The Piano Guys Come to Morrison Center, 5/21
Hailing from Utah, The Piano Guys became an Internet sensation by way of their immensely successful series of strikingly original self-made music videos. They've made 35 since joining forces a little more than a year ago, including their most recent hit video, an innovative 10-handed version of One Direction's "What Makes You Beautiful." Newly signed to Sony Masterworks, ThePianoGuys recently released their self-titled major label debut.
The album features more of the imaginative mash-up arrangements that ThePianoGuys are already famous for, including sources ranging from Michael Jackson to Mozart, The Bourne Identity to David Guetta. It also includes an original song and innovative takes on hits by One Direction, Adele and Christina Perri.
But just who are ThePianoGuys? Actually, there's only one piano player, Jon Schmidt, and one other instrumentalist, Steven Sharp Nelson, on cello. Yet the other three - Paul Anderson, Tel Stewart and Al van der Beek - are equally significant members of the group. ThePianoGuys' name comes from Anderson's piano store in St. George, Utah, which was called The Piano Guys. Looking for an alternative to low-yield conventional advertising, Anderson devised a Facebook promotional page and YouTube channel featuring the most famous pianist he could find - local pianist, Jon Schmidt. A self-described "New Age Classical" player, Schmidt was indeed well-established locally, thanks to eight albums and seven piano books of his song transcriptions. He also performed concerts throughout Utah, one of which featured a young guest artist, Steven Sharp Nelson, who adventurously combined traditional cello playing with percussion effects. "I was 15 when I met Jon and started playing with him," Nelson recalls. "I had to get a ride to shows! But we've had a great brotherhood that's now lasted 20 years."
The spectacular Piano Guys videos, which have so far netted over 130 million YouTube views (and 500,000 new views a day), are essentially divined by Stewart and Anderson. "Jon had built up a fan base for 20 years, and we used that as a springboard for getting exposure," Anderson notes, "but it's all about the merits of the videos, and share-ability. People see them and then share them with their friends on Facebook, and before you know it, they can take off."
And sure enough, ThePianoGuys have over 250,000 Facebook fans who have shared videos like "Michael Meets Mozart," which features over 100 tracks of cello textures, including a deep bass drum sound created by tapping on the cello body; a shaker sound made by Nelson rubbing rosin on his bow; and a record-scratch noise caused by his scraping a quarter on the strings. "Michael Meets Mozart" is on ThePianoGuys debut CD, as is "Cello Wars," the ambitious video which resulted from a six-month production required to realize its Star Wars-inspired light saber/cello bow concept, since rewarded by over 8 million YouTube views.
"We try to put a 'wow factor' in every video," says Anderson, promising that other videos for ThePianoGuys album tracks will likewise factor in plenty of wow. This certainly is true for "Peponi (Paradise)," the Guys' African spin on Coldplay's "Paradise," for which the group, hours after coming up with the concept, helicoptered a grand piano onto The Edge of a 1,000-foot cliff, where stellar African guest vocalist Alex Boyé sang the translated words. Same with "Code Name Vivaldi," which blends The Bourne Identity soundtrack riff with a similarly intense Vivaldi cello concerto in a breathless video culminating with Schmidt and Nelson, who was originally swayed into classical music by the Vivaldi piece, performing on a flatcar on a high-speed train.
ThePianoGuys are now readying an album launch video for the album's lead track "Titanium/Pavane" - a mash-up of French classical composer Gabriel Fauré's "Pavane" with David Guetta's "Titanium," the Guys having previously lensed a lovely take on Guetta's "Without You." And a clip will certainly be created for "Arwen's Vigil," a Piano Guys original. But "Beethoven's 5 Secrets" merits special mention. The piece itself employs five separate melodies from the four movements of Beethoven's 5th Symphony, in conjunction with One Republic's "Secrets."
"We love showcasing the beauty of the earth-where people don't expect to find classical instruments," says Anderson, and sure enough, the Beethoven video combines stunning outdoor performance footage from the mountains surrounding St. George, Utah, with a concert featuring the American Heritage Lyceum Philharmonic Youth Orchestra, thereby manifesting ThePianoGuys' dual goal of bringing people to classical music and inspiring young musicians.
"Lots of parents are using our music to show their kids how fun classical music can be and motivate them to learn instruments," says Schmidt. ThePianoGuys' cover song mash-ups, adds Nelson, have become "a great way to introduce ourselves and make an instant connection with our audience as a classic spin on new stuff - and a new spin on classic stuff."
With van der Beek's studio prowess together with the inventive cinematography of Stewart and Anderson, Schmidt and Nelson have forged a fresh approach to the growing classical crossover fusion of classical and pop music that in their case has connected quietly but emotionally with a massive audience.