his sights on becoming an impresario but still continued to study the piano and also studied conducting.
At the same time the memories of making his school mates laugh by parroting Python never left him. He began moonlighting as a stand-up on the London comedy circuit while working as a manager for musical arts organisations.
Eventually he found a way to mesh his two great loves together, using his comedy in his appreciation of music, starting with his show All Classical Music Explained (ACME) – answering such pressing questions as Why is organ music so boring? What do conductors actually do? and revealing how to play instruments without practicing.
“Making people laugh is the greatest buzz there is,” he says. “You are communicating with them on a different level. You want it again once you have done it.
“I think that is what links the comedy and the music, both seem to be slightly excessive.”
He will be in Birmingham over New Year appearing at Symphony Hall as a special guest at the New Year’s Eve Concert then conducting the Johann Strauss Gala on New Year’s Day.
“Birmingham is a wonderful hall, it’s my favourite place to return to,” he enthuses. “It unbelievable, when you walk out there and it is full. ”
His conducting commitments mean that he will have to keep a clear head on what is a traditionally boozy night for many people. But the remembrance of youthful excesses mean he’s happy to stay sober as the clock strikes 12.
“I don’t think I have got completely smashed on New Year’s Eve for about 25 years. “We once had a fancy dress party just after university. It was a James Bond cocktail party and I got so horribly drunk in the first half hour I spent midnight ill in bed.
“New Year’s Eve can be a little bit of a disappointment because of that pressure to do something. If you are not a student or party person anymore it can be a bit tame.
“Of course people have also got the considerations of children and so on. Children heighten Christmas but they rather depress New Year’s Eve because you have got to get them to bed.
“So it is really nice to be doing something that has got a party feel with lots of wonderful stuff that everybody will get into and you are with this really great group of people. It is nice to be paid to be part of it.”
The New Year’s Day concert in Vienna and celebration of Austrian composers, particularly the Strauss family, has become an institution and inspired similar events, around the world. In Birmingham Rainer will be conducting the Johann Strauss Dancers and Orchestra.
“The concerts in Vienna are over four days with the last one televised. It has become associated with the New Year’s day experience because it’s light, it’s jolly, it’s got tunes everybody knows and the great sound of the orchestra.”
Slightly less jolly was how this tradition began.
“In the Nazi era they wanted to find music which had an undeniable German pedigree. So they created this. The idea was to kick the New Year off in the best possible way.
“The first one was in 1939 – and what a good year that turned out to be!” he adds sarcastically.
However, he believes it has distanced itself sufficiently from its origins that now people can simply enjoy the spectacle.
“ I think a lot of things have been ‘claimed back’. Let’s face it, the German Autobahn system comes from the Nazis but nobody sits in a car in Germany and goes ‘It’s Nazi this, getting from A to B quickly’.
“These things might have a historical background but the music works so well at that time of year and I think that is why everybody loves it.”
* The New Year’s Eve concert is sold out. For tickets to the Johann Strauss Gala on January 1 call the box office on 0121 345 0600 or look up www.thsh.co.uk