‘The Piano Guys’ at Wolf Trap

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The Piano Guys blew into Wolf Trap at 8 pm on Thursday, August 6, 2015 with their originality, humor, and sheer musical skill like the refreshing cool air after the heat wave of the past few days, delighting the sold out crowd and making for a most entertaining evening.

The Piano Guys, Paul Anderson (producer/videographer), Jon Schmidt (pianist/songwriter), Steven Sharp Nelson (cellist/songwriter), and Al van der Beek (music producer/songwriter), met in St. George, Utah.  Anderson recruited Schmidt to make music videos of him playing piano to drive sales at the store, and Schmidt recruited Nelson.  But their innovative and inventive videos quickly went viral on youtube, garnering more than 500 million views since 2011. They have produced more than 50 videos, as well as four albums (all four of which have made it to number one on the Billboard classical and new age album charts, and are currently touring around Europe and the United States to sell-out crowds.

The Piano Guys. Photo courtesy of Wolf Trap.
The Piano Guys. Photo courtesy of Wolf Trap.

The night opened with their unique cover of “Let It Go”, which mixes the title number from Disney’s Frozen with Vivaldi’s “Winter,” to great effect. It was an appropriate start to the night, helping the audience to “let go” of their preconceived notions of what piano and cello music usually is, to see what it can be, in the hands of these talented artists.

The audience was treated to some of The Piano Guy’s most popular classical/pop mashups, including “Bourne Vivaldi” (a mash up of Vivaldi’s Double Cello Concerto and the theme from the Bourne Identity), and “Kung Fu Piano” (a mash up of “Oogway Ascends” from the Kung Fu Panda soundtrack and Chopin’s Prelude No. 20). “Kung Fu Piano” was accompanied by the video of the Piano Guys playing on the Great Wall of China—the first video in their goal to film on all seven wonders of the world.

Yet the Piano Guys do not confine themselves to just classical/pop mashups—their ingenious covers of various pop songs and soundtracks seem to reinvent and make new the songs they choose to play. For example, their emotional cover of One Direction’s “Story of My Life” turns it from a song about a tumultuous, ultimately sad relationship to a fulfilling reflection on a life well-lived and well-loved, framed by the planting and growth of a tree in the family backyard.

Their musicality and skill in finding and conveying the emotion of the pieces they choose to play is undeniable. Yet perhaps their most winning quality is the sheer joy and light-heartedness evident in their playing.  From Schmidt’s version of “Chopsticks” (played with his foot and nose) to a mash-up of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” with the Dave Matthews Band’s “Ants Marching” that included tambourine, percussion courtesy of banging on the sides of the piano and cello, and plucked piano strings, courtesy of all 4 piano guys as they danced and jumped around between the instruments, their joy in the music was visible—and contagious. Their affectionate humor and banter throughout the night only enhanced the music.

The highlight of the night came in the sincerity of Nelson’s moving tribute to his parents: he dedicated his rendition of Bach’s Unaccompanied Cello Suite No. 1: Prelude to them and spoke emotionally of their encouragement and support of him and his music even in times of difficulty, and how that encouragement has greatly blessed his life.  The audience was visibly touched, by both his words and then further by his passionate, sensitive playing.

Similarly, when Nelson played the expressive piece “Beethoven’s 5 Secrets”, a combination of the OneRepublic song “Secrets” with melodies and moments from all four movements of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony, the skill and poise of the youth from the American Youth Philharmonic Orchestra who accompanied him wowed the audience and garnered them a well-earned wall of applause.

The virtuosity, humor, and charisma of the Piano Guys, evident in their range from humorous pop culture pieces to emotional, almost religious pieces such as “The Misson/How Great Thou Art”, made for one of the best concerts of the summer. Here’s hoping they return to the DC area soon—clearly Washington, as evidenced by the sold-out crowd tonight, cannot get enough of the Piano Guys!

Running Time: 2 hours and 30 minutes with a 15-minute intermission.

The Piano Guys played for one night only on Thursday, August 6, 2015 at Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts– 1635 Trap Road, in Vienna, VA. To see a list of upcoming events at Wolf Trap and purchase tickets, click here.

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