Interview with Rainer Hersch: taking the mickey out of the classics?

By - Wednesday 3rd December, 2014

Preparing to perform in Croydon this Christmas, Rainer Hersch talks symphonies, selfies and Serkis with Liz Sheppard-Jones

Rainer Hersch – musical subversive?
Photo by James Delanoy, used with permission.

Rainer Hersch is coming to Croydon for Christmas, bringing the Johann Strauss Gala to Fairfield Halls for one show only, on Saturday 27th December. The show’s a huge hit, celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, and promises billowing gowns and the Blue Danube Waltz among other celebrated tunes, spiced with Hersch’s famous classical-musical-funnyman routines.

Entirely tin-eared (although I do like the frocks) I hadn’t put the show on my festive to-do list, until I got the chance to chat to the man himself about what he does and why. I’ve prepared some thought-provoking questions – or at least I hope I have – but Rainer Hersch keeps making me laugh.

What comes first? Is it music – as a former conductor at the Blackheath Conservatory who’s worked with the St Petersburgh Philharmonic and the London Festival Orchestra his classical background is heavyweight – or comedy? Is he a musician who makes people laugh, or a musical comedian?

The performances that have made him famous developed organically, he explains. He’s “entirely obsessed” by classical music but has been attracted to comedy since his university days and his love of generating laughter grew through writing and performing at the Edinburgh Festival over the years. Music and comedy are therefore “utterly inseparable” for him: “they are one”. So he’s “taking the mickey” (his words) out of what he loves most – which anticipates my second question.

Classical music takes itself mighty seriously, does it not? Up on stage, playing it for laughs, does he see himself as bursting its more-than-slightly pompous balloon?

Like Robbie Williams, Rainer wants to entertain you

Yes, he does – and he’s extremely irreverent. “I couldn’t give a monkey’s if nobody learns anything about music at one of my shows. I have no didactic intention whatsoever.” If any learning takes place – and sometimes people tell him that it does – it’s a spin-off. “If you put me against a wall and said you’d shoot me unless I told you what I am – I’m a comic who’s interested in music.” Like Robbie Williams, Rainer wants to entertain you.

Although, he goes on, everyone knows twenty pieces of classical music – not necessarily by name but if you play them a few bars, they’ll go ‘ohhhh, yes…’. It’s that shared repetoire that makes his act more accessible – and of course popular – than its ‘classical’ label might indicate.

The Johann Strauss Gala looks wonderfully escapist to me: the frocks (oh yes!), the privileged elegance of a bygone era –  so perhaps its appeal in hard times is our need to get away from rough, tough reality. Does he get that response from austerity audiences? To be honest, he doesn’t buy this theory of mine: he reckons it’s always been that way. Any entertainment is escapist, he tells me, “a holiday for the mind. There’s always been a need for this.”

Johann Strauss gala.
Photo by James Delanoy, used with permission.

But our discussion of nostalgia leads us onto – the Nazis, of all things, and he forthrightly explains how the Johann Strauss Gala, which didn’t originally have any link with the Christmas holidays, found favour with the Führer. It was Hitler’s wish to get regular gigs going with the Berlin Philharmonic and an appropriately Aryan composer which created the traditional seasonal show we have today. Not one for the press release, perhaps.

My interview research has uncovered a celebrated encounter between Hersch and the musical colossus who is Daniel Barenboim, and when I ask Hersch about this it’s clear from his telling of the story that he’s a fanboy. Glimpsing Barenboim standing chatting outside the Albert Hall earlier this year – both were there for a proms concert – he saw his opportunity, swooped in with phone at the ready and selfied himself and the great man in a trice. Barenboim took it well, whilst for me the best bit is Hersch’s description of his own reaction – “giddy with excitement” at getting so close.

One more discovery: Hersch was at university (Lancaster) with Andy Serkis, and I have to ask: does he know him? The answer, delightfully, is yes, and in mid-celeb interview with him as the subject, Hersch is happy to tell me about Serkis, “a nice guy” who read Theatre Studies, and whom he met through their mutual involvement in student drama. A terrific vignette follows: he last bumped into him in Edinburgh, where Serkis was busking (as future A-list actors do) in an alleyway off the Royal Mile, on his sax. I try not to let on just how cool I find this.

It’s great chatting with Rainer Hersch. He’s funny, and likeable, and mates with Gollum. It’s time I discovered the classics. I’m off to buy tickets for 27th December.

Johann Strauss Gala with Rainer Hersch is at Fairfield Halls on Saturday 27th December at 3pm. Tickets cost £20, £27 or £30 with a £2.25 booking fee for each seat. Click here to book. 

Read articles like this – and many more – in our monthly print magazine

Politics, reviews, photography, #Croydon #TechCity, sports and plenty more besides: Our monthly print newsmagazine brings all the most relevant, features, news, opinion and analysis together into a single publication. Written entirely by citizens, it’s the perfect way to catch up on what really matters to Croydon over a drink or a coffee, or on the way to work.

You can find the magazine in venues all over the London Borough of Croydon.

Get your copy today. Write for the Citizen and you may well see your own article next time you pick it up.

Liz Sheppard-Jones

Liz Sheppard-Jones

Writer and editor. Views personal, not representative of editorial policy.

More Posts - LinkedIn

  • Anne Giles

    Actually, I don’t know 20 pieces of classical music – more likely around 10. I have tended to avoid listening to it.

  • Neil Ridulfa

    I took my family to see this the last time it was at the Fairfield Halls, and to my surprise, I really enjoyed it. Actually, I knew I’d enjoy it but my family – who are not classical music buffs – loved it too. I planned to take them again but we’re not in town on that day. Rainer is a really funny and entertaining host and even if you don’t think you know classical music, you’ll know many of these. Recommended.