The Piano Guys, the YouTube sensation from Utah, packed UB’s Center For the Arts on Thursday night. It was a night of entertaining and crazy sensual overload, as well as a lot of laughs.
For anyone who has followed these two on YouTube, they are practically family. My eyes grew wide as they walked out on stage. It was like seeing characters from a TV show come to life.
The two lead Piano Guys – pianist Jon Schmidt and cellist Steven Sharp Nelson – make a lot of self-deprecating jokes about their unassuming looks. But their faces are tremendously expressive.
I don’t think I’ll ever forget Nelson playing the repeated bass line of Pachelbel’s Canon, rolling his eyes in boredom. Making strenuous faces, he produced a banana from somewhere, took a bite, then flung it over his shoulder. Staring straight ahead, he tried comically not to fall asleep. Finally, he fell forward as his bow scraped against his strings.
“Wake up, Steven!” a listener yelled. He sat up with a start.
The Piano Guys are a kind of vaudeville, really. They have their shtick and they do it well, and sometimes it goes straight to your heart.
Nelson is a heck of a cellist. He has a gorgeous tone, when he wants it, and creativity to burn. Three cellos were with him on this tour, including an electronic cello with special effects and an ability to record itself and riff against itself. He can play the cello like a bass, slapping and plucking it with breakneck virtuosity.
Schmidt plays a kind of New Age piano that is often rudimentary. His “Waterfall” sounded like Billy Joel, whose influence he acknowledged. Most serious pianists would probably sneer. Though how many can do what he did at one point, which was lie on his back against the piano bench, kick his legs, reach over his head, and play a competent blues riff? I told you these guys were vaudeville.
They were complete cut-ups, keeping the audience laughing all night. Like most musicians who call themselves classical crossover, they did not dig deep for their repertoire. There was an exuberant melange of themes from Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, as video screens behind them showed a youth orchestra. There was a mash-up of Faure’s Pavane with David Guetta’s “Titanium.” There were hints of Holst’s “The Planets,” and Chopin’s Prelude in C Minor.
At the same time, they brought across an irresistible joy. What they did was fun.
“How many people here like classical music?” they yelled to the crowd. A giant roar filled the hall. Music professors dream of moments like this.
“Bourne Vivaldi,” Nelson’s idea to present a Vivaldi concerto, with a beat, as an action movie theme, was better than it sounds. The two video screens behind him and Schmidt mimicked an action film, with the two of them playing against various backdrops of urban decay.
The Piano Guys’ locations are part of the fun. Stunning video Thursday night showed them playing on a freight train, on the Great Wall of China and on an African mountain. The piano had to be carried there, they said, by helicopter. “We said a long prayer,” laughed Nelson.
There was no intermission, fine by me. But maybe there should have been one. Because as the night went on the Piano Guys clowned a lot more, and played a lot less. Their jokes were funny, but they were too drawn out, and the evening lost momentum.
It ended with beauty, though. They brought out the other two Piano Guys, Paul Anderson and Al Van Der Beek, who, incredibly, had been invisible the rest of the night. All of them did what amounted to a dance around a prepared piano, plucking and strumming the strings, producing bell-like tones.
You wouldn’t want to do this to a piano you care about, but it was hilariously entertaining, and oddly lovely.
As an encore, Nelson and Schmidt played an elegant, moving “Bring Him Home,” from “Les Mis.”