What better way to break up the monotony of the forty-hour work week by taking in a show halfway through. That’s exactly what I did Wednesday, August 1st at Place des Arts.
On the schedule was an interesting and dynamic quartet known as The Piano Guys. The name may be a little deceiving, as there is actually only one piano player, Jon Schmidt, alongside cellist Steven Sharp Nelson. Not always on stage, but whose work is ever present, were videographer Paul Anderson and music producer Al van der Beek.
What started as a Youtube channel to help sell pianos in St. George, Utah back in 2010 became something none of them had expected, a channel with over 6.2 million subscribers and with over 1 billion views. They also have seven studio albums, six of which made it onto the USA charts.
I think one of the aspects that have made this group so popular is how they mesh 1700’s music with contemporary compositions and instrumental devices. Also influencing their success are the incredible videos of places you would not expect to see musicians playing a grand piano and a cello, such as Bryce Canyon National Park, the Great Wall of China, and even a moving train.
For the Place Des Arts show, they had an elegant and not overly elaborate stage setup. It consisted of Mr. Schmidt’s open grand piano (with no cover at all, in fact), three of Mr. Nelson’s cellos (apparently there are many more), an assortment of peddles, a kick drum, a big screen behind them for the visuals, faux rock pillars in the background, and just a bit of smoke hugging the stage floor.
The show started promptly with a short video in the style of an action movie trailer playing on the big screen, announcing the arrival of “four dorky dads” with Mr. Schmidt and Mr. Nelson taking their places. They played about seventeen tracks and all were impressive in one manner or another. One of the first ones played was “Code Name Vivaldi” which was comically said to have been a piece for an action movie from the 1700’s.
It was at about the fifth track when I found myself thinking how beautiful the music was; as I listen to it again as I write this, I still feel the same. The track “Kung Fu Piano: Cello Ascends” and the accompanying video played in the background were quite moving.
Another one I really enjoyed was a solo track called “The Cello Song.” It is based upon J.S. Bach’s “Unaccompanied Cello Suite No. 1: Prelude” which is tremendously famous, and which you’ve almost certainly heard at some point in your life, intentionally or not.
Next, they brought out producer Al van der Beek to sing vocals for the song “It’s Going to be Okay” and he is quite the talented vocalist. Immediately following this, Paul Anderson joined them on stage for a Beethoven-Dave Matthews mash-up. What ensued was, to put it crassly, a piano gang-bang; all four of them cycled around the piano, pulling and tapping on the inner strings and workings, using the sides as percussion, hitting the keys. Also involved were a tambourine, whistling, and the cello. It was very entertaining to watch. If I was to have seen this without audio, I would not have thought it could all make sense and sound awesome. After that, they took a well-deserved break with a twenty-minute intermission.
The first track after the intermission was another cello solo (whose name I did not catch) which was very lovely. Half-way through Mr. Nelson was joined by eight violinists, which later he thanked and introduced as members of the West Island Youth Symphony Orchestra.
A couple of songs later was probably one of my favorites, a mash-up of Bach and “I want you back” by The Jackson Five. They did this using their instruments, but with the sound of a harpsichord for the piano and a ‘Talk-box” rigged up to one of the cellos. On the screen were their 1700’s doppelgangers with proper era attire, performing different parts of the same track.
The last track was “Fight Song / Amazing Grace” which they performed with four guest bagpipers. Mr. Nelson dedicated this to his father who he says is his hero. He actually had quite a tear-jerker of a story behind this, but unfortunately it would be too long for me to get into.
They did perform an encore and it was another mash-up with all four members performing a chaotic and masterfully organized symphony on the piano and other instruments.
Overall they were really interesting to watch; there’s so much I didn’t get to mention in this review. They have a great on-stage playfulness with banter between each other and many interesting and funny anecdotes and stories about music and life in general.
Written by Joey Beaudin
*edited by Kate Erickson